About 250 union workers and supporters rallied Monday evening on the steps of the Santa Cruz County Courthouse to protest Social Security cuts for Santa Cruz temporary employees and legislation attacking workers' right to collective bargaining in Wisconsin.
Most protesters were from local chapters of labor associations, such as the United Transportation Union, the United Auto Workers, Service Employees International Union, Santa Cruz Fire-Fighters Association, California Teachers' Association and California Federation of Teachers.
“Workers of all kinds are realizing they've been getting a raw deal,” said Phillip Johnston, president of University Professional and Technical Employees Local 9119.
“If we don't stick up now or make a real strong stand, we could lose everything and go back to the days where an employer could dictate that you work 12 or 14 hours a day,” Johnston said.
Added Cheryl Webster, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 234, “Without myself being in a union, living in Santa Cruz County, I couldn't have a living wage."
Chants and songs rang off the cement steps, led through an ear-splitting speaker system.
“Union power's on the rise! Now's the time to o-organize.
No more bosses tricks and lies, give our children better lives!” the crowd sang.
SEIU Local 521, and the California Labor Federation organized the action as part of a national day of protest, held to honor Dr.Martin Luther King Jr., assassinated April 4, 1968, and Cesar Chavez, whose birthday was March 31, 1927.
One member of the crowd, Marjorie Edwin, 90, could remember both leaders and was once a union organizer herself.
“During World War II, I helped organize department store workers in Washington, D.C.,” Edwin said.
After spending 10 days in jail for peace activism, Edwin went to work with an AFL organizer.
“We used to have to meet in a great big, sort of invisible office building downtown, because people were afraid to be seen gathering together locally," she said. "We got the votes of all but five people in the store that were eligible to vote, and then we went on and organized most of the rest of the department stores—so I know what it's like to organize."
Vicky Borba, a bus dispatcher and member of the California School Employees Association, has been in the union for 21 years.
“We've given up at least five or six cost-of -living raises to keep our benefits where they're at," she said. "Our drivers are there because of the benefits, and we wouldn't have those if it wasn't for the union."
Union leaders and activists addressed the crowd between bouts of singing and chanting.
“Right now, it is labor that has the microphone,” said the first speaker, the Rev. Deborah L. Johnson of Inner Light Ministries.
“To a certain extent, we're the front line, and to a certain extent, we're holding the line," she said. "We cannot afford to lose collective bargaining; we cannot afford to let the union busting take place, because we know that if the unions are busted, then the rest of the workers don't stand a chance at all."
At one point, Santa Cruz's Raging Grannies sang a show-tune, “California, You're so Dumb,” to laughter and applause from the crowd.
“Your valleys, your mountains, your rivers and hills, are spacious but gracious, you can't even pay your bills,” went one verse.
Rachel Anne Goodman, district director for state Assemblyman Bill Monning, read a statement by the elected official who represents Santa Cruz.
“The right to build a safe and secure community with access to quality education, health care, jobs with dignity, benefits and security is something we all want. The right to collective bargaining, the freedom of assembly and association, these are fundamental to our Constitution.”
Many elected officials were in attendance, including five county supervisors, John Leopold, Ellen Pirie, Neal Coonerty, Greg Caput and Mark Stone.
Leopold, from the First District, spoke.
“Who's to blame? They want us to believe that it's you to blame,” Leopold said.
“How many of you got those tax cuts for the top 10 percent?" he asked rhetorically. "How many of you engaged in predatory lending practices in low-income neighborhoods? How many of you got bonuses when we had to bail out the banks? And how many of you got bonuses when you were declared to big to fail?” The crowd hissed and booed his verbal barbs.
As the rally preceded into the evening, the speakers turned to local labor issues, somewhat lost in the larger national outcry.
“We have problems right here at home, too,” said Matt Nathanson, SEIU 521 region 2 vice president and a nurse in Santa Cruz County.
“We're entering the third year of severe budget cuts, cuts to services that we all depend on to keep our community whole,” Nathanson said.
He went on to criticize the closure of county libraries and drug and alcohol treatment programs, decreased public day care and overstuffed college classrooms.
Dorris Henry, president of SEIU 521, spoke in the fading moments of the evening, the steps still thronged with protesters. Henry spoke for the 375 temporary workers employed by the city of Santa Cruz each year.
“The city is trying to take them out of the Social Security system and put them in a private program, similar to a 401K,” she said.
“This is not a portable retirement, and they will not be paying into Social Security, giving them a gap in their service years," Henry said. "The city would be removing them from the basic safety net available to every other worker in America.”