From the Labor Commission of the CPUSA, updates, information, news, analysis, and organizing materials in solidarity with workers of the world.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Labor seizes the moment, unites to elect Obama

By John Wojcik, Labor Editor, People's Weekly World

(Editor's Note: John Wojcik is reporting daily from the DNC in Denver, this is the first in a series of articles from John this week)

Author: John Wojcik
People's Weekly World Newspaper, 08/25/08 17:17

DENVER — Two thousand union members, more than half of them delegates to the Democratic National Convention, rallied here Aug. 24 to launch an unprecedented effort by labor to change America this fall. Intended or not, the huge labor gathering served to kick off and set the tone for the entire convention.

In a dramatic show of unity, leaders of the AFL-CIO, the National Education Association (NEA) and Change to Win clasped hands and raised their arms above their heads. The gesture brought down the house as African American, Latino and white members of nearly every union in the country rose to their feet in prolonged applause and began chanting, “O-BA-MA, O-BA-MA!”

The presidential race is the first one since several unions left the AFL-CIO to form the Change to Win coalition. “It’s important to note we are united in our determination to turn around America,” declared AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. “And by united, I mean all of us — the AFL-CIO, the NEA, Change to Win, 17 million members, 28 million potential voters from union households — all of us together. We are united behind two champions of a better America — Barack Obama and Joe Biden — an incredible choice.”

AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker laid out for the labor delegates what she described as their “special responsibility” during and after the Democratic convention.

“As labor delegates,” she said, “we are making sure this week that every single delegate to this convention understands as well as we do that we cannot turn around America unless we restore the free choice of working people to come together in unions and bargain for better wages and benefits and a real voice on the job.”

“Barack Obama gets it,” she declared. “He knows the Employee Free Choice Act is key to rebuilding our middle class and restoring hope to working America.”

Obama is a co-sponsor of the EFCA and has repeatedly pledged to sign it into law.

“Barack Obama has a 98 percent voting record for working families,” Holt Baker said, “while John McCain has a stunning record of voting with President Bush 89 percent of the time.”

Holt Baker, the first African American woman to hold the position of executive vice president of the nation’s largest labor federation, was preceded in that job by Linda Chavez-Thompson who was the highest ranking Latina official in the federation. Chavez-Thompson, now a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, was present at the rally, where she was greeted by hundreds of labor delegates from all over the country.

A unique moment at the rally occurred when retired steelworker Steve Skvara rose to the podium. “Now I know what corporations really fear — us,” he said. The remark brought down the house a second time with the delegates starting a second round of prolonged applause and calling out Obama’s name.

Skvara’s moving account at the AFL-CIO presidential debates in Chicago’s Soldier Field last year of how he and his wife had to choose which of them would get health insurance was viewed on TV by millions of Americans.

“Our feet have got to hit the street to get Barack Obama elected,” he told the cheering crowd.

He was followed by a virtual parade to the podium of leaders of almost every major union in the country, who rallied the crowd with one militant speech after another, bringing the crowds to their feet over and over again. Among them was Leo Gerard, president of the Steelworkers, who said the country needs another New Deal, similar to the one ushered in when FDR was president.

“The message from labor and then the message from this whole convention to the Bush-McCain crowd is that if they even dream about dividing us along lines of race, sex, age, religion, cultural ideas or anything else we are going to wake them up so we can knock them out,” declared Reggie Weaver, president of the NEA. Again, a prolonged standing ovation and a spontaneous chanting session for Obama.

Many of the labor leaders warned delegates that nothing should be taken for granted in this election and that the close polls showed that there are still too many white workers in the unions who are hesitant to back Obama because he is Black.

“If someone tells you they aren’t ready to vote for Obama because of his race, you tell them ‘That’s too bad but this is 2008 and I am ready. America is ready. This is a matter of our economic survival’,” declared Rich Trumka, AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer.

Terry O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers, related how he had just gotten an offer to appear on a right-wing talk show: “The host said, ‘Hey, O’Sullivan, what’s up with all this I hear about you supporting Obama?’ I told him what’s up. Unemployment, prices, gas at the pump, the number of jobs shipped overseas, the death toll of our soldiers in Iraq, the cost of health care, and when the workers win, after Obama is elected, the time for Bush, McCain and all his crowd will be up.” The right-wing pundit, O’Sullivan said, decided against having him on the show.

All the union leaders warned that the labor movement and progressives in general must ready themselves for a bigger-than-ever attack by the right wing.

“After today, what they’ve thrown at us in the last years will only get worse,” declared Gerald McEntee, AFL-CIO political action director. “Bush, Cheney, the corporate crowd, the right wing — they’ve hit us with the kitchen sink and we’ve been tattooed, beaten up, bruised and thrown against the wall. They’re working overtime now to make this campaign about Obama when we know damned well that it’s about us, the people. We can’t let them get away with this. Not this time, not ever again. Labor, the sleeping giant, woke up. Now the giant must stand up and fight like hell.”

The danger the union leaders warned about is already evident. Colorado is among several “swing” states where anti-labor groups have put so-called right-to-work and anti-affirmative-action initiatives on the ballot for the November elections. Labor has organized numerous meetings during this convention week to map out plans to fight the measures. (See related PWW story online soon.)

jwojcik @

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