Friday, May 06, 2011

“We Are One” Rally Draws 500 in San Diego

Event Is One of 1,000 Actions in Labor’s Mobilization


Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Wisconsin flag upside-down, Randy Fowler, Sr., Lorena Gonzalez

“If it wasn’t for Dr. [Martin Luther] King, many of us wouldn’t be here,” said Randy Fowler, Sr., 50-year-old African-American sanitation worker in San Diego, to a crowd of over 500 in the San Diego Community Concourse Monday, April 4 as part of a labor-sponsored rally called “We Are One.” “I’m a native San Diegan,” Fowler boasted. “My three children went to college here because my wife and I had jobs with good pay and benefits.”

The local event was part of a nationwide mobilization by the embattled U.S. union movement. According to Lorena Gonzalez, head of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Central Labor Council, “We Are One” consisted of over 1,000 actions throughout the United States. April 4 was chosen because it was the anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968 — and because he was there to support a strike by Memphis sanitation workers against a city government that refused to negotiate with them. After the hour-long live program, the organizers showed a video about King’s last campaign — and his adversary, James Loeb, then mayor of Memphis, who declared that public workers had no right to strike and whose rhetoric sounded much like that of a more recent union-busting public official, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker.

“My mom and dad were union workers, and they instilled that in all of us,” Fowler said. “We’re paying things forward and making sure the revenues the city spends go back into the community.” After saluting the head of his local union, Jean Raymond — who had spoken just before he did — Fowler mentioned the irony that he was born on April 4, 1961, and therefore every birthday he’s had since 1968 has been tinged with his sadness over Dr. King’s murder. “Dr. King’s death was a terrible event for the country and the world, but it keeps me going on a daily basis,” Fowler said.

“April 4, 1968 was a long time ago,” said Gonzalez. “It was before I was born. Martin Luther King did something none of us can fathom. He stood up for 1,300 sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, and literally paid with his life. He stood up for the principle that every single worker deserved respect.” Lamenting that “April 4, 2011 looks a lot like April 4, 1968,” Gonzalez described the union-busting efforts of Walker and other Republican governors and legislators as “a shame, but … also heartening, because we have a movement that’s going to fight very hard to make sure we still have a right to collective bargaining.”

Gonzalez mentioned the threat facing San Diego’s sanitation workers today: the measures being put before voters to outsource their jobs to non-union private companies and to destroy the city’s pension system and replace it with the same 401(k) plans that have, she said, “thrown [retirement security] to Wall Street.” She also lamented that no elected officials showed up to support the city’s workers and their rights, even though unions helped many of them win office through donations and campaign volunteers — and that no one on the San Diego City Council would put forth a resolution supporting the event. (One elected official actually did show up, San Diego Unified School District board president Richard Barrera — but Gonzalez was asked not to call him out by members of the teachers’ unions for the district, who resent that as board president it was Barrera’s duty to send out notices to many of the district’s teachers that they might be laid off, depending on how much funding the district receives from the state.)

“California is not Wisconsin, Ohio or Tennessee — thank God — but all we wanted was a simple resolution that they stood with us,” Gonzalez said. “We got positive responses from Chula Vista, National City and some of the local school boards, but the San Diego City Council said no. Five of the eight current Councilmembers were supported by virtually all the unions, but Marti Emerald was the only one who would sign a proclamation. I heard it was ‘divisive,’ but at the same time the City Council unanimously passed a resolution honoring Ronald Reagan. It passed resolutions honoring the Clairemont Women’s Republican Club and [anti-union employers] EDCO and Cox Communications.”

Doug Moore, president of the United Domestic Workers (UDW) — an affiliate of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) which represents home-care workers in San Diego County — said that 43 years after Dr. King’s assassination, “both public- and private-sector workers are under attack again. Right-wing governors and their corporate allies are trying to weaken collective bargaining. Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, New Hampshire: the list goes on and on, and if you think that couldn’t happen in California, think again. … That’s why we have to send a clear message to elected officials, from local to state to the President: don’t try it here.”

After a long street-theatre sketch featuring a local union official costumed as Moses’ sister Miriam and a series of men dressed as pharaohs representing corporate greed and political cowardice (and ironically set to a parody of the song “Heigh-Ho, Heigh-Ho,” a product of the notorious union-buster Walt Disney and his company), Gonzalez introduced Rev. Richard Lawrence. “I was in Selma, Alabama 46 years ago for [Dr. King’s] march to Montgomery,” he recalled. He praised the late president Lyndon Johnson for saying the words “we shall overcome” in his speech announcing his introduction of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which sought to end the Southern states’ denial of the right to vote to African-Americans and thereby met the principal demand of the marchers in Selma. Then he led the crowd in singing “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of the civil-rights movement and many American struggles for social change since.