POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

Top Democrats convene to show support for unions ahead of Labor Day

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

The Southern New Jersey AFL-CIO‘s 124th annual breakfast honored Peter McGuire, the founder of Labor Day. It brought together some of the state’s top Democrats and gave us a chance to observe Gov. Phil Murphy and Senate President Steve Sweeney together.

From their body language, you wouldn’t have known there was any friction between the two. And yet, political insiders will tell you the hard feelings between them are real and troublesome for the state. There wasn’t a hint of that in public, however, as each man went out of his way to praise the other.

“I’m incredibly proud of the work that we’ve accomplished already in the first seven-plus months of our administration. In many cases, we have done so working with legislative leadership, and as such, I want to give a particular shout-out to state Senate President Steve Sweeney. So, Steve, thank you for your cooperation,” Murphy said.

Sweeney returned the compliment, saying “elections matter.”

“We were fortunate enough to elect Gov. Phil Murphy last year. We moved more legislation in seven months than we could move in eight years to protect working [people] — equal pay to women’s health, to unemployment for striking workers. Think about that, unemployment for workers when they’re on strike. Give that man a round of applause, please,” Sweeney said.

The breakfast was held at the Scottish Rite Auditorium in Collingswood. Peter McGuire founded the carpenter’s union, co-founded the American Federation of Labor and lived nearby in Camden.

“He was probably better known for his work in achieving the eight-hour workday. He led that labor movement in the late 1880s and 1890s. Until then, people worked 10-, 11-, 12-hour days. And as the leader of the AFL and carpenter’s union, he pushed to have the eight hour day established as the standard workday,” said Robert Shinn, treasurer of the Camden County Historical Society.

The speeches Friday were all about labor solidarity. The Democrats who serve in Washington took their swipes at President Donald Trump.

“In the White House we have a president who believes that being wealthy is the same as being worthy. Someone who campaigned like a populist, but governs like a corporate elitist,” Sen. Bob Menendez said.

“What better way to celebrate the American worker than to remove their 2.5 percent raise for the year. That’s what Donald Trump announced yesterday,” Rep. Donald Norcross said. “The raise for federal workers, he’s putting a halt on. Why? Because we can’t afford it. So let me get this — you give a trillion away to the top 1 percent people, and you cut the pay of the public workers that need that 2 percent raise.”

And in case you missed that.

“What Donald Trump has done in the stage that he has set since being here, has been the most anti-worker president in the history of the United States. He’s literally the anti-Christ to workers,” Norcross said.

State Department of Labor Commissioner Rob Asaro-Angelo reeled off a list of pro-worker policies the administration has implemented.

“I know everyone in this room is as proud as I am that New Jersey is fast on its way to becoming a national model on progressive worker protections and worker empowering policies. Thank you Gov. Murphy, Senate President Sweeney for making New Jersey a leader in these efforts. And thanks to Sen. Menendez, Congressman Norcross for being leaders in Congress,” said Asaro-Angelo.

The group then adjourned to the Peter McGuire Memorial in nearby Pennsauken to lay a wreath.

“Every Labor Day since 1906, there has been a wreath laying at the grave site,” Shinn said. “Since the 1950s, after they built a memorial, which includes a statue of him and a colonnade, the wreath laying has taken place at the memorial, just near the grave site.”

They say that when McGuire was buried in 1906, 2,000 unionists from Philadelphia marched across the bridge to be here. That kind of camaraderie is what some in the Democratic Party hope breaks out between Murphy and Sweeney.