Fifty people gathered Monday at the grave of Ralph Chaplin, on a cool and cloudy Labor Day, as people have gathered on that day since Chaplin died in 1961.
In 1915, it was Chaplin who wrote the labor anthem “Solidarity Forever,” the song that ends, “We can bring forth a new world from the ashes of the old, for the union makes us strong.”
Chaplin was a poet, cartoonist and songwriter. He designed the iconic Black Cat, the Wobblies’ symbol. He was a colleague of Mother Jones and a Wobbly himself as a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW.
Chaplin is buried beside his wife, Edith, at Calvary Cemetery in South Tacoma.
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The 50 people came to remember and to sing the song that continues to find its voice for labor around the world.
Tacoma historian Ron Magden knew Ralph Chaplin when Chaplin came to Tacoma, when Chaplin worked as an archivist at the Washington State Historical Society and as editor of the Labor Advocate newspaper.
Although Magden knew Chaplin, and although they often talked about unions and labor issues, Magden said he never knew of Chaplin’s contribution to the early days of the radical struggle between labor and capital.
Among the 50 gathered Monday morning were members of several unions, including those representing railroad, longshore, transit, education and government workers as well as painters, teamsters, letter carriers, bricklayers, and plumbers and pipefitters.
Vance Lelli, president of the Pierce County Labor Council and vice president of the state labor council, began Monday’s remembrance by recalling a promise made to Chaplin years before he died. It was a promise made by union activist “Tiny” Tronson, and it was a promise kept by Lelli’s father, Philip.
Chaplin would be remembered, his deeds would not be forgotten — but there would be no hoopla, only a rose or two placed near his headstone.
On Monday, two white roses graced the graves of both Edith and Ralph.
Before they sang, a few people spoke. There will be a gathering of longshore pensioners next week; things are going well for organizers in the Yakima Valley; state workers recently rallied inside the capitol rotunda in Olympia; unions support the minimum wage movement.
And there will be a gathering in November to commemorate the centenary of the Everett Massacre wherein five union members were killed.
“It’s not over,” said Dean McGrath, president of ILWU Local 23. “We’ll always fight for what we believe in.”
“Labor is about power,” said Tacoma City Councilmember Anders Ibsen.
Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State AFL-CIO, said, “I believe that workers are on the rise.”
Someone read Chaplin’s poem, “Mourn Not the Dead,” where he implores that true mourning be reserved for “the apathetic throng, the cowed and the meek who see the world’s great anguish and its wrong, and dare not speak.”
Magden explained that the ashes of Chaplin’s son are buried within his father’s casket, and how it was likely that the death of his son led Chaplin into a “subdued” retirement from radical politics.
Still, Magden said, “his legacy is alive after all these years.”
The Rev. Eugene Wiegman, former president of Pacific Lutheran University, offered a prayer.
And at the end, the people sang Chaplin’s song.
The one about a new world born from the ashes of the old.
C.R. Roberts: 253-597-8535