LOS ANGELES — Labor history was made Sept. 30 as the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, held U.S. labor’s first-ever central labor council congress. A thousand rank-and-filers and labor leaders approved a proactive progressive program to elect Kerry-Edwards, pass California Proposition 72 to require major employers to provide health care benefits to workers, initiate an alliance with the county’s 400,000 community college students, and raise a million-dollar strike solidarity action fund.
With the Kerry-Edwards ticket leading in California by 15 points, according to polls, the County Fed voted unanimously to “adopt” the battleground state of Nevada. Union members will use the Fed’s state-of-the-art phone-bank system, and those of affiliates, to reach 60,000 Nevada union voters with a personal pro-Kerry message.
John Edwards, Democratic vice presidential candidate, pledged to Los Angeles hotel workers, “If there is a strike we will not cross your picket lines.”
By satellite transmission, Edwards saluted the federation’s solidarity efforts for janitors, homecare, long shore, transit, and grocery workers. Each of these was a nationally significant strike or organizing drive which beat back union-busting drives with enormous solidarity efforts.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said that Kerry and Edwards deserve labor support for criticizing Bush’s deception in leading the country into war on Iraq and for having “a plan that will create good jobs and stop outsourcing.”
The congress unanimously voted to embark on a bold new project — building an alliance with the 400,000 community college students in the county, most of whom work at least part-time and whose average age is 28. Last year, 175,000 students couldn’t take classes due to high fees, book and tool costs, and unavailable courses. Cheered by 200 student leaders in the hall, the congress voted to campaign to raise business taxes in order to pay for books and tools for the community college students.
Union density is increasing in L.A. County. In the last four years, the L.A. Fed has grown to over 800,000 members in 340 locals. The labor council’s success stems from building unity in action at both leadership and rank-and-file levels and mobilizing public support for political and organizing tasks, said its executive secretary treasurer, Miguel Contreras.
For example, strike solidarity strengthened the alliance with African American clergy. The Justice for Janitors campaigns won the support of the Catholic hierarchy, while the four-month grocery strike won the support of feminist groups.
Contreras stressed, “We demand the politicians we help elect be more than just a good vote … they must be warriors for working people.” He added the $1-million strike fund would be dedicated to mobilizing solidarity and public support.
Rank-and-filers testified how labor unity in action, combined with with political support, drew in allies during recent strikes. African American transit worker Sandra Wyrich told the group, “When we were out (on strike) 32 days, the union and the Fed won the strike. We kept our pensions and health care and I was able to keep supporting my family.” SEIU Justice for Janitors Local 1877 striker Blanca Perez said when she went out, her whole family was on strike — her three sisters, mother, husband and 12 children. “When it got tough, Miguel (Contreras) … raised $400,000 for us in 24 hours and saved our lives.”
The hard, class-struggle facts of life propel the union fightback, UCLA Labor Studies Director Kent Wong said. From 1970 to 1985, Los Angeles’ good-paying union jobs were devastated with the closing of auto, steel, rubber, and aerospace plants, as well as runaway shops. “Thirty years ago, GM was the largest employer, now Wal-Mart is. When 3,000 union jobs recently opened up on the docks, 400,000 applied,” said Wong, noting that the number of poor in L.A. County rose by 366,300 between 1990 and 2000. With the policies of Bush and Gov. Schwarzenegger, Wong said, the 50 wealthiest people in Los Angeles are worth $82 billion, more than the yearly earnings of 2.2 million workers.
“The labor movement is the only hope for those who enjoy a middle class status of living, and for those who aspire to it.” Contreras said.
One longtime labor activist observed that this labor council’s proactive program has made breakthroughs on both local and state levels. “If we defeat Bush with Kerry-Edwards,” he said, “it could be a model to push through a new ‘New Deal.’”
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