Updated 04/09/11 – 6:02 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) – Thousands of union workers gathered at Daley Plaza on Saturday in a show of solidarity for union colleagues in Wisconsin, where the governor and Republican lawmakers have passed legislation severely limiting their collective bargaining rights.
Among the crowd were hundreds of hotel housekeepers and teachers from across the state who had rallied outside the Hyatt Regency Chicago earlier in the day. They were protesting the billionaire Pritzker family, which owns the Hyatt hotel chain.
Police estimated a crowd between 5,000 and 6,000 people at Daley Plaza. But organizers say as many as 10,000 people from across the state attended.
LISTEN: Newsradio 780′s Mary Frances Bragiel Reports
Union workers claim the Pritzker family has been trying to take away the collective bargaining rights of workers at its hotels and has supported proposed legislation to weaken teachers’ unions in Illinois.
The rally at Daley Plaza was one of more than a dozen “We Are One” events that have been held this week across the state, in cities such as Bloomington, Peoria, Champaign and Carbondale.
Demonstrators chanted “This is what democracy looks like” and “What’s disgusting? Union busting” as they crowded into Daley Plaza Saturday afternoon until the plaza was filled to every corner.
As CBS 2′s Mike Puccinelli reports, the events were part of a nationwide movement to mark the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
King was in Memphis, Tenn., supporting a black municipal sanitation workers strike on April 4, 1968, when he was shot to death on a hotel balcony.
Bill Lucy was with King back then and said that, in some sense, King is still with him today.
“This movement will grow and grow and grow; and at the core of it, it’s strength will be the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” Lucy said.
Union members said that spirit lives on in the fight for workers’ rights.
“Unions are the best thing people have to protect their standard of living and without them, then the corporations just take more and more and more. There’s a race to the bottom,” Roberta Wood said. “The only protection we have is to stick together and you’ve got to have a union for that.”
Some also said getting rid of unions would erode the middle class.
“It was the unions that gave America the middle class and we won the right to collectively bargain and we are not going to go backwards,” Fran Sampson, of Oak Park, said.
That’s why the thousands gathered in Daley Plaza said that the fight which began in Wisconsin must be finished in Illinois and the other 48 states.
The union rallies in Illinois this week were meant as a show solidarity with state employees in Wisconsin, where recent legislation stripped state union workers of most of their collective bargaining rights.
Wisconsin state Sen. Chris Larson spent three weeks on a friend’s air mattress in Chicago hiding out with other Dairy State Democratic legislators hoping to kill the legislation by their absence. He will be here to warn workers that similar legislation is headed for their states.
“Illinois may be the next state they go after,” Larson said. “In Indiana and Michigan, things like this are happening. In Iowa, Democrats have a two-seat majority in the state Senate. That’s the only reason it’s not happening there.
Republicans who have long wanted to attack unions are seizing upon the national economic downturn to introduce legislation in state capitals around the country drafted by the corporate-funded, conservative American Legislative Exchange Council cutting back on unionized workers’ rights to bargain collectively, Larson said.
“They say, ‘We should get rid of unions and blame the budget dilemma on them’ — it’s pretty obvious when you see the exact same legislation cropping up everywhere,” Larson said
Wisconsin Republicans eventually realized they could pass the bill without Democratic votes. Gov. Scott Walker signed the bill, saying the Wisconsin’s fiscal crisis demanded sacrifice from unionized workers. But the bill has stalled in the courts.
Democrats thought they scored a victory this week when voters replaced a Republican judge on the state Supreme Court with a Democrat. But then Thursday a Republican court clerk in Brookfield found 7,000 Republican votes she had overlooked, reversing the results of that election. State election officials are investigating.
(TM and © Copyright 2010 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS Radio and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press and the Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.)