At Labor Rally, Union Voices Shake Up an Empty City Street

- by Michelle Chen

New York City, September 1

A few blocks from Madison Square Garden, overlooking thousands of workers who had taken off early from work and taken to the streets, labor activist Reverend Scott Marks shouted, "Enough is enough. It's time-say it with me-to put Bush out!" The crowd chanted along as police looked on and television news vans parked sleepily in the shade, some half-heartedly taping the event but most just waiting for the evening's convention.

The eerily deserted streets outside the site of the Republican National Convention now echoed with the cheers of a sea of colored union t-shirts and picket signs. Police barricades could not contain the roars of the crowd as union leaders took the stage and called for a new political regime that supported America's working families.

The speakers voiced many of the issues that have ignited tension between organized labor and the Bush Administration over the past four years: massive outsourcing of jobs, scaling back overtime, and a disintegrating healthcare system.

Sopranos star James Gandolfini, introducing Peter Gorman, president of the firefighters union Local 854, made a dig at the Republican Party's wielding of September 11 as a campaign issue. "It took George Bush four days to get here after 9-11," he said. Gorman then fired up the crowd by insisting that firefighters sacrificed their lives on September 11 in order to protect the freedom of every worker to pursue a decent livelihood. Calling working-class people "the heart and soul of this country," he denounced Bush for thinking "overtime means a trip to Disney World. Overtime represents paying your rent and putting food on the table."

John E. Marchell, president of Local 3, the electrical worker's union, declared, "It is time for a new economic agenda that invests in people, the people of America." He demanded that labor elect a government that would provide medical coverage and fair wages so that working people had the time and resources to "serve our communities, building an America we can all be proud of." Waving his union card in the air, he said, "George Bush is not going to take this union card away from me or you."

Many attending the rally just wanted "a fair amount for a day's work," as sheet metal worker Frank Leonard put it. But against the background of folk singer Steve Earle's blue-collar twang, the crowd was also abuzz with issues outside the traditional domain of union interests, from civil liberties to the Iraq occupation to media monopolies. The range of voices at the rally demonstrated that union activism in this election is placing itself in the context of broader issues. Perhaps indicating the complexity of the debates fueling the presidential race, the labor agenda is stretching beyond simple bread-and-butter issues of pay and benefits to intersect with issues of global politics.

"I think the whole purpose of this election is to find [out] what the issues really are," said John Harrington, president of the sheet metal workers union Local 28. Workers are concerned about pensions and working conditions, he said, but they have also felt the squeeze on "basic civil rights" since September 11. "My office is two blocks from the World Trade Center. We know what happened that day well, but we don't appreciate what George Bush is doing."

Helen Settles, a Staten Island teacher bedecked with anti-Bush pins and stickers, said she attended the rally with other members of the United Federation of Teachers to protest Bush's educational policy, which she blames for the overcrowding plaguing her classes. Though Republicans laud Bush's education reform plan as a breakthrough, Settles said, "His 'No Child Left Behind' budget is really 'no child left a dime budget' and the war budget leaves every child behind."

Members of District Council 37, a government employees union, showed up in droves sporting green t-shirts, motivated mainly by frustration over job security and healthcare. In addition, the Iraq occupation, said union worker Olivia Williams, "is affecting us hard, because our children are dying. It's a senseless war the same way it was a senseless war with Vietnam. This is supposed to be the land of freedom, the land of opportunity, but we don't have to go and die on other people's land just for power."

But even as workers united against Bush, they diverged on the Iraq issue. John Cory, an electrician with the International Federation of Electrical Workers, said the war "probably wasn't planned out very well, but you've got to finish the job you started."

Cory came to the rally with his son to demand that the next administration protect American labor. Bush, he said, was harming unions by "allowing undocumented [workers] to come into the country taking our jobs." Though he doubted Kerry would differ dramatically from Bush on labor issues, he said he would vote for "the lesser of two evils," because under Bush, "big business controls the government in this country, as we see. Gotta change that."

The Writer's Guild of America, a white-collar union, also came out to rally for job security, but their labor issues intertwined with corporate media consolidation. "When there's only one employer it's very hard to go to the bargaining table," said union member Anne Tovack. According to WGA organizer Jesus Sanchez, the number of major media employers is seven and shrinking, because "they keep consolidating and keep eating each other up. That's a scary sight for everybody in America." The corporate mergers also undermined programming freedom, said Sanchez. This protest, for example, would at best "get a five second spot somewhere." He said he would look forward to the leadership of the FCC switching to the Democratic Party if Kerry wins the presidential race.

The diversity of opinions and contingents at the rally revealed an unusual degree of solidarity among labor interests. Reflecting on his past experience with conflicts among entertainment unions, Sanchez said this election year, "Everybody's come together under one united umbrella, and moving forward in a very positive direction." Those at the rally did not seem vexed that the news vans were paying more attention to what was happening up the street, knowing that they would get their message out soon enough at the polls.

This article was submitted to us by the author but was first published at Znet. Michelle Chen is a 23 year-old freelance writer who recently returned from China, where she spent a year on a Fulbright research fellowship. Her writing has appeared in South China Morning Post, Clamor,, Working for Change, and Asia Times. email contact:

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