Labor leaders, politicians and some union members at the "Workers Stand for America" rally drew applause as they portrayed a middle class being squeezed and called for a second "Bill of Rights" that would guarantee full employment and a "living wage," quality education, health care and security in retirement as well as collective bargaining.
"You built the middle class, you're going to continue to build the middle class,' Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., told the crowd. "You help people who are sometimes not even in a union, because you lift all boats when you fight for those rights."
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka drew chants of "Union! Union!" after a fiery speech telling workers that they were "job creators."
"We built this country! We wake it up every day, we make it run and we put it to sleep every night - and it's time that we took it back for the American worker," he said. "Anyone who says America can't afford retirement security, or health care, or decent pay for honest work, or great schools, or a postal service, or cops or firefighters and teachers and nurses, well they don't know what they're talking about and we won't accept their defeatism!"
Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz trained most of her fire on presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his just-announced running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, whose name drew boos from the crowd. She called GOP policies "top-down and backward," and said the Republican ticket would return to what she called the failed policies of previous GOP President George W. Bush.
"As a mother, I believe a child needs an education more than a millionaire needs a tax break," she said.
Members of the crowd, many of them bearing union signs and American flags, began arriving early in the day on buses from surrounding states, and the crowd stretched all the way across from the stage at Eakins Oval on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art made famous in the movie "Rocky."
Prominent labor leaders organized the rally in Philadelphia after what they said was their lack of input into planning for next month's 2012 Democratic Convention in Charlotte, N.C., a state they call decidedly unfriendly to unions and their goals. Many are refusing to contribute money to a convention in a state that bans collective bargaining for teachers and other public workers.
Unions, long a key ally for Democrats, gave $8.3 million toward the 2008 convention in Denver that helped President Barack Obama win the White House, and officials say that longstanding friendship won't change and nor will their support for Obama.
But electrician Warren Becker, 42, of Succasanna, N.J., a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said that while politicians of both parties say they are for working people, "we don't really see that."
"We're losing our middle class, we're losing our footing, and everybody is struggling and it's only getting worse," said Walker, who had an American flag stuck in his backpack. "There's a moneyed class in this country that's always OK, no matter what happens. ... They need to know that we're here, and we need them to fight just as hard for us as they do for the people with money."
Nancy Mathieu, 44, held a balloon animal for one of her sons as she sat among a crowd of red-shirted Communication Workers of America members around a large statue of George Washington far from the stage. Mattieu, a Verizon employee, said it was important for her to bring twin 9-year-olds Nicholas and Jordan down with her from Manhattan to be part of the rally.
"I want them to understand how hard I work and how hard we have to fight to keep what we have," she said as singer Lucinda Williams began a concert on the stage. "When we go on strike, they don't understand it - they see it as I'm on vacation. With this, it makes them feel part of it and helps them feel like 'OK, I'm struggling with my parents.'"