Philadelphia rally seeks to boost spirits of unions under siege

Steamfitters Local Union 420 members (from left) Steve Lentz, George Convery, and Bob Callahan at the rally outside the Municipal Services Building in Philadelphia. Many speakers said moves against unions could hit the middle class hard.

The huge union rally in the Municipal Services Building plaza Thursday was organized ostensibly in support of Wisconsin public workers fighting to retain their collective bargaining rights.

But every full-throated labor leader who stepped to the microphone framed the battle in Wisconsin as part of an existential threat that unions face everywhere.

With the kind of pugnacious rhetoric that harked back to another era - legendary Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa and his tactics were even invoked - the rally seemed to be preparing workers for new struggles after an economic meltdown.

Wisconsin, like many states, faces huge budget deficits, and Gov. Scott Walker has called on public employee unions to agree to concessions. But Wisconsin and Ohio also are considering bills that would strip the unions of many of their collective bargaining rights.

"We built this country, and we're not going to let you take it away from us," said AFL-CIO Philadelphia Council president Patrick J. Eiding. "They're not trying to balance the budget; they're trying to decimate collective bargaining."

The Philadelphia Council organized the lunchtime rally, which included about 20 area unions and about 1,000 sign-waving members, who periodically chanted: "We are one!"

The AFL-CIO also organized a rally Thursday in downtown Pittsburgh and has scheduled a gathering for noon Friday in Trenton. Various New Jersey tea party groups are planning a counterprotest.

In Philadelphia, still a strong labor town, the union line was presented unopposed.

In other areas of the country, the speakers said, unions have been made villains and scapegoats for the financial straits of state and local governments. In their view, Republican politicians are using their money troubles as an excuse to break unions.

Gov. Christie, in particular, has become a conservative darling for his assault on his state's teachers' union. Christie was scorned from the podium twice Thursday, once being referred to as the kind of "fat cat" destroying the middle class.

Many speakers said moves against unions could devastate the middle class. Cathy Scott, president of District Council 47 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, which represents the city's professional, technical, and administrative employees, said the fight in Wisconsin was about "shifting power from working people and the poor to corporations."

"When did it become wrong to earn a decent wage? When did it become wrong to take care of your family?" asked Bill Gault, president of the Philadelphia firefighters union. "We didn't create this mess. . . . Bankers created this mess."

John Meyerson, chair of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Labor Federation, referred to a time before government deregulation and tax cuts for the wealthy.

"That was when everybody had jobs, we had benefits, we had pensions," he said.

Now, he said, union members are being asked why they should be allowed to keep the wages and benefits they bargained for.

"The questions isn't why do I have a pension and benefits and a good job? The question is, why don't you?" Meyerson said. "If you want a pension, get a union. If you want benefits, get a union. If you want a good job, get a union."

After the rally broke up, Stan Shelton, of District Council 33, the city's blue-collar union, said he thought the gathering served its purpose of bringing the unions together around a unified message.

"This is an attack on unions," he said. "We have to keep coming out."

Contact staff writer Troy Graham at 215-854-2730 or