WASHINGTON — “The destruction of manufacturing in this country is a crime,” charged John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO. “And the criminals are still walking around. They should be locked up.”

Sweeney’s remarks summed up the fighting-mad mood of hundreds of union “citizen lobbyists” here May 9-10 for the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Council’s annual legislative conference. Large contingents of union activists from the United Steelworkers (newly merged USWA and PACE unions), the Machinists union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Sheetmetal Workers union, UNITE HERE and the IBEW electrical workers participated.

The conference provided workshops and plenary sessions dealing with critical issues facing industrial workers: Bush’s plans to privatize Social Security and the corporate attack on pensions and health care; the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA); and the Employee Free Choice Act, which would restore basic union rights to organize.

Richard Trumka, chairman of the IUC, drew repeated applause and cheers from the spirited conference when he decried George Bush’s “corporate agenda.” He ridiculed the far-right notion that the market is “the answer to all our problems.” He noted that for big business, “government is bad, but instead we get a noxious brew of free trade, privatization, deregulation, and attacks on labor and human rights.” Trumka called it a “complete corporate package,” which, he said, “needs to be torn down and replaced with the America we all believe in. It’s time we take back the country we built together.”

Inspired and charged up with information from the workshops, conference delegates fanned out across the Capitol to meet with members of Congress on the second day of the conference. By noon, the House and Senate cafeterias were loaded with union members back from meetings with their congressional representatives, swapping stories and experiences. Looking around the cafeteria in the Cannon House Office Building, a steelworker remarked, “They sure can’t miss the fact that we’re here.” The room was jammed with union T-shirts and anti-CAFTA signs.

After the lobbying, union members rushed out to a Capitol Hill press conference and rally against CAFTA. Six Democratic House members, including Mike Michaud (Maine), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), and Linda Sanchez (Calif.), joined Trumka, Leo Gerard, president of the Steelworkers, Bruce Raynor, president of UNITE HERE, and hundreds of union members for the event.

Shon Jones, former president of USW Local 4-0836 in Orange, Texas, told the rally that NAFTA had resulted in his plant being shipped to Mexico. He said it destroyed his town because the plant was one of its largest employers. He described what happened to a good friend. He was unable to find full-time work with benefits. With no health insurance, he worked at construction, even with some serious health problems. Then at age 41, he was struck down by a heart attack. NAFTA took his job, and possibly his life, Jones said. “With proper health care he might still be alive,” he remarked.

The rally also featured several union leaders from the Dominican Republic and other countries included in the CAFTA negotiations. Ignacio Hernandez, a leader of the Dominican Federation of Free Trade Zone Workers union, said CAFTA will only serve the transnational corporations and sink Dominican workers into even greater poverty. He said that CAFTA will sharply reduce workers’ rights and allow the transnationals even greater freedom to bully workers.

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