Organizers will tomorrow announce the details of next Monday's "Workers Stand for America" march and rally on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, during which organized labor and elected officials will reach across bipartisan lines to unite the country's middle class.
"I think the mission is to, number one, lift up the people who work for wages in this country," said Philadelphia's Building and Construction Trades Council Business Manager Pat Gillespie. "They've been historically abused and taken advantage of and continually vote against their own self interests."
He said, from his perspective, many wage workers have been manipulated by "the monied of the world" to push for agendas benefiting the wealthy. "They say things like, 'We want less government spending but we need a strong defense,'" Gillespie said. "So those contradictions are out there and we in organized labor feel the erosion of the middle income people, the ones who make this country strong and who give this country economic fiber, that erosion is going to be to the detriment of the country. We're going to stand up and stay that."
Inspired by former President Franklin Roosevelt's 1944 speech calling for an economic bill of rights, participants will sign a "workers" bill of rights to be presented to delegates at both the Republican and Democratic national conventions in late August and early September. "It just extols, pretty much, the nobility that is in work and the requirements and respect a civilized society should have for its workers," Gillespie said.
Politicians – including President Barack Obama and GOP hopeful Mitt Romney – will also have the opportunity to sign the document endorsing citizens' rights to earn a living wage, fully participate in the electoral process, collectively bargain with employers and access quality education, health care and benefits. An accountability campaign showing who signed the bill and who declined will begin after the rally and continue through November's presidential election.
Some have called the planned gathering, which will feature at least 20,000 Building Trades members along with speakers and musical entertainment, an alternative to the Democratic National Convention set for the first week of September in Charleston, South Carolina – a right to work state in which union membership can't legally be required as a condition of employment.
But Gillespie said the event is to encourage workers to think beyond party politics. "There's nothing better than getting the opportunity to bargain with your employer and nothing better than to be able to participate in a democracy and vote, but vote for candidates that are in your best interest, not necessarily in the NRA's interest, the Tea Party's interest or even organized labor's interest," he said. "That's the rationale for the rally."
The summit comes during a contentious chapter in Philadelphia's labor history. Mayor Michael Nutter has not signed any city union contracts other than those awarded through binding arbitration. In the case of firefighters and paramedics Local 22, he is for the second time appealing the arbitrator's findings. Local 22 and the city's two largest municipal unions, AFSCME District Councils 33 and 47, have been working without contracts since 2009.
Gillespie said he doesn't envy the mayor's task of having to negotiate fair working conditions within the constraints of a limited budget. "Those things used to be possible, but there's this whining about every little tax people have to pay," he said. "People like the firemen when they need them, but they don't necessarily want to pay them. People want their children educated, but don't necessarily try to pay the bill to educate them. When you're dealt that hand as an executive, it's not going to lend itself well to good or harmonious relationships. ... They're in a real difficult situation because the folks who pay local taxes have another option that they can vote with their feet – they can leave."
He said leaders of the city's blue and white collar unions have made a number of concessions in an attempt to bring their requests in line with feasible costs as the city repeatedly counters that it can't afford to pay for wages and benefits. "I don't see anybody saying they want egg in their beer or they
want some outlandish benefit," he said. "I know District Council 33 and 47, both
have taken the initiative to streamline their operations to help save
money and instead of getting an 'attaboy' for that, they get bashed over
The Building Trades are also embroiled in a "he said, she said" public relations battle at the Pestronk brothers' Goldtex apartment construction site at 12th and Wood streets. Union members' daily, often highly visible protests against its non-unionized workforce have led to allegations of intimidation from the developers, employees and neighborhood residents that seem to be turning the tide of public opinion against organized labor.
"There's people in there who aren't even documented workers, people in there who are unlicensed contractors, people in there who have not been doing the proper thing, gangs from New York – [the developers] brought in all these crazy things," Gillespie said of the site – and of the tendency of many of the area's otherwise-liberal residents to side with its developers. "One of our guys has been hit with a bat by this crazy motorcycle gang. They're responsible for all that and yet your peer group thinks they're the good guys and we're the bad guys because we stand out there, I guess."