Labor day no holiday from politicking in South Philly

While some were lighting backyard barbeques or scouring the malls for bargains, others used the Labor Day holiday for its original purpose: celebrating the strength of organized workers.

Nowhere was that sentiment more on display than Monday morning at Philadelphia’s annual Labor Day parade up Columbus Boulevard.

Before the march, a sea of colored t-shirts filled the parking lot of the Sheet Metal workers local – each color representing one of the city’s many labor unions: from AFSCME green to Philadelphia Federation of Teachers red.

“It’s important that we all take a stand collectively” said Lisa Jackson, a mentor teacher and 25 year PFT veteran. “People deserve fair wages. They deserve clean and safe working conditions. They deserve health benefits, and collectively we can get…all of those things equitably with no one being taken advantage of.”

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The teachers union contract expired at the end of August 2013. Although the school district is no longer asking members to take wage reductions, it still seeks work-rule changes and health care concessions. The large majority of PFT members do not pay health care premiums.

As much a celebration of labor rights and victories, the annual Labor Day ritual doubles as a political rally.

Two months before what’s already been a competitive gubernatorial election, AFL-CIO Philadelphia Council President Pat Eiding urged the crowd to vote labor-friendly democrat Tom Wolf into office.

“My firm ask to you is that we take this solidarity to the polling place in November,” he said. “This is the day that we go out and we talk to our friends and our family and our co-workers, and talk to them about the issues and how we are in the fight for our life.”

Eiding joined other labor leaders in criticizing first-term Governor Tom Corbett for spending cuts that he and other critics say have disproportionately affected the middle class.

Corbett defends his budgetary decisions as prudent cost-saving measures that buoyed Pennsylvania’s economy during years where the great recession made it difficult to collect revenue.

Both Corbett and Wolf spent their Labor Days campaigning in Pittsburgh.

The Philadelphia Labor Day parade is also traditionally an opportunity for local politicians to court support from union leaders.

This year, though, there was a noticeable absence of politicians who are vying for top positions.

None of the city’s congressional delegation attended and even with the Philadelphia mayoral election looming in 2015, only two of the half dozen probable candidates made an appearance: City controller Alan Butkovitz and private defense attorney Ken Trujillo.

Butkovitz said the middle class has been under attack over the past few decades from corporate power-brokers who’ve been exerting pressure on unions.

“There’s a relentless push for maximizing profits as if the people who put up the capital are the only people who are doing anything productive,” said Butkovitz, “as if being a teacher is not a productive contribution, as if being a police officer, being a firefighter – putting your life on the line – that doesn’t count as much as being an investor.”

The parade also attracts some currently lacking union representation.

Onetha McKnight works as a wheelchair agent at the airport for $5.75 an hour. She’s joined a push to unionize airport workers and raise the minimum wage.

“What it would take would be workers to come together and realize that things are just not going to change with us talking about it,” she said. “We need to take action.”

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