String bands played and storm clouds gathered overhead as thousands of workers assembled outside the Sheet Metal Workers Local 19 union hall for the 32nd annual Tri-State Labor Day Parade in Philadelphia.
Organizer Danny Bauder, of the Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO, said more than 60 union groups and dozens of elected officials had packed Philadelphia’s waterfront for the occasion. He estimated that past years had drawn about 10,000 rank-and-file union members and, despite the inclement weather, this year had drawn similar crowd to Columbus Boulevard.
“The parade has grown in its size over the last five years. It’s gotten bigger and bigger every year,” he said. “The labor movement is strong and growing stronger.”
But the celebration also comes at a time when many rank-and-file workers say organized labor is under attack. SEIU member Mike McCool, wearing a bright t-shirt promoting his union local, said it was time for the American labor movement to reverse years of declining membership.
“With what’s going on in America today it’s really important to organize labor and fight against what’s happening now in Washington and Harrisburg. A lot of interests that are aligning against labor,” he said. “It’s time we really get organized. Now I think it’s time to bounce back.”
McCool and others cited the Supreme Court’s recent Janus decision, which weakened the power of government unions, by making it optional whether workers have to pay fees to the union to cover the cost of negotiating contracts. Others, like Philly AFL-CIO president Pat Eiding, blamed Republicans in Harrisburg and Washington for pushing anti-union bills.
“They don’t care who you are, they don’t think you have a right to have representation. We gotta make sure we have folks in Washington, and in the White House in particular, and Harrisburg that care about working people in this country,” Eiding said, from a lectern outside Local 19. “The people who built this country deserve some respect.”
Although indicted IBEW Local 98 leader John Dougherty was also in attendance he rallied his electrical workers across the street, near Old Swedes Church, as in years past. He did not speak on the main stage. Dougherty and other union figures are expected to stand trial next year over a string of embezzlement, bribery, and theft charges brought by federal investigators.
Some scheduled speakers, like Mayor Jim Kenney, were cut as rain began to pour and workers donned rain slickers to begin a slow march up the boulevard to Penn’s Landing.
Laborer Naji Muhammad was one. He said his union had helped his family win crucial health care benefits. As a result, he had chosen to spend his holiday marching to showcase the importance of unions to the general public.
“You have to show not just Philadelphia but the United States that union is very important,” he said. “We need it. We need it.”