Kicking the political season into high gear, labor leaders and elected officials gathered Monday for the annual Labor Day breakfast, pledging a renewed fight for working families and calling for an increase in the minimum wage.
“Nobody should work full time and still live in poverty,” US Senator Elizabeth Warren said to loud applause before several hundred people at the holiday event, hosted by the Greater Boston Labor Council.
In a series of spirited speeches, Warren and other elected officials vowed to lobby on workers’ behalf, saying that years of stagnant wages and benefits had taken a heavy toll on the working and middle class.
“The game is rigged, and our job is to fight back,” said Warren, a Democrat. “We’re not asking for something special. Just a chance.”
Kyle King, a Burger King employee who last week joined thousands of other fast food workers in a strike for higher pay, said many companies were making hefty profits “on the backs of workers.”
“If you work hard, you should have enough money to pay your bills,” the 45-year-old King, who was featured in a recent Globe article, said to a standing ovation at the Park Plaza Hotel.
The breakfast is considered a key event on Boston’s political calendar, a chance for candidates to court the labor vote and demonstrate their union bona fides. The crowded mayoral race in Boston gave the event a campaign buzz, with the preliminary election just three weeks away,
Martin J. Walsh, a candidate for Boston mayor who won the labor council’s endorsement, described himself as a “son of labor,” and said the labor movement over the past century had been a powerful force for “positive change, equality, and progress.”
“Let us never forget what organized labor has done,” he said as other candidates worked the room. “Labor stands for the 40-hour work week and worker rights and safety, whether you drive a truck, teach a student, clean a room, or sit at a desk.”
In a hall filled with “Walsh for Mayor” signs, the crowd chanted “Marty, Marty” as he was introduced. A host of other mayoral and City Council candidates attended the event.
Walsh said he would work to improve public schools and listed comprehensive ethics reform as a strong priority.
“I seek a Boston where people can trust City Hall, knowing that their elected leaders and top appointed officials are making decisions without ethical conflicts or hidden agendas,” he told the crowd.
While several mayoral candidates attended the breakfast, Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley held a separate breakfast Monday to release a broad economic plan that, among other goals, would seek to close the employment gap between white and minority workers. Conley called for an minimum wage increase, a commitment to job training, and improved city schools.
The achievement gap between white and minority students has been “nothing short of a moral disgrace,” he told the gathering, according to his campaign.
“When I’m mayor, one of the things you will never again hear is the excuse that kids can’t learn because they’re poor,” he said. “Every child is capable of learning, and education is the means by which we break the bonds of poverty.”
Meanwhile, candidate Charlotte Golar Richie said she would seek to add at least 30,000 jobs in her first term.
“I will make sure that Boston residents receive a fair share of these new jobs, particularly those residents that have been hardest hit over the past several years by the recession,” she said in a statement.
Steven Tolman, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, denounced the growing concentration of wealth and the vast disparity between salaries of executives and average workers.
“It’s unacceptable,” he said. “We have the people power; we just have to use it.”
Tolman and others said they supported raising the state’s minimum wage from $8 an hour to $11 in the coming years. Advocates are seeking to put the issue on the ballot next year to gauge public support.
In a fiery speech, Tolman said labor unions must work to “take back our country that has been hijacked somehow by corporate America.”
Tolman said that while conservatives have castigated unions as the cause of government overspending, organized labor “is part of the solution.”
Democrat Edward J. Markey, a longtime US House member who was elected to the Senate in June, said the minimum wage should be substantially raised and that more workers should be eligible for paid sick leave. He urged the crowd to “make their voice heard” in supporting programs aimed at helping the working and middle classes.
Warren, saying she was sent to Washington to “fight for working families,” said students were “getting crushed by student loans” the government is profiting from.
“That is wrong, and we’re going to fight back,” she said.
In brief remarks on Syria, Warren said she supported President Obama’s decision to seek the support of Congress on a possible military strike against Syria, but worried about the “unintended consequences” of US involvement.
“Our first job is to watch out for the best interests of America,” she said.
The event paused to recognize workers at the Park Plaza, and several speakers recalled the work of labor leaders who “fought the good fight” for working families.
“The untold story of America is the fight for workers’ rights,” said Rich Rogers of the labor council.