KWRU Members and 150 Union Workers Arrested Protesting Layoffs

Tom Boland (
Mon, 18 May 1998 00:10:56 -0700 (PDT)

An Update from the Kensington Welfare Rights Union -
A citywide and statewide organization of the poor
PO Box 50678
Philadelphia, PA  19133


May 16, 1998:

Members of the Kensington Welfare Rights Union stood together with 150 union
workers today as we blocked the Benjamin Franklin Bridge for two hours. We
were protesting with our brothers and sisters at the International Union of
Operating Engineers Local 716, whose members were recently laid-off and
replaced with non-union workers by the Delaware River Port Authority. Every
one of us was arrested at this peaceful protest. Willie Baptist, KWRU
Education Director, Bill Kane, President of the New Jersey Industrial Union
Council, Fran Smith, New Jersey Area Director of the United Auto Workers,
and Bob Brown, the Labor Party's Mid-Atlantic Organizer, were all arrested
along with KWRU and other union members from both Pennsylvania and New
Jersey. This action showed the unity of the employed and unemployed in
opposing the downsizing that is hurting us all.

from the Philadelpia Inquirer:

100 arrested in protest on Ben Franklin

Toll-collector layoffs sparked a march that shut
down the bridge for more than an hour.

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Philadelphia Inquirer
May 17, 1998

More than 100 protesting union workers, waving placards and chanting
slogans, shut down the Benjamin Franklin Bridge for 70 minutes yesterday and
were arrested by dozens of police officers from Philadelphia and Camden.

The demonstrators, who included laborers and auto workers, chemical workers
and toll booth collectors, were denouncing the Delaware River Port
Authority's decision to lay off union employees and hire nonunion, part-time
toll booth operators. For some of them, the arrival of the police was a
tense moment.

"They're going to lock me up?" Bill Kane screamed at union workers and
police officers who gathered at the middle of the closed bridge.

"Well, let them work for it," he said as he plunked down on Lane 6.

Two Camden police officers picked up Kane, president of the New Jersey
Industrial Union Coucil (NJIUC), which organized the protest. They shoved
him into a police van, then hauled another protester by his hands and legs
into the vehicle.  One man, suffering from high-blood pressure, fainted in
the heat and was treated by paramedics, who later took him to Cooper
Hospital-University Medical Center, where he was in stable condition last

The protesters, some of whom had brought along their children, were
transported in a dozen police vehicles to a Delaware River Port Authority
warehouse in Camden, where
they were detained for several hours.  The bridge was shut down between
12:50 and 2 p.m., said Joe Diemer, a spokesman for the authority. He added
that the arrested demonstrators would be charged with obstruction of
traffic. Their cases are due to be heard Tuesday morning in Camden City
Municipal Court.

"Nobody shuts down the bridge without impunity," said Diemer. "We will press
for the maximum penalties."  The immediate reason for the march, organizers
said, was the hiring of part-time, nonunion weekend toll collectors by the
Port Authority. The part-timers were working in place of laid-off union
workers. Port Authority officials cited budgetary reasons for the cutbacks
and part-time hires.

The demonstrators said their protest was also an effort to draw attention to
what they saw as an era of corporate downsizing, when American jobs are
being exported overseas to nations that offer cheap labor and when
blue-collar wages are cut as others reap the benefits of a strong economy.
"Everybody has money to buy a piece of the stock market," said one
demonstrator who declined to be identified. "But not us. We want a piece of
the market, too."  Other protesters marched to show that unions, whose
membership rolls have dropped dramatically in recent years, still had clout,
and were not on their deathbed.  "Unions now represent only 10 percent of
the workforce," Carmen Martino, director for training and education of the
NJIUC, which organized the march, said inside the detention warehouse.

"We have to find new and creative ways of drawing attention to our
struggle," he said. "What the labor movement needs is a wake-up call, and
this is the wake-up call." The seeds of yesterday's protest were planted May
2, when Port Authority officials slashed 18 toll-collecting positions,
partly because of a budget reduction and because they wanted to run the
operation like "a private-sector company," said Diemer.

"Our charge was to run the agency as efficiently as possible," he said. "We
have more people than we needed to operate the tolls with. It's as simple as
that." Of those 18 fired union workers, Diemer said, 11 were offered
different jobs, including a few promotions. The rest were laid off. As far
as he could recall, Diemer said, this was the first layoff of union workers
since the early 1970s.

"The problem is they are taking jobs and giving it to nonunion people," said
Fran Smith, one of the marchers. "If they do this to one worker, let alone
18, every job is in jeopardy." Another reason for the protest, demonstrators
said, was the Port Authority's refusal to negotiate a labor contract. Diemer
said the problem with the contract, which ended in
January 1997, was that the union was unable to get the deal ratified by
members. "If they're saying we won't negotiate, that's just not true," he
said. "The problem is the union leadership. They can't get approval of the
contract from its own members."

The demonstration began at 12:45 p.m., after a rally at a park at Sixth and
Arch Streets in Philadelphia. Many of the protesters carried yellow and
orange placards that read "D.R.P.A is Unfair." Others clutched megaphones
and American flags or wore red, white and blue bandannas. At one point, a
protester yelled: "Let's go to the bridge. We want to do the bridge." The
crowd of about 100 rose up and flowed toward the expressway, and onto three
lanes of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.

Police and Port Authority officials said the marchers were supposed to use
the walkway of the bridge. Protest organizers did not dispute this but said
they decided to march onto the
lanes to draw more attention. The demonstrators walked three-quarters of the
way across the bridge, but stopped when they heard that police were waiting
to arrest them in Camden. "If you walk back, nobody is going to get locked
up," said Kane. "And you get the bridge shut down twice as long."

The protesters turned back and were arrested anyway. Inside the warehouse,
where they were being detained, no one had second thoughts about the march.
"I don't regret it," said Michael Scheiberg, who works at the South Jersey
Labor Council and brought along his 8-year-old daughter, Mariel. "It's a
lesson in real life."

Said Martino: "Man, it felt good to be on top of the bridge."

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