Southwest Philly May Day Attendees Call for Revival of Labor Politics

Charlie McCollester speaks at Philly May Day

Charlie McCollester speaks at Philly May Day

A pro-labor Americana band played on while Jim Moran, former director of the Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety and Health, talked May Day.

“I found out about May Day and its history back in the early 70s while in labor school for the auto workers in Black Lake, Michigan,” said Moran. “I was in the auto workers [union] and I was sent out there to get some training, leadership stuff. I ran across this information [about May Day]—and it pissed me off. I was about 35 and I’m thinking, how come I’m 35 and I’m just hearing about this? I always swore that if I could ever do anything about it, I would.”

Moran was the unofficial “ring leader,” as many at Elmwood Park on Wednesday called him, in the effort to establish Philadelphia’s May Day Celebration. He organized the rally in Southwest Philly for the sixth year in a row, despite criticism, he said, that the rally should take place in Center City.

May Day, begun in 1886, is an internationally-recognized holiday to celebrate Labor struggles around the world. It’s celebrated in more than 80 countries, but was mostly forgotten during the Cold War period in the United States because of communism and such.

The rally took place from 3pm-6pm and featured speakers and musical performances designed to unite advocates from across a spectrum of local labor causes (such as the city unions’ current struggle for contracts and the debacle over Philly school closings) and to remember the importance of Labor in the United States—and what it’s done for us.

“May Day came about in the 1880s when a carpenter, a socialist carpenter from New York City, proposed two things,” Charlie McCollester, former director of the Center for the Study of Labor Relations at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, told the swelling crowd early in the afternoon. “[He] proposed there should be a holiday, a national holiday, for working people called Labor Day on the first Monday of September. He did that in 1884. The second thing he proposed was … eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will. That was the greatest victory of the labor movement, the eight-hour day. It’s being threatened and taken away from many of us.”

McCollester was joined by members from local unions—AFSCME, SEIU, TWU and others—who spoke of the hardships they’re facing both in the city and greater United States, and there was plenty of Mayor Nutter bashing to go around.

In addition to the unions on hand were the Socialist Workers Party, the Green party of Philadelphia, community organizing group Fight for Philly, the Eastern Service Workers Association, members of the Chicago teachers’ union, the Restaurant Opportunities Center, the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, Philadelphia poet laureate Sonia Sanchez and several musical performers (most notably, perhaps, Pittsburgh-based Mike Stout and the Human Union Band who noted at one point: “One thing that’ll make you rock is solidarity.”) Similar gatherings took place around the rest of the country, too; some of which were an obvious spawn of the Occupy Movement. Though in some places, protests didn’t go as quite as peacefully as here. This morning it was reported that Seattle police arrested 18 people in the northwestern city after peaceful rallies turned violent overnight.

“We’re going to have to organize, and fight—and I think it’s going to be in the streets,” said Chris Hoeppner, a mechanic who builds SEPTA rail cars in South Philly. “We need a massive government-funded public works program to put millions of workers back to work. We can rebuild the bridges, the roads, the crumbling infrastructure. We can do that.”

Hoeppner, whose at-length interview with PW will be published later, was one of several little-known candidates on hand to promote their campaigns for various offices. He said he plans to run for City Controller on the Socialist Workers Party ticket in November and his candidacy will be about organizing a socialist revolution on the streets of Philadelphia, come November.

Others, like many potential politicians running for traffic court, handed out fliers promoting themselves, and most were running for office as Democrats.

For his own part, Moran told Philadelphia Weekly he was ready for a new party to step out.

“The same is true in every state and every city, we’re flung in 50 different directions,” he said. “There needs to be a singular [labor] issue if possible. Something like national healthcare, for example. It has to be a common denominator for all working people. It’s not just about who pays union dues—it never was. The union is this spur and this spark-plug. Nothing moves forward without coalition building. We need to align ourselves with the community, community organizations, the churches, everybody. That’s the only way we’re going to win anything.”

Moran, who often rallied alongside the Green Party ticket this fall, said he believes there needs not just to be a new labor movement—but a revitalization of the Labor Party.

“Our legislative track record isn’t really that strong, although we’ve beaten off some horrible attacks,” he continued. “We should withhold money from our usual candidates and put that money into grassroots campaigns—for real. And guess what? It would be a lot easier to organize people in the unions after that.”

Reviving the Labor Party, he said, would take withholding donations to major parties—if only for a short period of time—to show them what that might mean for their finances and fundraising efforts.

“Democrats and Republicans are controlled by the same masters, so they need a lesson … The power of labor is not how much money you can give politicians but how much money you can withhold from politicians. That’s really where to start. Put a one-year moratorium on donations to candidates. Watch what happens.”

Follow Randy on Twitter: @RandyLoBasso

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