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Labor Day marchers push for workers’ rights

CHARLOTTE, N.C. Several hundred union members, drummers and step teams marched from Pearl Street Park to Marshall Park Monday morning, chanting slogans in support of workers’ rights in Charlotte’s Labor Day parade.

Turnout was lower than usual, organizers said, as security restrictions kept all vehicles out of the march. Sparse crowds lined the parade route, and marchers spent much of the hourlong parade walking beside 8-foot-high security barricades.

“It cut it in half,” organizer Ben Lee said of the effect the Democratic National Convention’s security had on the parade. “No vehicles, no Razzles the Clown on a unicycle.”

Marchers still danced and kept up a steady drumbeat, chanting pro-union and pro-Obama slogans. The march ended in Marshall Park at 11 a.m., where protesters with the Occupy Charlotte movement mingled with union members.

Union members in the march said they hoped the parade during the DNC would highlight North Carolina’s status as the nation’s least unionized state, and spur greater pushes to organize labor.

“It gives us a good presence,” said Robert Cook, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 342. The Pilot Mountain native said he hoped North Carolinians would become more receptive to unions.

“We are not the enemy,” he said. “We don’t just fight for our rights. We fight for all the workers’ rights.”

Doug Stroud, a retired IBEW member from Santa Rosa, Calif., said the parade should remind everyone at the DNC that workers’ rights were “won with union blood.”

There has been tension between the Democrats and organized labor over the choice of Charlotte as the convention site, since most of the city’s workers aren’t unionized. Unions said they wouldn’t support the convention financially, as they have in years past, and wouldn’t make as strong a show of support.

Several of the groups in the march were representing farm and agricultural workers, two prominent groups in North Carolina’s labor force. The United Food and Commercial Workers union, representing workers at a Smithfield Packing Company plant in Tar Heel, marched wearing “UFCW For Obama” T-shirts.

Members of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee said they were at the parade to bring attention to their campaign to unionize tobacco workers who work in fields that supply Winston-Salem-based R.J. Reynolds.

“We want to tell the Democrats, President Obama, that farm workers are the backbone of this country,” said Raul Jimenez, of Goldsboro. He said farm laborers, many of whom are Mexicans in North Carolina on temporary work visas, typically work long hours under harsh conditions for as little as $5 an hour – conditions he believes unions could help change.

Most of the spectators clapped and cheered, showing support for the union marchers. Matt Savage, a UFCW organizer and Safeway worker from California, waved at his fellow UFCW members behind a barricade along McDowell Street.

Savage, who’s at the convention as a guest of the UFCW, said he was inspired to see organized labor marching in North Carolina.

“It’s important that labor’s active everywhere, that we not give up territory,” he said.

Portillo: 704-358-5041 On Twitter @ESPortillo
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