AFL-CIO 24th Convention: Resolve against the storm

LAS VEGAS – The the labor movement in Las Vegas has won some very tough battles to make it a union town, with probably one of the highest union membership densities in the country.

Labor in Las Vegas has its work cut out for it, though. Las Vegas is among the cities, outside of New York, hardest hit by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. As of Dec. 3, when the AFL-CIO Convention was held here, over 15,000 union culinary workers in the city had been laid off.

The convention was an important step forward. From the opening session, there was steely resolve to fight the storm of corporate and right-wing attacks on labor.

As you entered the convention space, you immediately saw a wall display honoring the hundreds of union members killed in the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Even at this great distance from the scene of those brutal attacks, people had begun to place flowers and other memorial tributes to the fallen workers and their families.

The convention opened with a tribute to those workers and poignant praise for the many thousands of union workers and families who rallied in the crisis. From firefighters, police and rescue workers, to the medical workers, to the hundreds of thousands who collected relief funds, all were recognized for their heroic response.

The convention’s theme was “America’s Workers: Heroes Every Day.”

The overall mood was perhaps best illustrated in the remarks of Harold A. Schaitberger, international president of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). In helping to present an award to the New York IAFF locals, Schaitberger blasted New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the right wing in Congress.

Schaitberger struck a deep chord in the hall when he condemned phony praise and tears that didn’t include action for those hard-hit by the crisis.

“We watched for weeks as Republican Senators tripped over each other to pay homage to our fire fighters for their bravery and heroism,” Schaitberger said. “Then they turned their back and opposed a bill that would provide our members the right to bargain collectively and we will hold them accountable.”

Another theme that ran throughout the convention was deepening labor unity and pride in the diversity of the working class. On the weekend before the convention, the AFL-CIO held its largest ever Conference on Human and Civil Rights.

It laid out a fighting program including an intensified campaign for immigrant rights, voter rights, against racial profiling and other acts of racism. Special attention was given to anti-Muslim and anti-Arab racism in the wake of Sept. 11.

The conference also highlighted new developments in the fight for women’s rights, the rights of youth, gays and lesbians and the disabled.

While it did not emerge in a big public way, war and peace issues ran all the way through the convention. One delegate characterized it as a “latent anti-war sentiment.” There was obvious unease with the direction of the Bush administrations “war on terrorism.”

Many delegates privately acknowledged the connection between Bush’s war on workers and his administration’s war in Afghanistan. Delegates pointed out that the right wing in Congress found money for corporate bailouts and for the war on terrorism, but couldn’t find any money for medical and unemployment benefits, or for prescription drug benefits.

An important sign of the changes taking place in the AFL-CIO came around the issue of support for Bush’s military action. It has been fairly unprecedented for a floor challenge to be made on a resolution presented by the AFL-CIO’s Executive Council. Yet an amendment was presented to change the wording of a resolution, “In Support of American Troops.”

The resolution expressed common concern for the safety and welfare of “many of our members or their family members (who) are members of the United States armed services.” David Winters of the musicians union offered an amendment to strike the phrase, “fully support our country’s just use of military force.”

He got applause when he said that he suspected all actions of the Bush administration and feared the military action was related to the global economy. While the amendment was defeated, there was a substantial vote in favor of it.

One highlight of the convention was a speech by Jesse Jackson. He reminded the convention that the civil rights movement and the labor movement did not win their historic battles with faxes and e-mails. He called for action in the streets against the all-out attack on labor and its allies.

Jackson got a thunderous ovation when he called for a labor-led March on Washington. He said, “It’s labor’s time to go back to Washington ... Today, labor, we must act. We must go back into the streets again.”

Of the many resolutions passed, five stand out. The first is a powerful continuation of the fight to organize the unorganized and build a larger, more powerful labor movement. It acknowledges the many difficulties and shortcomings, but puts forward a steely determination to reverse the decline in union membership.

Another strongly worded resolution attacked the Bush administration’s efforts to undermine civil liberties in the wake of Sept. 11.

A third resolution highlighted labor’s political action in 2002. It launched a project, “Target 5000,” aimed at doubling the number of union members elected to public office in the next election cycles.

Two other resolutions put forward important stands for preserving the manufacturing base and manufacturing jobs and for fighting corporate globalization.

John Sweeney, Linda Chavez-Thompson and Richard Trumka were unanimously re-elected to the top leadership positions. The convention also amended the AFL-CIO constitution to have conventions every four years instead of every two.

At the convention you got a real overall sense of the ferocious corporate and right-wing attack on the labor movement in the wake of Sept. 11 and in the midst of a terrible economic crisis for working families. The convention clearly realized that the Bush administration and the ultraright in Congress are using the horror of the terrorist attacks to wrap their narrow agenda in the flag. The convention showed a determined and tough resolve to fight back.

Scott Marshall is chair of the CPUSA’s Labor Commission. Scott can be e-mailed at scott@rednet.org