Springfield—Thousands of union members from Illinois greeted union-busting Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker with an unwelcome protest rally as Walker arrived April 17 to speak to a conference of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, one of the strongest anti-union organizations in Illinois.
Speaking beneath a clear blue sky on a mild spring day, speaker after speaker chastised Walker for his anti-union record, highlighted by the repeal of bargaining rights of teachers and state and local employees.
Colorful signs bobbed up and down in the crowd, proclaiming support for good union wages and pensions. The crowd filled the streets in front of an elevated platform and stretched back several blocks. Police estimated the crowd at between 3,500 and 4,000.
Several unions from Southern Illinois were in the crowd.
Jack Tueth, business manager of IBEW Local 649 in Alton, told the Labor Tribune, the rally was “a thrilling and uplifting event. “
It was one of the most inspiring events he had attended in years. he said.
“My only regret is that more of our members couldn’t attend. Especially our younger members. They need to see something like this to understand the threats that are out there that could affect their families.”
Illinois AFL-CIO President Michael Carrigan told the cheering crowd, “We don’t want Gov. Scott Walker’s extreme anti-worker agenda here in Illinois!”
Carrigan said Walker “has tried to demonize workers instead of asking the wealthy and powerful to pay their fair share of taxes.”
Walker’s education cuts of $1.6 billion are the largest per pupil reduction in the nation and resulted in Wisconsin having the lowest education budget in the 50 states, Carrigan said to a stream of boos from the crowd.
Meanwhile, “Wisconsin ranks dead last in economic growth and last in the nation in private sector job growth. “
Later, Carrigan told the Labor Tribune that anti-union policies adopted in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio are cause for serious concern for working families in Illinois.
Republican members of the legislature have introduced several anti-union bills, he said. One of them passed the House last year, but was stopped in the senate.
Historically, Republican governors and many legislators have been friendly to labor.
But Carrigan said the extreme right-wing Republicans elected in recent years are pursuing anti-union policies promoted by the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and other business interests.
If they should get control of the state legislature and the governor’s office, Illinois will face the same extreme policies unions have encountered in Wisconsin many other states.
Wisconsin AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt gave a fiery speech to the crowd.
“Let’s raise our voices here and let Gov. Walker know that his backward policies are just as unwanted here in Illinois and they are in Wisconsin,” he said, as the crowd roared and shouted, “Recall Walker! Recall Walker.”
Walker is facing a recall election June 5, spurred by a successful petition drive led by unions in response to Walker’s agenda.
Several times in his remarks, Neuenfeldt shouted: “What does Democracy look like?”
To which the crowd responded, “This is what democracy looks like!”
As a riled up crowd shouted and cheered, Neuenfeldt finished his remarks:
“The future of working people, and the essence of our American democracy is what is on the line.
“We have to stand together for a future when every single worker has the fundamental right to be treated with dignity, to put in a hard day’s work and be rewarded fairly…
“Together, we can take back America for the working men and women who built it. Who make it run, who wake it up, and put it to sleep.
“We will never back up or back down! We will always be one day longer and one stronger than those who want to take our rights away!”