TWIN CITIES, Minn. – “If the election is lost today, we’ll still grieve for Paul and the movement. We’ll have to collect ourselves. Someone will rise up and we will rebuild. The energy today will help through the process, “St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly President Sharyle Knutsen told the World Nov. 5.

At the St. Paul Labor Assembly hall hundreds gathered on Election Day, gobbling bratwurst before getting door-knocking get-out-the-vote assignments. The daylong stream of volunteers included mothers with children, retirees, students, American Indian, Black, white, Asian and Latino.

At the Minneapolis Central Labor Union Council the same day, a homemaker told the World,” I just had to be here today. Paul stood up for us!”

As Needletrades and Textile Employees (UNITE) members from Ohio and Illinois prepared to go out to help people get to the polls, UNITE Northern District Joint Board Manager Jane Palmbach explained, “Why are we here? We’re here for health care for all, for education for all. No matter what the outcome we have to continue the fight the day after.”

Herald Ugles, a rank-and-file member of International Longshore Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 19 in Seattle, who came here to work on the senate campaign, said, “These elections are a wake-up call. Not just for labor, for all the working class and all the disenfranchised, minorities and poor, the homeless. Our voice is important if we want change.”

The labor movement was the heart and soul of the grassroots mobilizing in many of the key election races here this fall. Cental labor council and local union offices in the Twin Cities became the nerve centers for activists from college campuses, the Sierra Club, National Organization for Women (NOW) and many community groups that formed the base of the Wellstone senate campaign. They showed what people-powered politics was all about.

Though Republicans scored big, the experiences in this historic election will be the foundation for the ongoing struggles to curb the right’s drive on Capitol Hill.

The elections here provided some valuable lessons in grassroots democracy in the post-Sept. 11 reality. Although the Republicans won the highly charged race for the Senate seat formerly held by Paul Wellstone, who was tragically killed with family and campaign workers just before the elections, Minnesota politics will never be the same. The state had the highest voter turnout in the country. A coalition of labor and people’s politics was mobilized by Wellstone’s history and vision, though overpowered by a massive right-wing/corporate spending spree and frenzied manipulation of war and terrorism issues. “We’ve had a well-laid plan built to last,” Todd Anderson, AFL-CIO national representative in Minnesota, told the World before the elections. “The biggest challenge we’ll face if we end up with a loss will be convincing everyone that we can do it and that this is a flash in the pan for our opponents. That’s a moral challenge.”

The AFL-CIO’s Labor 2002 campaign mobilized unions around the country to send rank-and-file volunteers to counter the year long drive by the White House and right-wing Republicans to defeat Wellstone. Steelworker, machinist, textile, public employee and communications unions sent teams.

The four longshore workers sent by the ILWU embodied labor’s slogan, “Solidarity forever.” Locked out of their jobs for nearly two weeks, and facing Bush administration union-busting, they came to defend Wellstone, labor’s voice in the senate, aware that who controls the Senate would directly affect their contract negotiations. Labor is not a “special interest,” Tom Jacobsen, president of ILWU Local 27 from Port Angeles, Wash., told the World. “No, we are for all the working families.”

Door-knocking the Sunday before Election Day, the longshore workers came upon a man working in his yard who asked if electing Mondale would make a difference, commenting that electing Democrats hadn’t made much difference in the past. The workers replied that, yes, it could, but not if people only came out on Election Day. Neighborhoods, people at the grassroots, need to reclaim democracy in everyday life to solve everyday problems, they agreed.

Longshoreman Ugles said on election night, “It’s our social responsibilty to be involved with community issues. Coming here has changed my life.” He continued,” We’ve been living with uncertainty because of the contract negotiations. We suspended negotiations until the elections are over. We just want to work with a decent contract. So we’ll go home, and if the Republicans win we’ll regroup, but the battle will go on. I’m a changed person. This experience has opened my eyes on a lot of things. As Paul Wellstone said, ‘Politics is what we create by what we do, what we hope for, and what we dare to imagine.’”

The author can be reached at jleblanc@pww.org

PDF version of ‘Campaign energy will continue in Minnesota’

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