Union honors workers who died over year

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LEWISTON — About 150 labor advocates paid tribute to Maine workers who died or were injured on the job in 2009 at the fourth annual Workers Memorial Day observance and May Day breakfast Saturday morning at the Franco-American Heritage Center.

The event, hosted by the Western Maine Labor Council, AFL-CIO and Museum L-A, featured presentations of three awards.

Steven Emmons, coordinator of the two-year-old Restaurant Opportunities Center of Maine, accepted the Workers Solidarity Award, which recognized the group’s outstanding efforts to improve the lives of restaurant workers. 

Noting that restaurant workers include many young employees, Emmons said he was pleased to be among a new generation of labor organizers.

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“I’ve been learning the connections we all have in labor movements,” he said.

Danny Fitzsimmons, a longtime union president at the Bates Mill and an advocate who helped fellow laid-off millworkers get back on their feet, received the Frances Perkins Award for his years of union service and for all of the support and assistance he gave to laid-off millworkers.

Gerry Dennison, a Museum L-A board member, presented the award to Fitzsimmons. Dennison was part of the Maine Department of Labor’s Rapid Response Team that went into the Bates Mill when it closed in January 2001 after 149 years. He and others went to talk to the remaining 100 workers on that last day.

“There was one person who stood out and had the respect of all of his co-workers,” Dennison said Saturday. “That was Danny Fitzsimmons, and we immediately hired Danny as a peer support worker.”

Fitzsimmons worked for about a year at the CareerCenter, helping with counseling, job development and placement, and job training. And he entered a training program to change careers. A call from his former boss, Fred Lebel, and his love of the textile industry soon brought him back to the mill and work at Maine Heritage Weavers as a loom technician.

Dennison said, “People like Danny Fitzsimmons and Fred Lebel and others have kept the Bates textile legacy alive with Maine Heritage Weavers.”

Ed Gorham, past president of Maine AFL-CIO, received the Bruce D. Roy Solidarity Award for his years of service to the labor movement in Maine.

Speakers emphasized the importance of reclaiming the original meaning of International May Day, which has a 127-year history.

As attendees rose to their feet in silent tribute to the 29 West Virginia miners recently killed in a mine explosion, the Lewiston Fire Department Honor Guard entered. They stood at attention holding flags and fire axes as the names of 33 Maine workers who had died on the job in the past year were read. A bell was sounded for each name and a member of the audience held up a card with the deceased person’s name.

In opening remarks, Western Maine Labor Council President Don Bilodeau called the gathering “a solemn, yet celebratory event.” He said objectives of the May Day breakfast included renewal of commitments for stronger policies protecting workers’ health and safety and celebrating the accomplishments, movements and local history of working people and labor unions.

Rachel Desgrosseilliers, executive director of Museum L-A, said about 1,400 children learned about the heritage of workers in textile mills, shoe factories and brickyards in the Twin Cities through field trips to the museum last year.

“It’s amazing to see their reactions to what work was and still is,” Desgrosseilliers said.

She also reported that rapid progress is being made in the move of the organization and its exhibits to the historic Camden Yarns building adjacent to Simard-Payne Police Memorial Park.

Musician Dave Rowe presented a solo labor concert in the Franco-American Heritage Center concert hall and Marty Perlutter, who counsels and assists laid-off workers, read a poem he wrote about losing a job after 20 years of dedication.

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