They marched by, union by union. The plumbers. The machinists. The truck drivers. From places like Allentown, Bethlehem and Harrisburg, they came to Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia on Sunday, Day 13 of the NFL strike, to denounce the scab ball game scheduled to take place between the Philadelphia Eagles and Chicago Bears.
Called upon by Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association, especially to shut down this game—"We will haunt the game," Upshaw had threatened—and by Ed Toohey, the 80-year-old president of the Philadelphia Council of the AFL-CIO, the 3,000-plus demonstrators shouted obscenities at fans and occasionally shoved them to the ground. The Philadelphia police department had beefed up its normal contingent for an NFL game at the Vet to an estimated 350 officers. No arrests were made. The lone injury was suffered by a policewoman, whose foot was stepped on by a police horse. In all, 4,074 fans would brave the picket lines to see Chicago defeat Philly 35-3. It was the smallest Eagles home crowd since Oct. 1, 1939.
Well before the one o'clock kickoff, the wide sidewalks along Pattison Avenue in front of the stadium were overflowing with multicolored waves of windbreakers. Glaziers and glassworkers in yellow. Steamfitters in green. Teamsters in navy. Some protesters weren't color coordinated—e.g., Waiters and Waitresses Local 301 and United Aerospace Workers Local 1069. Some pickets carried the Stars and Stripes.
John Spagnola, the Eagles player rep, wanted a peaceful demonstration. "We are not here to intimidate anyone who chooses not to honor our picket line," he reminded the members of supporting unions. And until midmorning the atmosphere was carnivallike. You'd be surprised at how many players' autographs a picket sign can hold. "I'm going to frame this and put it on the wall in the union hall," said Barbara Gordon of the Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers. "Our coordinator is getting his signed to use in the union paper."
October 11, 1987
But at about 11, the mood of the crowd changed. The Teamsters started walking up and down Pattison Avenue, chanting, "No scabs, no scabs." A convoy of 36 honking semis circled the Vet. More Teamsters. At the stadium entrances, union activists formed human walls. A sheriff read Spagnola an injunction, stating that only 10 pickets could be at each gate. "Please, you're not helping our cause," Spagnola said pleadingly with the group at Gate A. "Move back. If not, the players will be arrested. You'll have to post my bail tomorrow."
But Spagnola's words seemed only to excite the picketers. "All the working people of Philadelphia are out here," said Danny Chmelko, who is with the machinists union. "We'll stay as long as we have to to show the NFL owners that these games are unrealistic. I'll get arrested today, tomorrow, whenever. Some people are bigger than the law—those in the labor movement. We're the ones who produce the goods in this country. We are America."
Spagnola, a 6'4", 242-pound tight end, wore a worried look. "The difficulty is that so many people have been enlisted, I don't know the track records of who's here," he said. "I've told the players to keep their hands in their pockets. In the end, I'm only responsible for my own actions."
At 11:30, the first fan, a young man, tried to cross the Gate A picket line. A middle-aged man wearing a jacket of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees pushed him back. "Scab! Scab!" people in the crowd cried.
"Nobody loves a scab," bellowed one demonstrator, "not even a mother."
Trembling, the young man sought police assistance. "My wife is in there!" he said. "I want to go in."
"Sir, the officers will escort you in there," the policeman said, "but you'll have to endure this."
With that, the fan dashed through a side entrance. "Look at the scab run!" somebody yelled. "He's scared!"
Eight mounted police moved in to part the masses. Two union men refused to move. Spagnola tried to reason with them. "This is our strike," he cried. Finally the pair stood back.
Several Eagles formed a gauntlet, forcing fans to funnel through it to get into the stadium. "Look in the players' eyes, scabs!" a union man said. "You're taking away their money."
The language got rough. And the spitting started. Children were jostled. An elderly couple clung to each other for dear life. Families locked arms for safety. Mace was thrown at the feet of five striking Eagles. Running back Keith Byars and guard Bob Landsee began sneezing. Tears streamed down the cheeks of fullback Michael Haddix.
The union support was more than the players had bargained for. "I knew Philadelphia was a big union town," Haddix said, "but I didn't understand what labor unions were all about. I'll never cross a picket line as long as I live."
Said Spagnola, "I was more nervous here than I've ever been for a game."
Norman Braman, the Eagles owner, was furious. "This was a dark day for the city of Philadelphia," he said. "This is not a factory on Front Street. This is city property. The police, the sheriffs office—there just didn't appear to be any control out there. "
Fans fumed, too. "They spit in my face!" said Jim Moll, an insurance underwriter. "Early in the week, I was going to honor the players' pickets. But when I heard the unions were getting into the act, I decided I wasn't going to let them intimidate me. Now, if there are any more strike games, I'm going to every one. I won't let those Teamster jerks intimidate me."
Even Bears coach Mike Ditka was heard from. "What were those people doing out there?" he said. "This game was going to go on. All they [the demonstrators' trucks] were doing was wasting gas. It's silly. I mean, this is America!"
The Eagles' alternate players suffered more or less in silence. They took a lot of verbal abuse from their coach, Buddy Ryan. "I think we might have the worst bunch of guys together we've ever seen as football players," said Ryan early in the week. "I don't know what anybody has, but I'd trade mine with anybody, sight unseen. I'd trade even-up."
Gosh, on Saturday, Ryan even made his players practice lining up for the national anthem. They were awakened at six on Sunday morning and bused to the Vet to avoid the union rally. They napped on the locker room floor. The Eagles coaches spent Saturday night in the Vet's skyboxes so they wouldn't have to deal with the protesters.
After the game Ryan said he had been outcoached. Hard to believe he would concede that to his archrival, Ditka. But Philly lost because Ryan and his players didn't have their hearts in the game. Tell us. Buddy, will this loss bother you as much as the usual ones do? "No, I don't believe so," said Ryan, who was rather bored with the substitute NFL.
"A bunch of the guys were talking before the game that we hope the strike is over soon," said Kevin Towle, an alternate Eagles punter, "because we're burned out on the whole situation."