By JUSTINE WINNIE
SEATTLE (Sept. 6, 2013) — Women in pearls and men in dark suits stepped delicately around the singing, chanting and growing crowd in front of the Seattle Sheraton, and pale faces peered out of the second- and third-story windows of the upscale hotel.
More than 300 people rallied outside the right-wing Washington Policy Center’s fundraiser there Thursday evening to let virulently anti-union guest speaker Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin know what Washington thinks of his divisive agenda to take away the freedom to bargain collectively, relax environmental standards, and pass corporate tax cuts while slashing health care and education budgets. The event, organized by the M.L. King County Labor Council, AFL-CIO, was the progressive community’s answer to the agenda of corporate greed.
MLKCLC Executive Secretary David Freiboth urged that union members and their community supporters must maintain their solidarity, even during times of discord. Resisting extreme agendas like Walker’s means holding firm to a strong coalition in the face of divide-and-conquer tactics, he said, and that coalition was clearly unified in front of the Sheraton on Thursday.
Protesters from the Sierra Club, OUR Walmart, and other community groups joined labor activists from many unions on the steps of the hotel. Chants of “Scott Walker, GO HOME!” echoed across the packed street, and signs identifying the scope of the diverse, passionate crowd bobbed in time. The Seattle Labor Chorus was ready for Walker, as was the Anti-Fascist Marching Band, and the songs and chants echoed up to the hotel.
“Our political leaders say ‘no’ to divisive politics,” Freiboth said.
To show Walker and the Washington Policy Center that Washington’s progressive political leaders support unions, environmental advocates and social justice groups, State Senator and Seattle mayoral candidate Ed Murray, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, and King County Executive Dow Constantine spoke at the rally. Each spoke of respecting workers’ rights and caring about their well-being even during times of economic struggle, and noted that Walker’s austerity policies have stifled job growth in Wisconsin — in stark contrast to the strong economic recovery Washington is enjoying. (This chart based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics bears that out.)
“Seattle is adding more jobs than any other metro region in the United States,” McGinn said, noting that this economic recovery is taking place alongside city-wide paid sick leave and other pro-worker policies. “We can take the high road to economic recovery.”
The common thread in each of the political leaders’ comments was that success is achieved by ensuring that working families receive an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work and that their freedom to bargaining collectively is protected.
Representing the region’s robust environmental movement, Kathleen Ridihalgh of the Sierra Club. spoke of the effect that such strong community support has on corporate-funded think tanks like the Washington Policy Center and the American Legislative Exchange Council: it scares them.
Civil rights leader Leno Rose-Avila of the Puget Sound Alliance for Retirement Action grounded the rally’s message in the legacy of the county’s namesake. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he said, stood for jobs and justice, and told his followers to live lives of service to others. We must keep our promises, King said, and Rose-Avila added, “the workers have kept their promise to America, and America must keep its promise to the workers.”
Listening to the speeches and adding her voice to the chants was Sandra Lompe, an electrician represented by IBEW Local 46. She had reacted immediately to the news of the rally: “Scott Walker’s coming? I’m going down there!” She had followed Walker’s actions and connected strongly to the struggle of Wisconsin’s public employees.
“I hate what he did to Wisconsin and that’s the last thing I want to happen here,” Lompe said. “He’s the antithesis of what we stand for and the values we’re proud of. That’s why I’m here.”
Alia Barbour, a 24-year-old Seattleite who works at the Crisis Solution Center, had connections to draw as well. In between snapping photos, she explained that she’d heard about the Scott Walker demonstration at one of last week’s fast-food worker strikes. Noting that her work with the crisis center involves issues with healthcare and other policies that create poverty and oppression, Barbour found the rally’s message of protecting and respecting working people resonant.
“People need to build mass movements to protest austerity, union-busting, and social net cuts,” Barbour said. And she wants to experience more protests like this one.