Protesters rally for workers, civil rights

BY SARAH BULMER | APRIL 05, 2011 7:20 AM

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Greg and Jean Thompson stood on an elevated platform in front of a crowd adorned with scarves, hats, and picket signs on the wind-blown Pedestrian Mall Monday.

Greg Thompson wrote the song “Empty Houses” when the Maytag factory in Newton closed down on Oct. 26, 2007, and he and Jean Thompson sang the tune for the ralliers.

“Hang onto your retirement, folks, it’s going to be rough from here on out,” Greg Thompson said as he strummed on his acoustic guitar.

Ralliers gathered on the Ped Mall to garner support for labor unions, bargaining rights, and civil rights as part of the NAACP’s We Are One campaign.

“We’re trying to get everybody on the same page, to talk and meet each other,” said Mark Goldfarb, an activist for We Are One, a campaign to raise awareness of human rights. “I’m doing this for fair pay and workers’ rights.”

People held signs reading “Workers’ rights are human rights” and “Stop the war on the working class” as they listened to protesters talk about their concerns with distrust for the government, and recent union efforts in the Midwest.

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The rally is part of a nationwide effort to promote human rights in conjunction with Monday’s anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

“I just wanted to come out, and meet with people, and show some solidarity,” said University of Iowa graduate Jamie Kearny, a paralegal for a local law firm.

Since the Wisconsin Legislature and Gov. Scott Walker eliminated public unions’ bargaining rights early last month, Kearny has been to Madison three times to help the cause.

“[The legislation in Wisconsin] was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Goldfarb said.

He thinks students and citizens are now more concerned with their rights than ever before, he said.

“We put these people in office, and they should be representing us. We have that common goal,” said UI graduate student Joe Fassler, an organizer of the event.

One concern protesters brought up during the rally was people tend to overlook issues that don’t directly apply to them.

“It’s really easy to be divested of the experiences that people are going through in locked-out positions,” said Rod Perdue, a member of the Iowa City School District union, the Service Employees International Union. “We cannot distinguish what part we play in this. We come from backgrounds where we don’t even question how are monetary status works.”

Labor unions have undergone recent scrutiny by multinational corporations and members of the GOP.

“At the current moment, a lot of labor unions have become obsolete,” said John Twillmann, the UI chapter head for the Johnson County Republicans. “They were created at a time when [workers] were fighting for workers’ rights and competitive wages.”

Twillmann said “protests and things like that are great,” but he is unsure how much control these unions have over their industries.

But for Fassler, the importance of public involvement overrides those concerns.

“If you can’t strike, what can you do?” he said.

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