OAKLAND -- "Walk like an Egyptian," read a protest sign held high outside City Hall on Monday.
Several hundred Bay Area union workers and supporters gathered in Frank Ogawa Plaza in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. and in solidarity with embattled unions in Wisconsin.
Organized by the Alameda Labor Council, AFL-CIO, a local "union of unions," the event was peppered with protest signs referring to recent high-profile unions' struggles across the United States as well as populist fighting in countries such as Egypt and Libya. The chant of the day, repeated by almost every speaker, was "We are one."
"The great Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered on this day, 43 years ago" while lending support to striking black sanitation workers, said Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary-treasurer of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO.
"We will not forget what happened that day, and the brothers and sisters who were murdered for standing up for the 8-hour work day, those who came before us and gave us their lives."
She added that as she drove across the Bay Bridge to the protest, she saw the Wisconsin flag hanging from some cranes, upside down.
"The longshoremen rock," she said. "I was told there might be a surprise today, and I got one: Today the longshoremen are not working!"
The crowd roared with applause.
Members of more than two dozen local unions turned out to show support for the Wisconsin unions embroiled in a huge public fight with Republican leaders, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who last month signed a bill strongly reducing bargaining rights for the vast majority of that state's public employees. Walker has said the move is crucial to addressing the state's crippling budget deficit; opponents call that a smoke screen and say the effort is really about union busting.
Oakland leaders were also among the speakers, including Mayor Jean Quan and Councilmember Jane Bruner (North Oakland).
"We learned from Martin Luther King's death that a bullet doesn't stop the movement," Quan said. "We also know that in a city like ours, a job can stop a bullet."
The crowd cheered, though Quan's reception frosted a bit when she acknowledged the coming need for city layoffs, as Oakland is facing devastating budget shortfalls in the coming fiscal year. Quan vowed to work together with the unions to bargain fairly.
Brunner said the Republican actions in Wisconsin "are attacks on working families, and on the Democratic Party. This is a serious budget time, but the only solutions coming out of Republicans is taking away from the poorest people in the country and from the working middle class.
"We know we have to be part of the solution, and workers in the city of Oakland have stepped up," Brunner said. "They have given back, in last two years, 10 percent."
Josie Comacho, one of the event's organizers and executive secretary-treasurer of the Alameda Labor Council, later asked the crowd for a moment of silence to honor Maria del Carmen Rodriguez. The mother of four, who was a housekeeping supervisor at the Oakland Marriott and Unite HERE 2850 vice president, died recently from cancer, Camacho said.
The crowd fell respectfully silent for a few seconds. Camacho thanked them and said, "Carmen just tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Keep the fight up.'"
Similar demonstrations were held across the Bay Area, including in Contra Costa, San Mateo, Solano, and Napa counties.
About 1,000 people "rocked" the Alfred Zampa Memorial Bridge that links Solano and Contra Costa counties.
"The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his life in Memphis, Tenn., standing up for the rights of people," the Rev. David Isom told those who met in the center of the span, also known as the new Carquinez Bridge. "Advocating for the rights of people. And that's what we're doing here today."
Contra Costa County IBEW 302 electrician and Vallejo resident Crystal Lavering said she sees a "paradoxical" anti-labor movement occurring that minimizes the middle class and worsens the economy.
"People take it for granted," Lavering said. "'What do we need a union for?' "
Answering her own rhetorical question, Lavering said unions have earned workers eight-hour days, equal pay for men and women and child labor laws.
The (Vallejo) Times-Herald contributed to this report. Contact Sean Maher at 510-208-6430.