Thousands rally in D.C., Md., Va. to support Wisconsin government worker unions

Thousands of demonstrators rallied Saturday in the District, Annapolis and Richmond in support of government worker unions under political assault in Wisconsin.

The protests were part of a 50-state call to action by the liberal group MoveOn.org, as labor, environmentalist, anti-war and other allied organizations assailed a drive by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) and Republican state lawmakers to roll back collective bargaining rights.

Some organizers said the push to break the power of public workers in Wisconsin, Indiana and New Jersey could trigger a “tea party moment” for activists on the left, crystallizing anger at how the recession and job losses have forced more sacrifices on workers instead of the elite.

At noon at Dupont Circle in the nation’s capital, about 1,000 people chanted, cheered and waved signs with messages such as “Solidarity,” “United we bargain, divided we beg,” and “Workers rights, human rights.”

“The American dream is under fire. We don’t believe we can just slash and burn our way out of our problems,” said Van Jones, the Obama administration’s former “green” jobs czar.

“I don’t call them public employee unions. They’re nurses, cops, and firefighters,” said Jones, who stepped down in 2009 amid a controversy over divisive remarks in his past. “We can either punish them and give tax cuts to the governor’s friends, or everyone can trim a bit and we can work our way out of trouble together,” he said.

In Richmond’s Capitol Square, more than 300 Virginians dressed in red and held placards saying, “Wisconsin Workers — We Support You,” to protest the threat of thousands of layoffs by Walker in Wisconsin if his legislative plan did not pass.

“I cannot stand what’s happening in Wisconsin,” said Jeanne Wall, 60, an arts educator from Slate Mills, Va., who runs her own business. “Collective bargaining is something people fought and died for in this country. It’s like voting rights. It’s not something that can be taken away.”

Rally organizer Joe Cook, who retired as executive director of the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said 45 groups sponsored the nationwide day of protest. He acknowledged that labor faces a more difficult struggle in Virginia, a “right-to-work” state.

The Virginia House passed a bill this year to prevent unions from organizing a workplace unless members authorized the creation of a bargaining unit through secret ballot. The measure was designed to prevent the use of “card check” to create unions by having a majority of employees sign union membership forms. The bill failed in the Senate.

hsus@washpost.com

Spencer S. Hsu is an investigative reporter, two-time Pulitzer finalist and national Emmy award nominee.

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