ST. LOUIS — Seventy-five percent of Change to Win’s $16 million budget will be earmarked for union organizing, delegates to the labor federation’s founding convention decided here Sept. 27. The affiliating unions are the Service Employees, Teamsters, Carpenters, Laborers, Food and Commercial Workers, Farmworkers, and Unite Here, which takes in hotel, apparel, laundry and casino workers. All but the Laborers and Farmworkers have disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO in recent months.

The almost 500 delegates, chosen by the leaders of the seven unions that make up the new federation, adopted a constitution at the one-day convention. The constitution established a 10-member Leadership Council made up of the heads of the unions plus three seats set aside to strengthen race and gender diversity. Meeting at a break in the convention proceedings, the union heads elected Anna Burger, secretary treasurer of SEIU, as chair of CtW and Edgar Romney, executive vice president of Unite Here, as its secretary treasurer. Burger, Romney and Geralyn Lutty, international vice president of the UFCW, will hold the council’s diversity seats.

Convention speeches emphasized the deteriorating conditions of American workers and put the blame on the sharp decline in union density. “One in four Americans went to work in a job today where they earn a poverty wage,” said Unite Here President Bruce Raynor, “and real wages are lower than in 1973.”

But, Burger said, “Unions are the antidote to everything that ails us in America.”

A succession of organizing campaigns and rank-and-file workers were showcased throughout the day. Cintas laundry workers, Wal-Mart employees, DHL delivery drivers, First Student school bus drivers, Tyson poultry workers, and hotel workers all received a hero’s welcome and pledges of support.

Mirna Blanco is one of 6,000 janitors employed in Houston by one of the five nationwide building cleaning companies that operate there. She works every night in a four-hour shift cleaning 30 offices, two hallways and 29 bathrooms, for twenty bucks. Blanco described how the pledge of Teamsters in Chicago to honor the workers’ picket line at the company’s Chicago buildings forced the company to settle their strike.

“Strategic coordinating committees” in the principal industries in which affiliates represent workers — health care, transportation, retail and construction — will coordinate industry bargaining campaigns and define areas of jurisdiction for CtW. A “Strategic Organizing Center” will provide what the organization calls “venture capital” for multi-union comprehensive campaigns.

Union members from the Gulf region took the floor to describe the help they had received from their unions in the days after Hurricane Katrina. Dina Benoit, a UPS driver in Gulfport, Miss., said that with the destruction of family members’ homes, she went from supporting two to a family of 30. “Right after the storm I didn’t hear from the government, I didn’t hear from my employer, but the union called right away to see if I was alright and to ask what they could do to help,” she said.

The Mississippi/Alabama Carpenters union has fed 40,000 people through its training center, said Michael Lemay. “Every time I looked up, there came an 18-wheeler driven by a Teamster volunteer loaded with goods collected by union members.”

James Hoffa, Teamsters president, pledged that CtW would create “the greatest worker training program in U.S. history” for the people of the Gulf region. “The Teamsters will train truck drivers, SEIU will train health care workers, the Carpenters will train construction workers, the Laborers HazMat [hazardous material] handlers, and Unite Here hotel and casino workers,” he said.

Unite Here’s John Wilhelm declared that support for the restoration of Davis-Bacon prevailing wage requirements for federal contracts in the Gulf Coast region should be a litmus test for support for any elected official.

The constitution provides for regional alliances, but Raynor said that those provisions would only be implemented if efforts to maintain current state and central labor federations, which include both CtW and AFL-CIO local affiliates, do not succeed.

Delegates and leaders were sharp in taking on what Burger called “giant corporations who salute no flag but their own corporate logo, and who worship no god but the almighty dollar.” These corporations, she said, have destroyed the American dream and replaced it with “the American nightmare.”

However, Andy Stern, who is widely regarded as the driving force behind the break of the seven unions with the AFL-CIO in July, made it clear in a session with reporters that he regards “class struggle“ unionism as outdated. “We need to partner with business and with government,” he said. This is a time when “America’s economic leadership [in the world] is being tested.”

Some observers noted that issues frequently emphasized at other union gatherings such as the threat of Social Security privatization, the minimum wage, the Supreme Court nominations and even George Bush himself got little more than passing reference.

Unlike the recent AFL-CIO convention, no resolution on the war on Iraq came to the convention floor. Burger told reporters it would probably be dealt with at a future meeting.