BAL HARBOR, Fla. – “The jobs crisis has become a national disaster,” said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. And during this crisis, “George Bush has been AWOL,” he added.

Sweeney spoke at the federation’s annual winter conference here March 9. “Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao will not be attending,” he told reporters. “If this administration had a secretary of labor, we would have invited him or her,” he said sarcastically, “but instead we have two secretaries of commerce.” Chao is notoriously anti-labor.

About 400,000 American workers were able to join or form unions last year, Sweeney reported. But with 2.3 million manufacturing jobs lost, union membership has not kept up and “our hard challenge has been made harder.”

Nevertheless, the labor movement is unified and determined to defeat George Bush.

“Workers have held the line on employers’ efforts to shift rising health care costs to workers recently” at GE, in hotel negotiations, in auto, steel, rubber and for some part-time workers like janitors, said AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka. He confirmed that health care remains at the top of the labor movement’s bargaining agenda. Trumka lauded the grocery workers of Southern California as heroes in this struggle.

According to Trumka, the health care crisis cannot be solved at the bargaining table: “The solution must be national and legislative.”

Trumka also reported on a lawsuit the federation is launching against the city of Miami for the “unprecedented violence and repression” anti-FTAA demonstrators encountered in that city’s streets here last November.

Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson introduced Working America, a new organization for working people that will take in workers who don’t have the benefit of a union on the job. “Working people in America are hungry for ways to have their voices heard,” she said. Canvassers for Working America go door-to-door in working-class communities to inform and mobilize. They generate petitions and letters on issues such as jobs and health care. The new organization has already garnered 100,000 members, said Chavez-Thompson.

This year, the first day of the Executive Board meeting coincided with International Women’s Day. Unwilling to let the occasion pass unmarked, the vivacious executive VP organized an informal gathering of the growing cadre of women labor activists in evidence at this meeting – from fellow Executive Board members and heads of state federations to support staff and secretaries. Labor veterans accustomed to limited female participation were warmed by the size of the remarkably diverse group, which spanned several generations, that gathered in Chavez-Thompson’s hotel suite. Some union sisters kicked off their shoes, others sat on the floor. All raised a glass in a toast to each other, sisters around the world and the struggles ahead. A tradition was born.

The author can be reached at rwood@pww.org.

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