Tired of being blamed for the economic crisis, a crowd of 2,500 union members, faith groups, and community allies gathered at Pioneer Courthouse Square April 16 before parading through the streets of downtown Portland with a call for fairness, more jobs, and saving social safety net programs.
“Now this is what democracy looks like,” said featured speaker Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Wisconsin Professional Firefighters Association.
Since his election in January as the first black president of the Firefighters Association in Wisconsin, Mitchell, 33, has been on the front lines fighting the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature’s attacks on public employee collective bargaining rights.
At least a dozen other state legislatures led by Republican governors have followed suit — all under the guise of saving taxpayer money.
“This isn’t about money,” Mitchell said. “This is about an attack on the middle class, and this is about an attack on workers’ rights. We cannot just sit idly by and let that happen.”
Rally supporters believe a massive public works program could be funded and social safety net programs bolstered if only Congress would require major corporations and the very rich to pay their fair share of taxes. Currently the financial industry and large corporations are not paying their fair share. For example, in 2009, Bank of America made $4.4 billion in profit, paid zero in federal income tax and received a $119 million tax credit. In 2010, General Electric (GE) made over $14 billion in profits and along with Exxon Mobil, Bank of America, and other giant corporations, also paid no U.S. income taxes.
In a press release, rally sponsor Jobs with Justice said, “Instead of addressing the real crisis in this country — good jobs — Congress and their corporate allies push cuts in programs that benefit working people like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. While tens of thousands of Oregonians are expected to lose their unemployment benefits, Congress is cutting the safety net.”
Comparing the attack on workers’ rights and the middle class to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Mitchell told the crowd: “It is time for us to regain our moral outrage and our righteous indignation, because we have to take this back. We are in the battle of our lifetime. We can’t wait for somebody to save us. We have to save ourselves.”
Mitchell said it will take time to get the job done, calling it a marathon, not a sprint. “This will not happen overnight. Progress and reform take time,” he said.
With that, Mitchell, Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, and members of nine union locals currently in bargaining, led participants in a 27- block march through downtown Portland, stopping at U.S. Bank (chanting: “The banks got bailed out, we got sold out!”) and the Hilton Hotel, before regathering at Terry Schrunk Plaza for more speeches and chants.
More than 65 organizations co-sponsored the event.