Tens of thousands stand up for labor

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, above, exhorted the crowd to activism. At left, attendees capture images on their cellphones.
AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, above, exhorted the crowd to activism. At left, attendees capture images on their cellphones.
Posted: August 13, 2012

Tens of thousands of sprinkler fitters, splicers, teachers, and other union workers convened in the steam heat of an August Saturday to rally for labor - espousing the dignity of work and lamenting the erosion of the middle class.

Eakins Oval and surrounding streets were jammed with a muscular sea of 30,000 to 40,000 workers, mostly white men in various colored T-shirts representing their unions and trades from at least 10 states.

"Work defines us," intoned national AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka to the enthusiastic throng. "Work is who we are. But hard work alone never led to decent wages and retirement. It takes hard work - and activism."

The call to activism underscored Saturday's national Workers Stand for America rally. Official speakers onstage as well as rank-and-file workers standing side by side in the grass spoke of the need to fight stagnating wages, outsourced jobs, perceived corporate greed, inequality, and the uneasy sense of being shoved into economic ruin.

That rallying cry had palpably political overtones, evidenced by the early-morning announcement that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney had chosen fiscally conservative Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin to be his running mate.

Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a U.S. representative from Florida, practically shouted the news from the stage, inspiring the crowd to boo loudly.

"I couldn't agree more," she said to ringing applause. "What a devastating impact a Romney-Ryan ticket would have on working families."

Downing endless bottles of water and listening to a concert by folk and country singer Lucinda Williams, workers said they were losing hope in an America that seemed to marginalize those who "wake up [the country] every morning, make it work, and put it to sleep every night," as Trumka said.

"We're the oil that makes the United States work," said Dennis Caflin, 57, a painter from Belvidere, N.J. "If we're pushed out of the equation, it won't work well. There's an evil empire of corporate greed - that's where our problems are. The money they have never seems to be trickling down to the middle class."

Children were uppermost on many workers' minds, as they fretted that the next generation may have a harder time succeeding than people working today.

"If we don't support ourselves as workers, what will be left for our kids?" asked Cindy Wise, 50, an electrical worker from Bedford, Pa. "We have to stand up."

A main rally theme was the so-called Second Bill of Rights, a labor agenda put forth by, among others, Edwin D. Hill, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and a main speaker at the event.

Based on an idea first conceived by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944 to promote greater security and prosperity, the Second Bill of Rights is a basic manifesto for workers. It says every American is entitled to:

Full employment and a living wage.

Full participation in the electoral process.

A voice in the workplace.

A high-quality education.

A secure, healthy future.

The idea evolved after a "lover's quarrel" between labor and the Democratic Party, according to Jamie Horwitz, spokesman for Workers Stand for America.

Labor leaders were angered by the party's decision to hold the Democratic convention during the week of Sept. 3 in Charlotte, N.C., perceived as an antiunion town, Horwitz said.

He added that Hill and others were also chagrined that the party would hold its convention on Labor Day without much of a workers' agenda.

That's when the ideas for the Philadelphia rally and the Second Bill of Rights took form, Horwitz said.

The plan is to make politicians of both parties sign the Second Bill of Rights "Grover Norquist-style," Horwitz said, a reference to the conservative lobbyist who has gotten nearly every Republican member of Congress and a handful of Democrats to sign a pledge not to raise taxes.

Labor leaders intend to make public the names of those who sign the Second Bill of Rights - and of those who don't.

Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.) announced to the crowd that he happily signed the document, then gave a brief but rousing speech about fighting for the labor movement.

"You built this country!" Brady shouted. "Do not let the one-percenters take over the country. Don't stop now. Fight for your children. Fight for your mothers and fathers. I'll fight for you. Union all the way!"

The rally grew as dozens of busloads of workers from as far away as Kentucky and Ohio were met at Eakins Oval by two streams of workers marching through Center City. One was a group of 3,500 members of the Communications Workers of America protesting in Center City against Verizon Communications Inc. over their lack of a contract. The other was a crowd of 10,000 members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers who had gathered in a show of strength on Spring Garden Street.

Police unofficially estimated the crowd at 30,000; event organizers said the count exceeded 40,000. They had predicted a crowd of more than 20,000.

Several workers said they were pleased with the rally, but that it was only a starting point.

"I pray this even motivates people," said Gail McLean, 55, a member of the United Federation of Teachers from the Bronx, N.Y. "But it all starts with me."

Contact Alfred Lubrano

at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.

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