Union members from across the country gathered at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial yesterday for a rally dubbed the Million Worker March, assembling in smaller-than-expected numbers but making a passionate plea for workers' rights.
Linking their struggle with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. by standing on the same spot where the slain civil rights leader made his famous "I Have a Dream" speech in August 1963, workers from a variety of trades and causes said King's vision of social and economic equality remains more dream than reality.
"The majority of working people in America are not doing well," said Clarence Thomas, 57, a crane operator on the Oakland, Calif., docks and a leader of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10 in San Francisco, a key organizer of yesterday's rally. "With jobs being offshored, outsourced, privatized, our young people are looking at a much more dismal future."
Thousands stood at the foot of the memorial and along the sides of the Reflecting Pool on a chilly October afternoon, calling for more jobs, universal health care and an end to the war in Iraq. But with room to walk freely and stretches of grass visible, the crowd by midafternoon appeared far smaller than the 100,000 that organizers had estimated on their National Park Service permit application.
A law enforcement official estimated the crowd at less than 10,000. Organizers said 10,000 to 15,000 attended.
The Million Worker March title was meant to evoke the imagery of the 1995 Million Man March and not to reflect a crowd count, the organizers said. They said they were not disappointed by the turnout, although they complained that authorities prevented about 30 buses from dropping off passengers near the memorial and redirected them to Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, causing many to show up late or not at all. U.S. Park Police and D.C. police officials said they were not aware of any buses being diverted.
The protest and a few related small marches were largely peaceful. Sgt. Scott Fear, a Park Police spokesman, said only one arrest was made -- a woman charged with demonstrating in a restricted zone near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a misdemeanor.
In the crowd were postal workers and longshoremen, school bus drivers and teachers, department store staff and railway repair crews. They said they came to Washington by car, bus and airplane just days before Election Day to highlight the social, economic and political hardships facing working Americans at home and on the job.
"I think we need a change," said Ronnie White, 48, a production worker at a food plant in Kansas City, Mo., who stood on the steps above the Reflecting Pool proudly wearing his black Teamsters Local 838 jacket. "We need the jobs here, not overseas."
An end to the outsourcing of jobs abroad was just one of the rally's many far-reaching goals. Workers called for health care coverage from "cradle to grave" for all Americans, a national living wage, a repeal of the USA Patriot Act, more funding for public schools and free mass transit, to name a few of their 22 demands.
Antiwar sentiment was also strong. Workers criticized the Bush administration for leading the country into what they called an unjustified war with Iraq, saying that the billions of dollars paying for the war are needed instead in struggling schools and communities. "We need to employ, not deploy," said Mark Barbour, 51, of Blacksburg, Va., a longtime railway worker and member of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Local 551.
Steve Burns, 43, a teacher at a Madison, Wis., community college, endured a 14-hour van ride to Washington to have his voice heard -- and his handmade sign seen. Burns's felt-pen message was "End For-Profit Health Care." He said he does not receive health care benefits as an adjunct math instructor and is still paying off a recent $1,200 hospital bill for an infection. "Our health care system is a disaster, and neither candidate wants real reform," Burns said.
Though organizers had planned their protest as nonpartisan, speakers and rallygoers were not bashful in showing their disapproval of President Bush.
From a podium on a wide granite landing on the memorial steps, former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark called for the impeachment of Bush for war crimes. Activists in the audience carried anti-Bush stickers and signs, and one of the most prominent banners on display was one declaring, "The Bush regime engineered 9-11."
The turnout fell far short of the 250,000 who filled the Mall for the labor movement's last major Washington demonstration, an August 1991 "Solidarity Day" rally that blamed political leaders, including Bush's father, then-President George H.W. Bush, for turning their backs on U.S. workers. That rally was sponsored by the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor federation. But AFL-CIO leaders refused to officially endorse or help organize yesterday's gathering, saying they were focused instead on mobilizing voters for the presidential election, a decision echoed by several major unions.
Organizers, who said unions representing more than 3.5 million workers backed the demonstration, said the AFL-CIO's decision hurt the turnout, but they expressed pride that their low-budget rally was largely a rank-and-file effort.
Not all were trade unionists. About 100 protesters took part in an 11 a.m. "anarchist march," where Daniel Hall, 20, a student at the University of Maryland, marched with a group of students holding up a large banner that read, "Students and workers unite!" Hall said he hoped the march "gets people thinking about labor and how things are not getting better. It's a system of inequality."
Later in the afternoon, following speeches by King's son, Martin Luther King III, and other civil rights and union leaders, a few hundred marched from the Lincoln Memorial to the Hotel Washington on 15th Street NW in support of District hotel workers.
Negotiators for several major Washington hotels and the union that represents 3,800 hotel employees remain deadlocked on a new contract. Protesters chanted outside the hotel's doors as police looked on. Three hotel workers leaned out a third-floor window, looked down on the crowd and waved in support.