Labor Rally Offers Jackson Hope for Workers’ Support
While polls indicate that the bulk of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s white support is coming from well-educated liberals--"the Peugeot Proletariat,” as some political analysts call them--the chants of thousands of blue-collar workers and comments from many of them showed that Jackson has reason to hope for their growing support.
“Win, Jesse, win,” the crowd chanted Saturday at a rally attended by nearly 10,000 people protesting the use of non-union construction workers on a $350-million project to modernize a steel plant here.
Jackson was here to declare his solidarity with beleaguered union workers, just as he had taken up the cause of auto assemblers in Flint, meatpackers in Milwaukee, farm laborers in Calexico, hospital orderlies in Philadelphia, paper workers in Mobile and firefighters in St. Louis.
“He’s got my support,” said Gene Gifford, a 44-year-old steam fitter from nearby Martinez. “He’s the only candidate speaking for workers, oppressed people--union or non-union,” said Gifford, who backed Walter F. Mondale, the AFL-CIO’s candidate, in 1984.
“A lot of people want labor backing, but few will come out in total support of labor like Jackson, without labor backing,” said Michael Beavers, a 39-year-old pipe fitter from Vallejo. He was referring to the fact that virtually all the nation’s unions have heeded an AFL-CIO request not to endorse a presidential candidate until the 14.3-million-member federation decides which contender to back.
Gifford and Beavers were part of a crowd that came here not in Peugeots, but, for the most part, in American-made cars and pickup trucks. They wore baseball hats and T-shirts emblazoned with union emblems and they washed down Polish sausages and chocolate chip cookies with Cokes and Budweisers as Jackson implored them to vote for him in the California primary June 7.
“We must revive a healthy respect for working people,” Jackson proclaimed to the enthusiastic rally at Los Medanos College here. “Just as 30 years ago, we marched to end racial violence. Today we march to end economic violence. We fight for the rights of working people.”
Many local union leaders like Beavers have come out for Jackson because they like his strong stands in favor of increasing the minimum wage, requiring corporations to give workers advance notice of plant closings, strengthening laws on workplace health and safety, comparable worth pay for women, employer-financed child care and changes in tax laws that currently encourage American companies to move production to Third World countries.
“I think if Jesse Jackson wins he’ll help stop the rape of the American worker,” Beavers said.
Jackson’s staff is not sure just how much worker support he has, but they say it is substantial and growing. There are “Labor for Jackson” committees in a host of cities, according to Danny Cantor, who took a leave from the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union to serve as the campaign’s labor liaison.
Jackson has made a strong effort to broaden his base among white voters, particularly working-class whites, in his campaign this year. Polls taken on Super Tuesday showed that he ran ahead of all other Democratic candidates in union households that day.
Some union activists in other states also said in interviews that they particularly liked the fact that Jackson was willing to take up workers’ causes in hostile environments. “He’s the only candidate who’s advocated abolishing ‘right-to-work’ laws in the South,” said Eileen Hansen of the United Food and Commercial Workers in Charlotte, N.C.
Such laws in 21 states, including most of the South, prohibit union shops and, according to Mike Bragg, president of a United Paperworkers local in Mobile, Ala., make union organizing difficult and have played a key role in keeping wages low in that region.
Jackson has spoken twice at rallies there supporting 1,200 workers who have been locked out by International Paper Co. for a year. “He said the right things without having to make them up,” Bragg said. “He’s kept the same tune, following the footsteps of Martin Luther King. You know when King was shot (and killed in Memphis nearly 20 years ago), they were organizing sanitation workers. For me, that says something.”
Praises Jackson Message
Mark Rosenbaum, president of a Food and Commercial Workers local in Cudahy, Wis., a Milwaukee suburb, praised Jackson for trying to educate, not pander, in his speeches. “The message that he brings is that certain corporations are playing employed people against unemployed people.” In Cudahy, Jackson held a meeting with “scabs” who had crossed union picket lines and taken strikers’ jobs. Then, he marched with the strikers. “The message he conveyed was that there had to be more jobs, not taking other people’s jobs,” Rosenbaum said in a telephone interview.
Others said they thought Jackson offered a broader analysis of America’s trade deficit than rival candidate Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, whose television ads slashing South Korean trade practices helped him win the Iowa caucuses.
“Let’s not use scapegoats,” Jackson implored Saturday. “Last year, we bought 7 million bicycles from Taiwan. They weren’t made by a Taiwanese company. They were made there by Schwinn.”
Despite the enthusiasm expressed by many workers for Jackson here, some said they would not vote for him because they felt he was not experienced enough or because they feared he could not win. “He’s never been elected to anything before,” said Pat Karinen of Pile Drivers Local 34 in Oakland. “If he gets elected, he’s got to deal with the Russians . . . he’s got to deal with Congress.”
Others said they were undecided between Jackson and Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, who also has a healthy amount of labor support.
And some said they thought being black was a serious obstacle to Jackson’s being nominated. “I like Jesse’s ideas,” said steam fitter Jack Butler. “I’m just afraid this country and our people are not ready yet for a minority President.”
Nonetheless, Leon Reynolds, a 40-year-old pipe fitter who moved to Sacramento from his native Arkansas three years ago and described himself as a one-time George C. Wallace supporter, said he would vote for Jackson in June. When asked why, Reynolds responded simply: “He’s for labor.”
The racial issue was raised a week ago when 6,500-member United Auto Workers Local 72 in Kenosha, Wis., defied its international--which has steadfastly adhered to the AFL-CIO’s no-endorsement policy--and endorsed Jackson.
In February, Jackson had gone to Kenosha to support the local’s campaign to compel Chrysler not to shut down its factory. Ed Steagall, the local’s president, was asked about the seeming anomaly of the overwhelmingly white local breaking ranks to support a black candidate. He responded: “Jesse Jackson might be black, but Lee Iacocca’s white and he’s taking our jobs away.”
DELEGATE’S PRESIDENTIAL PREFERENCES Republicans 1,139 delegates needed to secure nomination Bush: 788 Dole: 178 Uncommitted: 72 Robertson: 17 Others: 0 Democrats 2,081 delegates needed to secure nomination Dukakis: 526.5 Jackson: 508.55 Gore: 362.8 Uncommitted: 343.65 Simon: 171.5 Gephardt: 154 Others: 0 Source: Associated Press