BOSTON – 5,000 public workers gathered here for the 39th convention of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees are in a fighting mood – a mood they displayed frequently on day two of their assembly.
The mere mention from the podium of the names of the two Republican senators from Maine, for example, triggered a chorus of boos and jeers. They were angry about the fact that Sens. Collins and Snowe, often touted as more moderate than other Republicans, had marched in lockstep with GOPers blocking an up or down vote on a jobs bill backed by unions.
The bill the senators filibustered would end tax breaks for companies that outsource jobs, cut working-and-middle class taxes, extend unemployment insurance for millions and help states like Maine avoid job-killing budget cuts.
The union is beyond just anger, however. Even as convention business was conducted Tuesday, AFSCME was raking Snowe and Collins over the coals in a TV ad blitz paid for by the union itself and Americans United for Change.
“And those ads are being watched by people here in Massachusetts so let them be a warning to Scott Brown,” AFSCME president Gerald McEntee said to thunderous applause. Brown is the Republican senator from Massachusetts who, in a special election, took the seat vacated by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.
The union’s determination to be a force in the political arena extends well beyond an interest in Senate and House seats. Among union activists on the convention floor was Ron Green, the political action director for AFSCME Local 3634, California Council 36. He said his local had successfully worked to elect a “real friend of labor” to the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors. “What a difference it makes to have someone plugging for, rather than against us in the halls of government,” he said.
Anger and determination turned into a joyous welcome when, to the words and music of Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was introduced.
He told the crowd how, “with the loss of 11 million jobs in this recession, public service jobs are needed now more than ever. We will not stand for right-wing calls to slash those jobs and abandon the millions who need help in the crisis.”
Trumka condemned “politicians and pundits who try to make public service workers out to be fat cats.” He blasted “the billionaire Mort Zuckerman who calls public service workers a ‘new privileged class.’ If you are privileged, what then are the Mort Zuckermans,” Trumka asked. “They must be the aristocracy. Well I thought we got rid of the aristocracy years ago, but I think, if we have to, we will get rid of them again.”
“Only the Tea Party and talk show hosts are stupid enough to think that people become public service workers to get rich,” Trumka said. “Most people know you don’t see hedge fund managers and CEOs looking to become social workers, hospital workers or bridge and tunnel operators. A person becomes a public worker not to get rich, but to build a better America.” The crowd, some with tears in their eyes, cheered.
The loudest and most sustained applause came when the leader of the nation’s largest labor federation declared: “The labor movement shall not allow public employees, minorities and immigrants to be turned against one another and used as scapegoats in a crisis created by corporate criminals. We won’t back down against the mad dog Republicans, the party of “no.” And we won’t back down against Blue Dog Democrats in the party of “well, maybe.”
Among many resolutions adopted Tuesday were ones calling for training and mentoring programs to bring women and youth into leadership positions in the union.
Carmen Charles of District Council 37, who was on the floor, was recently elected president of the Coalition of Labor Union Women. “We need to support women, educate women and women need to be leading this union,” she said. Sixty percent of the delegates at the convention are women.
AFSCME members under 35 have set up “New Wave” caucuses in locals and councils across the country.
Elvis Agria, one of the New Wavers, was on the convention floor showing a retiree how to set up a Facebook account on his laptop.
“We young people have a strong commitment to social justice and we bring that commitment and other talents to the union,” he said. Touching the retiree he was helping, he said, “But I have to tell you, we stand on the shoulders of giants like him.”