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Pro-union demonstrators rally at Los Angeles City Hall

February 26, 2011 |  3:08 pm

A boisterous crowd of pro-union demonstrators gathered on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall on Saturday, loudly voicing support for unionized workers in Wisconsin and expressing concern that the perennially forceful labor movement in California could one day face a similar crisis.

“If it can happen in Wisconsin, it can happen anywhere,” said Pasquale Gazillo, a merchant marine and member of the Marine Firemen’s Union, referring to Wisconsin’s long history as a union stronghold. “States like that, they’re the ones that started the eight-hour work day and made sure workers got paid if they got sick. The Republicans are pushing and if that state falls, the rest of the country is going to be in trouble. This could set workers in this country back 100 years, even more.”

For roughly two weeks, Wisconsin protesters and politicians have been in a standoff over the governor's proposal to strip most public employees of their collective bargaining rights. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker says the state is broke and must make drastic spending cuts. Unions say Republican leaders are trying to wipe them out.

The pro-union demonstration in Los Angeles was one of many held throughout the nation Saturday.

Among those in attendance was retired Teamster Larry McKinney, who spoke of how thankful he was to have had a long career laying pipe and helping build public infrastructure in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Describing himself as “working class,” he said that because he was a union member, he and his wife were able to raise two children and enjoy retirement without too much worry.

McKinney said unions in Wisconsin had compromised enough, and he faulted the governor for refusing to negotiate over collective bargaining rights. “This governor is trying to take away rights that people fought for 60 years ago, and in one swift move,” he said. “He’s just going to trash rights that people bled for? Come on, that’s not right.”

McKinney scanned the crowd, which appeared to be about 2,000 people, and predicted that the battle in Wisconsin could end up being positive for labor. “I think this is going to help the union cause,” he said. “It’s firing people up. If politicians can treat people in a union this way, imagine how they would treat other people without the protection of a union.”

Such hope was a commonly heard theme. Many expressed confidence that the public would end up siding with labor despite concerns that union benefits weigh on government coffers.

“If you want to solve the budget problems, you don’t do it on the backs of working people. You start with taxing the rich,” said Irene Gonzalez, a Los Angeles County probation officer. She said she had just returned from two days of protests at the Wisconsin state house, an experience that filled her with pride. The local labor movement should worry, she said, because California’s massive budget deficit could mean that union rights will eventually be attacked.

“It is going to come to us,” she said. “People need to wake up. If they don’t wake up, by the time they do it is going to be too late. So that is why we are here.” 

-- Kurt Streeter