Union members swell the ranks of marchers in D.C.

WASHINGTON – Raymin Diaz wants to “break this counterrevolution” that takes away workers’ rights. Bob King wants to “honor the same principles” Dr. Martin Luther King stood for, while “fighting suppression of the right to vote.” Larry Greenhill wants to energize his union’s members “while ensuring the community knows our concerns” about workers’ rights, jobs, and justice. And Mary McCloud wants to honor Trayvon Martin, the murdered Florida teenager born just a day before her own son.

All those reasons and more brought Diaz, King, Greenhill, McCloud, and tens of thousands of other unionists into the crowds that packed the National Mall here on August 24 during a march honoring the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s famous August, 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”

“We have to be repetitive” on the issues Dr. King fought for, said Allen Silver, an organizer for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 100.

“Dr. King was huge about workers’ rights,” added Dan Lawwill of Machinists Lodge 1943 at the AK Steel plant in Middletown, Ohio. Lawwill brought his college-age daughter, Jordan, “for the experience” and education. “She’s already thrown tomatoes at scabs” from a picket line at a strike there,” he said proudly.

Their unions and others sent hundreds of buses filled with members, families, and community residents – 80 from SEIU in New York State and 105 loaded with Auto Workers from Michigan – to this year’s march, which drew more than 100,000 people.

Besides marching, several unions carved out special roles for themselves. Members of Laborers Local 657 passed out free bottles of water by the gross in the 90-degree heat. Members of the American Federation of Government Employees and the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees manned first aid stations.

Other unions marching included the Service Employees, the Communications Workers, the Painters, the Plumbers, the Teachers, the National Education Association, the Machinists, and the Steel Workers. Members of the A. Phillip Randolph Institute, one of the AFL-CIO’s two constituency groups for African-Americans, turned out in droves. The massive march kicked off a week of observances of Dr. King’s 1963 march.

Workers’ rights was a top cause of the unions that co-sponsored this year’s march, organized by the National Action Network, a civil rights organization.

“It’s the same fight for the same principles” Dr. King stood for, UAW President Bob King (no relation) told Press Associates Union News Service while working over his notes for his two-minute talk to the crowd. They include workers’ rights and the right to vote. And this march was just the start, he said.

“Now these have to be converted to action and solidarity with other people who believe in social and economic justice,” Bob King added, mentioning women’s rights, civil rights, environmental, immigrant, and lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender groups.

There was no shortage of such causes among the multitude on the Mall or at the podium. Speakers discussed workers’ rights, women’s rights, the right to vote, preserving Social Security, good jobs, fixing the criminal justice system so there are no more Trayvon Martins, comprehensive immigration reform and even giving citizens of Washington, D.C. full congressional voting rights, which they lack.

Interviews with the workers at the march showed equal variety.

“My dad was in the union in the Dominican Republic,” explained Diaz, a regional organizer for Laborers Local 710 in Alexandria, Va. “He told me of the company shutting down jobs, of our underground newspaper and radio station. That’s what brought me” to the U.S., and to the union, after a stint with a non-union shop.

“Friends told me of this opportunity to be an organizer. That’s why I’m here, to break this counterrevolution that’s going on” against workers. “If we don’t fight for what we think is right, nobody will.”

“Women are fighting for the same rights as any minority,” added Brenda Sprester, a journeyman electrician with IBEW Local 26 in Lanham, Md. “That’s what I tell my brothers and sisters: We’re all fighting the same battles.”

Joe DePero of Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 420 in Philadelphia drove down to the march for two reasons. One was history “and for freedom and for equal rights.” The other was to bring his seven-year-old granddaughter Kayla to D.C., on a vacation with Grandpa – they were sitting by the Reflecting Pool on the Mall – “and to teach her right.”

“It’s civil rights, organizing rights, collective bargaining, and equal opportunity,” said Charley Little, of AFSCME Local 2208, a government workers’ local in Trenton, N.J. It’s also politics, he added: Unions in the Garden State are campaigning against incumbent GOP Gov. Chris Christie, whose seat is up this fall. He’s not only spending $4 million unnecessarily on a U.S. Senate special election – Little says the money should go to schools instead – but Christie vetoed a raise in the state minimum wage.

“We’re fighting to continue what we started back in 1963,” explained Greenhill, IBEW Local 26’s vice president. “We’ve got more of a mix of people to do it today than we did then,” he said approvingly. “And we’re here to bring our concerns to the whole community.”

But there aren’t as many unionists as there should be, he added. “Our problem is that our people aren’t as motivated. We have 9,000 members; we should have at least 1,000 here. But they always say ‘I have something else to do.’ Then they vote for the wrong people, too.”

“I feel it could have been my son” who was killed, rather than Martin, the unarmed Florida teenager, said McCloud, Recording Secretary for Local 420 of AFSCME District Council 37 in New York City. “So I came to support justice for Trayvon,” whose family was among the speakers from the podium.

The workers and their allies also want to get reaction from lawmakers – and hoped the impressive turnout would spur that.

“You’ve got to go inside, too, and change Congress first,” said UAW Local 598 member Darrell Evans, of Flint, Mich. Added his colleague, Henry Davis: “We’re here because of what happened in the past” fights for voting rights, jobs and justice “and what we need to do now. America has forgotten.”

“We’re here for justice and hopefully the politicians will listen, or they’ll be voted out,” exclaimed Roger Cumberbatch of SEIU Local 1199’s New York City affiliate. “It’s principally the assault by the right wing on the gains the civil rights movement has made. Trying to roll back the Voting Rights Act, the Trayvon Martin verdict – all this suggests we have to stand up for what was won years ago.”

“You gotta stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves because they’re afraid they’ll lose their jobs,” the Machinists’ Lawwill noted. “It’s great to see everyone come together because all want equal rights,” his daughter added.

And Bob King isn’t the only one who says the march was just a start. When speaking of the pols who are unresponsive to workers, Cumberbatch had one final warning: “I’ll come back here every year – until they get it right.”

Photo: SEIU at the National Mall, August 24, from their Facebook page.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.