PHILADELPHIA - A colorful sea of workers with their banners, t-shirts, and signs filled Eakins Oval to the point of overflowing on August 11, in the unfurling by organized labor and its allies of a Second Bill of Rights. They came to the home of the Liberty Bell and the U.S. Constitution to launch a fight for an economic bill of rights for workers and to show their determination to be decisive in the current election cycle.
The 45,000 workers and their allies came from the Philadelphia region and from as far away as Ohio and Kentucky to hear labor leaders, community activists, and elected officials voice their frustration with politicians' failure to address the needs of working people. Organizers, who had hoped for 20,000, estimated the size of the crowd at 45,000.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka expressed the mood of the gathering when he told the crowd, "Anyone who says America can't afford public services or education or health care or a postal service doesn't know what they're talking about. We built this country; we make it run; we put it to sleep every night. We are going to take this country forward - I mean all, each and every one of us; we are the job creators, not the one percent."
Trumka cited the history of the Philadelphia printers who, at the time of country's founding, "dared to demand fair pay for the hours they worked," and continued, "Today we are still fighting to affirm the fundamental rights of every person who works for a living."
Sean McGarvey, president of the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department, said the way to a secure economy and full employment is "to invest in our infrastructure. We will not accept stagnation and slow growth as the new normal. The middle class expects action, not politics as usual and politicians' promises that go unfulfilled. With today's record low interest rates, it would never be easier to make those investments than now. The only thing standing in the way is the conservative policies of right-wing ideologues and the incessant right-wing ideological campaign."
Local community education activist Helen Gym took the podium to attack the "blame game" in public education and pointed to the hypocrisy of those who target teachers, education workers, and parents while class sizes increase and three-fourths of Philadelphia's elementary schools lack librarians and library services.
Recalling that her father, who came from Korea, had put her through college, she said, "I can't calculate the cost of putting my three children through college today....When public schools and the staff in them become cheap punching bags for so called 'reformers,' then we have to face the fact that our dreams are in danger of dying."
The Rev. Alvin Herring of the PICO Interfaith Network, a national network of faith-based activist groups, brought a message of unity between organized workers and communities of faith. He told union workers, "Men and women of faith are standing with you; we've got your back.... We are here today to assert our inalienable right to work and enjoy the fruits of our labor without being encumbered by those who take what they have not labored for. We are here to declare a new age for the American worker; we are here for the veterans, the farmers, the teachers, the cops; for our union brothers and sisters."
Elected officials emphasized both the enormous stake that labor has in the 2012 elections and the important role that labor can play in 2012. Rep. Bob Brady (D-Pa.) told the crowd that he had signed the pledge to support the Second Bill of Rights and then, referring to the recent recall effort in Wisconsin, said, "Wisconsin woke up a sleeping giant. You are a sleeping giant! Keep fighting; keep this movement going! Take it down to Washington!"
Several speakers expressed the urgency of both being active in the 2012 election campaign and of asserting labor's independent political role.
Trumka said, "We are setting the tone today for what happens in the election and what happens after the election. This election is about what kind of economy we are going to have; it's not about whether a politician has a D or an R after his name."
Lindsay Patterson, President of United Steelworkers Local 404 in the Philadelphia area, told the People's World after the rally that he felt "fantastic" with the huge turnout, including 43 members from his local, and that the rally had "reinvigorated our base as working people; not just as union members, but all working people."
The event clearly got the attention of observers beyond the labor movement: An article in the business section of the Philadelphia Inquirer acknowledged labor's staying power and its ability to wield political clout. The article quoted Bruce Haynes, a Republican strategist in a political consulting firm in Alexandria, Va. who said that, in an age when people are less likely than in the past to depend on traditional "institutions to help them make choices...labor [has] a dues structure and built-in grassroots capacity. They are a recognizable entity and have the ability to communicate through the press - it's still a powerful tool of theirs."
Another article in the same paper observed that the idea for the Second Bill of Rights, a manifesto for workers, was based on the 1944 program of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and was seen by labor as a way to put forward an independent program for working people. The Second Bill of Rights says all Americans are 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
After the speeches, country music star Lucinda Williams and her band treated the gathering to some of her own original songs as well as the music of Woody Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen, and some Delta Blue.
Photo: Ben Sears/PW