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Labor Day Rallies Draw Advocates and Politicians

Those at holiday events call for better working conditions and vow to fight the recall drive.

September 02, 2003|Tina Daunt, Daniel Hernandez and Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writers

Standing at a makeshift pulpit on a portable stage, union organizer David Sickler peered out over the crowd, like a preacher preparing to lecture the choir.

"Labor Day is our holy day," Sickler told hundreds of longshoremen, Teamsters, teachers and others gathered on Monday for a lunchtime rally at a rambling park in Wilmington. The clergy may be in the business of saving souls, Sickler yelled into the microphone, but the unions are in the business of saving jobs.

"This is like a religion," said Sickler, executive secretary of the State Building and Construction Trades Council.

While many spent the holiday as a day of rest, union advocates, religious leaders and politicians worked the crowds at two major Los Angeles-area rallies. They called for better working conditions for immigrants. They praised labor leaders of the past. They said prayers for working parents, and they vowed to fight against the recall campaign, pledging to stop voters from firing one of labor's biggest supporters, Gov. Gray Davis.

"Unions built America," said a Wilmington rally organizer, Luisa Gratz, president of Local 26 of the Longshoremen's Union. "We're here in pride. Without unions, we would not have free public education or the eight-hour day. We wouldn't have Social Security or minimum wage. We want to protect these things -- to make sure they are there for our children and there for us when we get old."

Just minutes before 10 a.m., a crowd estimated by organizers at 10,000 -- many wearing colorful T-shirts touting their union affiliations -- marched up Avalon Boulevard and over to Wilmington's historic Banning Park, where a three-member band played the blues. Socialists handed out red fliers, calling for union unification. The longshoremen flipped hot dogs on a giant grill, while children scampered through the branches of an old oak tree, which had long ago toppled on its side.

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who is hoping to win the governor's seat in next month's recall election, visited the park about noon, causing a stir. One person asked him for his autograph; others lined up to shake his hand.

Carson Councilman Jim Dear was among the well-wishers.

"Cruz is very open and very willing to listen to our side of the story," Dear said. "We are happy he is here."

Meanwhile, in downtown Los Angeles, Davis stood among several city and state elected officials, along with prominent union leaders who took communion during the first Labor Day Mass at the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

"Your work is sacred, be it that of accountant, cook, waiter, truck driver, janitor, nurse, lawyer, union official, politician, mother, father, student," Bishop Gabino Zavala said in a homily partially delivered in Spanish to approximately 3,000 congregants. "Never forget how important you are by working for the common good."

The bishop received enthusiastic applause when he praised efforts to normalize the status of immigrant workers, particularly through a yet-unsigned bill in the state Legislature that would grant undocumented immigrants access to drivers' licenses.

"In a dark time, I see the persistence of the campaign to expand access to a driver's license for all Californians, regardless of immigration status, so that workers who harvest the food on our table, work in hotels and hospitals and take care of our homes and children can participate in public life," Zavala said.

In an interview, Zavala said the Mass would serve as a symbolic starting point for several upcoming pro-worker events, leading to an Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride to Washington, D.C., and New York City at the end of the month and in early October.

During the Mass, Zavala individually blessed some of the riders who will represent Los Angeles unions in the cross-country bus ride. Worshipers prayed for the passage of the driver's license bill, SB 60, and for resident tuition for immigrant college students.

"This Mass for me is so important," said Silvia Vides, 41, a hotel worker from El Salvador who will participate in the ride. "It's the day of the workers, and the workers work hard. It's a dignified day to celebrate."

Mar Preston, a 58-year-old immigrant from Canada and a labor organizer, said the Mass and upcoming pro-immigrant worker events "really focus attention to the shambles our immigration system is in. I'm part of a whole river of invisible immigrants" with European backgrounds, she added.

"It was made easy for me, and I know it was because of the way I look. Yet it's not that easy for everybody."

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