WASHINGTON -- Hundreds of thousands of union members and their supporters descended on Washington yesterday to demand that President Bush and Congress pay more attention to domestic affairs.
The demonstrators -- who came by train, plane and bus from across the country -- gathered for a rally near the Washington Monument and the Ellipse behind the White House, then marched, chanting and singing, on the Capitol.
U.S. Park Police estimated the crowd at 250,000. The AFL-CIO, citing figures from the mayor's office, said there were 325,000.
They merged into a sea of color, bright T-shirts bearing union emblems and slogans, and hats identifying the various groups.
Placards on sticks bobbed above the procession like the crests of waves. Their messages included calls for reform in health care, education and civil rights.
Amid the throng were Bill Lewis of Baltimore and Cheryl Farris of Ontario, Calif., who have carried on a transcontinental romance -- one or the other flying cross-country every three weeks -- for more than a year. Yesterday, they dedicated their weekend together to organized labor.
The couple, members of the Communications Workers of America, were among the 1,000 or so people who took a special 12-car train from Baltimore's Camden Station to Washington for Solidarity Day '91.
Nearly 200 civil rights, religious and environmental groups marched beside the unions, asserting that they have the same concerns. Vietnamese women in traditional silky, flower-patterned costumes and young Chinese dragon dancers added an exotic flavor.
There were advocates of other, unrelated causes, too. One group of demonstrators held a sign reading: "Impeach Bush, Free LaRouche," a reference to imprisoned political extremist Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr. Others carried signs opposing the nomination of federal Judge Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.
Scores of unions represented a wide variety of crafts and trades, but their theme was unity: "United we can do it; proud to be union." Entertainers led by Willie Nelson sang it, and marchers chanted it.
Mr. Lewis, 40, executive vice president of Local 2336 in Washington, D.C., said he attended the first Solidarity Day rally in 1981. Yesterday's appeared to be bigger, he said, adding, "It was our opportunity to make a statement for labor."
Among the union members' chief grievances is the lack of a national health-care plan. "Too many people need medical care and don't have insurance," said Ms. Farris, a member of Communications Workers Local 9588 in Colton, Calif.
"We're here to insist that democratic government -- the White House, the Congress and the courts -- must assure fair play for all, not just for those with the most money, the most luck or the strongest bootstraps," said Lane Kirkland, president of the 14.2 million-member AFL-CIO, the principal organizer of Solidarity Day.
"We're here to remind our elected representatives that they were put there to serve not the faceless marketplace but the aspirations of real people," Mr. Kirkland said.
Organized labor, which has seen its membership tumble by more than 6 million over the past decade, wanted a noisy show of force to remind politicians, with an election year coming up, that the U.S. union movement is still going.
With temperatures in the 90s and high humidity, ambulances ministered to the fallen, but the demonstrators' energy didn't seem to be diminished.
Charles P. Buttiglieri, executive vice president of Communications Workers Local 2101, who arranged for the train from Baltimore, said Solidarity Day was "a shot in the arm for union members."
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and City Councilman John A. Schaefer, D-1st, who have been endorsed for re-election by the AFL-CIO, appeared on the platform.
Mr. Schmoke said later, "The same policies that are causing so much pain for working people are affecting the cities, so we're going to have our own march on Washington in October."
Armeta Dixon, executive secretary of Local 1199E of the Service Employees International Union, said, "Things have not improved significantly in the last 10 years. Some of the folks we send to Washington should know we are displeased.
"My primary gripe is that we live in the richest nation in the world and there are people who work every day but can't afford health care."
Although industry is suffering, she said, the number of service employees is increasing, which offers new opportunities for union activity.
At the Washington Monument, Irene Dandridge, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said yesterday's demonstration appeared to be larger, "and more urgently so," than the last one in 1981.
In 1981, Ms. Dandridge said, the Reagan era was just beginning, "but things have degenerated on the domestic agenda faster since then -- health care and education, for example -- and we teachers are helping to call the attention of the president and Congress to them."
"We're struggling to keep our health plan, but many people don't have that," said Loretta Waltemeyer, a service representative for Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. and a Communications Workers shop steward. "This is going to rejuvenate me; I like union crowds."
Ms. Waltemeyer said none of her five children has a union job and that "they're struggling." A veteran of the 1981 Solidarity Day rally, she said, "I'm wiser now. The last time was more fun; this is serious."
Reports of the demise of the labor movement are exaggerated, said Susan Lynch of Towson, a member of Local 277 of the Office and Professional Employees International Union. "We're here to make a statement that unionism is strong. We're here as one."