Public workers: Take back America for working people

2893.jpgSAN FRANCISCO — It was clear from the starting gavel: the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees convention here, July 28-Aug. 1, would be about reclaiming America for working people after eight years of the Bush administration.

From the opening remarks of Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas and California Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, through the keynote speeches of AFSCME’s President Gerald McEntee and Secretary-Treasurer William Lucy, and the many union activists who described their struggles in vivid terms, nearly 6,000 delegates, alternates and guests were signaling their determination to turn their country from a course of enriching the few at the expense of the many and draining lives and resources in Iraq while imperiling democracy, public services and livelihoods at home.

The urgency of electing Barack Obama president in November was a major theme in the convention’s opening days.

Obama “has earned the [Democratic Party] nomination; now it is our turn,” McEntee told the first plenary session. “Obama is a fighter on our issues,” he said. “I have never seen an election more clear: We can elect John McCain and have four more years” of the Bush administration’s destructive policies, “or we can elect Obama. Our challenge is to take back America for working people.”

While calling Afghanistan “the real war,” McEntee decried the Iraq war’s enormous cost in lives and money. “The position of our union is to bring the troops home, care for them, and use the funds for services at home,” he said.

Said Lucy, “Forty years after the struggle of sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., 40 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, 40 years after the assassination of Robert Kennedy, this union embraces the candidacy of a man by the name of Barack Obama — young enough to hope, with faith enough to dream, with vision to change this nation.”

Calling Obama’s nomination “a monumental event,” Lucy said it must be understood in the context of the centuries-long struggles to overcome slavery, lynchings and Jim Crow and to win civil rights.

McEntee told the delegates AFSCME is proud of the work it did for Hillary Clinton, whom the union endorsed during the primaries. “We now have a Democratic Party nominee,” he said, “and this union will be his biggest, strongest supporter.”

Clinton is to address the convention on July 31, as will Obama by satellite.

Many speakers, including AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt-Baker, also stressed the urgency of electing a Congress with even greater commitment to issues vital to ordinary Americans.

The union is announcing plans to field “a powerful army” of 40,000 activists to win victories for pro-worker candidates at all levels of government.

AFSCME’s new slogan, “We make America happen,” reflects the enormous range of public sector work performed by its 1.4 million members, from child care to nursing, from legal services to sanitation and maintenance work.

A thread running through many discussions was the urgency of passing the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) to assure the right of workers to join a union.

Citing AFSCME’s organizing of 145,000 workers since its 2006 convention, McEntee told the delegates of union members around the country who have won new organizing and bargaining rights and first contracts.

Another major theme was upholding and expanding public services and fighting back against the far right’s drive for privatization.

“Public service has been defined by many as a true reflection and extension of democracy,” Lucy told the crowd. “Our responsibility goes beyond quick fixes and political gimmicks,” he said. “Our responsibility is building and maintaining a nation.”

In their presentations to the convention and in interviews, convention participants also told of the struggles they are waging to uphold workers’ rights in their communities.

Anna Montalvo, president of AFSCME Local 1522 in Bridgeport, Conn., described the local’s victorious fightback against the local school board’s attempt to lay off 102 workers, of whom 87 were AFSCME school workers — math assistants, library assistants and special education van drivers — during a budget crisis. The union mobilized the support of parents, students, community members and members of other unions. In the end, Montalvo said, nearly all the jobs were saved.

“The union is not just about what we do on the job, but what we do with the community,” she said.

At one of the many convention booths, Glenda Washington and Beverly Pope-Smith, home care workers and members of AFSCME Local 389 in New York City, were collecting signatures petitioning Congress to end the exemption of home care workers from receiving overtime pay. “Home care workers are employees,” the petition says. “They work. They require overtime pay to supplement their inadequate incomes. Change the law now.”