NILES — Holding signs that read "Stop the attack on the middle class" and "We are Wisconsin," a group of about 100 people gathered at Veterans Memorial in Riverfront Park Tuesday afternoon to protest what they call anti-union bills being proposed in Republican-led states.
"It’s not just Wisconsin and Michigan, it’s Indiana, Ohio, New Jersey, Maine and Washington," said Chris Wegner, financial secretary of United Steelworkers Local 13729, which comprises Niles Utilities Department personnel and employees of the Niles Street Department.
"It’s happening in the northern tier (of the country) — any state that has gone to Republican control. This is an orchestrated effort to destroy unions."
The theme of the rally — "Saving the American Dream" — was to bolster pride for unions, oppose legislation that could weaken them and detail the importance they believe unions still play in keeping America’s middle class strong. About a half-dozen people took turns speaking to the impassioned crowd.
Brent Curry, president of the USW Local 13729, cried out for people to buy American.
"This is a great time in America for union people to come together," Curry said. "We are the American worker. Sometimes they talk about us like we’re foreign. We’ve been out here a long time to keep decent wages. ... We do what we can to make sure that Americans still make an honest wage."
Curry added that cutting wages and putting people out of work will only make the situation worse.
Dan Vanden Heede, a Niles city councilman and teacher, said that for some reason blame has been shifted from Wall Street to the unions in America. He said attacking public workers will only go to weaken community’s public services and cut their budgets.
Vanden Heede said Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder is proposing to eliminate $1.8 billion in business taxes, and shift the debt to public workers and their pensions.
"Gov. Snyder doesn’t understand," Vanden Heede said. "His budget is a loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars and a 10-percent cut to our schools. All that to eliminate the Michigan business tax."
He called for the rich to start paying more, which ignited chants of "tax the rich" and "save the dream," from supporters.
"Every day out of Lansing there are attacks on the middle class and the unions," added Pat Furner, the union’s Michigan Education Association UniServ director. Furner said unions are the reasons people work five-day weeks, have vacations and are provided security in their jobs.
"When unions are strong, so is the middle class," he said. "When unions are weak, so is the middle class."
Furner said there have been 40 anti-union bills introduced in Michigan since January, adding: "They will drive our battered state into the ground."
No opposing viewpoints were offered during the roughly 40-minute event.
Staff writer Tom Moor: