Pro-union message rings out from civil rights rally at Lincoln Memorial

A pro-union message echoed across the Mall during Saturday’s March on Washington anniversary rally.

Leaders from many of the nation’s major unions took the podium at the Lincoln Memorial to make the case that civil rights and collective bargaining are intertwined and part of Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision for the country.

But the event was also a stark reminder of how far the labor movement has fallen since King’s historic address.
   

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With membership dwindling, and battles raging at the state level on the power and role of labor groups, unions are hoping the March will help them recapture the spirit of 1963, when protesters carried signs calling for “full employment” and “jobs for all.”
 
“Fifty years ago, the title of this was the March [on Washington] for Jobs and Freedom. If there ever was a time when jobs were relevant, it is right now,” said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the country's largest union.
 
“It's time to come together and to be re-energized, and to say we have much to do, and let's get going.”
 
Labor leaders were intimately involved in organizing the original march, and thousands of union members were expected to attend this year’s version. Several in labor were planning to have members who attended the 1963 event return to Washington on Saturday.
 
The American Federation of County, State and Municipal Employees, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) along with the NEA were just some of the unions participating in Saturday’s event. Many are holding training programs, speeches and other events throughout the weeklong celebration of the march.
 
Labor officials touted several of their top issues at the rally, including immigration reform, opposition to government budget cuts, protecting bargaining rights and raising the minimum wage.
 
“This is not a commemoration but a continuation,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten earlier this week. “This becomes a pivotal juncture where we are as a country on whether we believe in economic opportunity or not.”
 
Weingarten and Van Roekel spoke at the march, as did SEIU President Mary Kay Henry. Henry  about low wages from the podium, and made the case for the importance of workers being able to bargain with their employers.
 
“We want to figure out a way that we can drive raising the minimum wage at the same time that we create the ability for workers to join together and raise their wages beyond the minimum wage,” Henry said before the rally. “Lifting the minimum wage is important, but equally important, we think, we have to restore the ability of workers to be able to come together and bargain their wages up across the economy again.”
 
The march also comes as immigration reform legislation has stalled in Congress, with House Republicans remaining wary of the Senate-passed bill and the path to citizenship it would create for people who came to the country illegally.
 
“Another thing we want to talk about is racism has reared its ugly head in the immigration debate and now more than ever we need to get House Republicans to return to pass immigration reform this fall in Congress,” Henry said.
 
Van Roekel tied his speech King’s work to education.
 
“Here it is at a time in our country where we are cutting back on funding for education, we are laying off education personnel, we are narrowing curriculum and it is a time that we ought to be expanding all of these things for every child in America. That's what I want to talk about,” said the NEA president before his appearance.
 
Unions also helped to boost attendance at the march. Weingarten estimated more than 5,000 AFT members would attend.
 
SEIU had buses coming in from Chicago, Pittsburgh and New York, while their local chapters from Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia planned to bring their members. 1199SEIU, a local affiliate, planned to bring 3,000 members to the event, with buses streaming in from New Jersey, New York, North Carolina and Maryland.
 
George Gresham, 1199SEIU’s president, said he hopes the march will inspire a response from Washington.

 “This is a march and the idea of a march is to bring corrective action to certain issues,” Gresham said. “I hope this will create a fire, a popular fire where people will ask their legislators to look at the issues being brought up and say what are you doing about them.”

--This report was originally published at 6:00 a.m. and was last updated at 1:09 p.m.