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Labor Day 2015 Wages-Infrastructure-Jobs & No Racism

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Jim Smith/ElHiSpano Philadelphia – In inimitable Philadelphia style – accompanied by Step-dancers and Mummers Music – thousands of union workers and their families marked Labor Day, Monday, marching up a sun splashed Columbus Boulevard. Behind upbeat exhortations from Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, Philadelphia Democratic Mayoral candidate Jim Kenney and a host of labor leaders, a large crowd of supporters cheered a message of increased wages and more investment in schools, infrastructure and our transportation system. As longtime members of the Transportation Workers Union (TWU), Ezekiel ‘Zeke’ Hernandez and John Staggs (retired member) spoke to El Hispano of the discontent that has propelled the populist campaign of Bernie Sanders, saying that the policies of both Republican and Democrat politicians have to often seemed to favor the rich and not the working class. Sporting gray TWU t-shirts, Hernandez and Staggs suggested that the nation is hungry for leaders who recognize that labor has “created the wealth of this country,” as a means to address the nation’s growing “economic inequality.” In Monday’s brief remarks and in earlier statements, both Governor Tom Wolf and Mayoral candidate Jim Kenney have consistently called for a significant boost to the minimum wage. “Today, we honor the invaluable contributions of our nation’s working families. These men and women are the backbone of our economy, and their victories lift us all,” said Jim Kenney. “As economic inequality continues to grow, it is more important than ever that we continue the fight for economic justice. If elected Mayor of Philadelphia, I will work to make sure that every worker is treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.” City Councilman David Oh, who has marched every labor day since his election, has frequently joined Councilwoman Maria Quinones Sanchez in seeking to create a fiscal environment in the city that is more attractive to business. In addressing the diminished number of larger businesses in the city, Councilman Oh told El Hispano, “I think that’s critical.” “I think, basically, you can have jobs, but the best jobs, with the best pay and best health care are the bigger corporation jobs.” “Whether it’s in manufacturing high-speed trains or in companies that are technology-based that provide jobs for electricians, or the (construction) of buildings for construction trades,” he added. “And I do work on that all the time.” “Right now, from a labor point of view, I’m focused on municipal unions and how we’re going to deal with ensuring that the pensions are properly funded, and at the same time responsibly funded,” said Mr. Oh. “We (need to) move away from putting the taxpayers in danger. Those are the things on my plate.” He also referred to his focus on women in the workforce, noting that he recently passed legislation offering protections for women who are breast-feeding children at work. We need “to reward our workforce on the basis of merit.” During Monday’s march, John Staggs, a longtime Transport Workers Union member, recalled working “in the 1990s with a Mexican Editor (Aaron Lopez) and his Puerto Rican wife (Sarah Lopez)” who published an award winning Latino newspaper, El Hispano news. While advocating for the rights of Pennsylvania and New Jersey’s farmworkers to unionized and earn decent wages, Mr. Staggs also reminisced on his collaboration with the retired union leader, Luis Tlaseca. Today, Mr. Staggs is again fighting for union representation, this time for Walmart workers, where he is employed as a part-time cashier. As a third-party candidate for City Council looking to raise awareness of the inequities in the economy, Mr. Staggs argues that, “there is money available,” to create jobs. With thousands of pipes, bridges and rail tracks in desperate need of repair, Mr. Staggs contends that federal and local governments need to begin allocating those funds to infrastructure needs in Philadelphia, Reading, Allentown and rural areas: “We should be fixing the city’s water manes, gas lines, and repairing millions of streets that need to be fixed.” Moreover, instead of “closing more schools” or setting up “more Charter schools where you need to win a lottery to get in,” Mr. Staggs agreed with Gov. Wolf in urging passage of a budget that invests in public schools. In addition, the Council candidate suggested the federal, state and local governments need to invest in a “serious mass transportation system, instead of this thing that continues to be cut.” An electrical worker for GBBH, Philadelphia’s major manufacturer of trains and mass transit vehicles, Ezekiel Hernandez agreed with Mr. Staggs on the dearth of investment in mass transit and rail that has resulted in him being “laid off for six months.” From the laborers perspective, Mr. Hernandez suggested that the economic scales are tilted toward the benefit of “the rich and not the working class. We don’t have a voice in the Republican or Democratic parties.” Noting that (GBBH) have worked Septa’s Silver Line and are currently putting the finishing touches on a more than $300 million project for the city of Denver, Mr. Hernandez said, “We only have work for another six months and then we’re out in the cold. We are really struggling right now for work.” Like Mr. Staggs, Mr. Hernandez ruminated on the prospect of electing public officials who would make significant investments in Amtrak and mass transit systems, such as Septa or BARTA in the Berks County: “It’s very important. We win a contract, we have work for another five years.” Among the most vocal workers marching in Monday’s Labor Day march, unionized postal workers hoisted signs of “Don’t Buy Staples” and “Solidarity.” Farmworker organizer Dolores Huerta – a key aide to Cesar Chavez, spoke Monday at a packed union hall for a California Labor Day Breakfast of the Napa-Solano Central Labor Council, and echoed the sentiments of Mr. Hernandez and Mr. Staggs: “Labor people have got to be in power.” Ms. Huerta, who is depicted with Cesar Chavez in a statue displayed at the Ironworkers Local 378 Hall, said the first task is to organize. Get people committed to labor, she said. “We don’t want Republican Lite.” After months of debate over violence against unarmed African-Americans, Ms.Huerta also noted the human race’s common African ancestry, “We are all Africans.” Ms. Huerta then linked the Ku Klux Klan and “you too, Donald Trump,” declaring that, “racism in our society is a cancer.”

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