Holding their fists high in solidarity, more than 100 frontline workers gathered at Philadelphia City Hall on Monday, on a day off for many, to rally for pandemic protections as the coronavirus continues to add strain and safety concerns to their jobs.
The Labor Day crowd ranged in profession from sanitation workers to mail delivery people, nurses, librarians, university faculty, and city educators, but they had one message: Workers in Philadelphia need PPE, hazard pay, and an end to layoffs and cuts to city services.
“This Labor Day, this 2020, should remind us that it’s not a day to sit home, to have a cookout with family, but it is a day for struggle,” said Keon Liberato of Teamsters Local 3012, which represents workers who build and repair railroads. “And 2020 has told us more than ever that we need to come together for struggle.”
The rally came on a holiday when the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the inequities faced by essential workers, unemployment stands at 8.4%, and many employees in public-facing positions in Philadelphia and beyond say they are frustrated with their workplace conditions.
”They want to call us heroes, but what they really meant was martyrs,” said Marty Harrison, a nurse at Temple University Hospital and member of the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP). Speaking to the crowd, Harrison recounted the struggle of the medical staff to find adequate protective equipment while battling the worst of the city’s coronavirus outbreak in April.
“Because when all it would take to save our lives is the proper PPE, that’s not being a hero, that’s being a martyr, and it’s not what any of us signed up for,” she said.
Members of Temple University’s faculty union, meanwhile, expressed frustration with the school’s choice to open for in-person learning, only to reverse course two weeks later and move to virtual classes after the coronavirus swept through campus, infecting more than 300 students and at least one employee.
Max Avener, who teaches math at Temple, called the decision “crystal clear,” adding that it was “not about prioritizing learning or about prioritizing students, it was about prioritizing money.”
Employee protections are “about respect, or lack of respect,” said Frank Halbherr of AFSCME Local 1637, which represents city workers. “Day after day, we feel like we’re walking through mud … but our legs are strong, our shoulders are broad, and we’ll keep fighting for the respect the working class deserves.”
Through his Eagles face mask, Terrill Haigler — a city sanitation worker known on social media as “Ya Fav Trashman” — cheered with the crowd as a garbage truck rumbled past the demonstration, blasting its horn in solidarity.
Last month, he conducted a social media campaign that received national attention, selling T-shirts to raise $32,000 for PPE and cleaning supplies for the city’s sanitation department amid shortages of such items and trash pickup delays. Eyeing the group at City Hall on Monday, Haigler said he found hope in the number of people who showed their support for the city’s frontline workers.
“This lets me know that we’re fighting a really good fight,” he said. “And the more people we get involved, the more people that we can mobilize, and the closer we get to our demands.”