Unions Stage Largest Capital Rally in Decade
Organized labor came back to Washington on Saturday to stage a march denouncing what it called the legacy of 10 years of Republican administrations and to demonstrate that the labor movement in America is still alive and kicking.
An estimated 250,000 union workers and their families ignored hot, muggy weather to march along Constitution Avenue in a “Solidarity Day” rally sponsored by the AFL-CIO. It was the first massive display by organized labor here in almost 10 years.
The AFL-CIO now represents a record 14 million workers, but the percentage of workers who belong to unions has fallen to about 16%, from a high of 35% in the 1950s. As the political fortunes of the Democratic Party have waned, so has the political clout of organized labor.
The U.S. Park Service’s crowd estimate of 250,000 was in line with sponsors’ expectations. “We’re here to raise our voices and to say that the unions are not dead,” said Erich Paarsch, a bricklayer from Lakeport, Calif.
There were Teamsters and teachers, miners and machinists, steelworkers and service workers, many of them carrying signs reading, “Replace George Bush, Not Strikers.” Many said they hoped the large turnout would show Congress that many Americans want to see a change.
However, the rally was virtually devoid of major political figures, including prospective Democratic presidential candidates. The lone exception was the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who attended as “shadow” senator from the District of Columbia, a largely honorary post.
Also present were Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, former Texas agriculture commissioner Jim Hightower and Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO.
Charlie Brown of Burbank, Calif., president of District 727 of the International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, said he and 14 other union members took an all-night flight from Los Angeles to participate in the march.
“This is our day to show the nation how labor feels,” Brown said.
In speeches following the parade Saturday, union leaders lambasted President Bush for devoting too much of his time to foreign affairs at the expense of domestic problems. They said the rich have gotten richer, and living standards of American workers have fallen.
Morton Bahr, president of the Communication Workers of America, told the huge throng gathered on the Mall that “we are here to bring ‘the other America’ to President Bush and Congress.”
“It is an America that . . . George Bush can’t see from the windows of the White House or from the golf course at Kennebunkport,” Bahr said.
“It is an America where decent jobs are becoming a thing of the past. An America where decent health care more and more is only for those who can afford it. An America where striking workers are replaced by scabs.”
Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said Bush spends “billions for Kuwait city, but he doesn’t seem to care about all the American cities that are going broke.”
Labor leaders concede it has been a miserable decade for organized labor. Ten years ago, President Ronald Reagan fired 11,500 air traffic controllers who went on strike illegally, in what some analysts have said was a major setback for organized labor.
George Kourpias, president of the machinists union, said Reagan’s decision to fire striking air controllers had a telling effect on the entire airline industry, producing a “reckless political climate of greed and self-interest.”
Last year, Bush vetoed two of the union movement’s top legislative priorities. One was the Family and Medical Leave Bill, which would allow workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a sick family member or a newborn child.
The second was the Civil Rights Act of 1990, which would have overturned court rulings making it more difficult for workers to win job discrimination suits. Although the Democratic Congress expects to pass new versions of those bills, Bush has said he will veto them again.
In July, the House passed a bill that would forbid companies to hire permanent replacements for strikers. However, Bush has promised to veto the bill if it passes the Senate next month.