LAS VEGAS — Over 3,000 Steelworker delegates filled the Las Vegas Bally Hotel convention center last week with raring-to-go enthusiasm for “taking back America for working people” in the 2008 elections. One delegate described it as more like a strike vote than a convention. “The membership is fired up and ready to go. We don’t have to be rallied by the leadership, they just need to turn us loose and tell us where to be,” she said.
Declaring that “there is no evil that has inflicted more pain and suffering than the evil of racism in our country,” Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, brought the United Steelworkers of America (USW) delegates to their feet in thunderous applause when he told them, “We have a special responsibility to fight this evil. Not by calling anyone racist, but by educating those who won’t vote for Barack Obama because he is Black.”
Trumka told the delegates that they have to ask their neighbors, friends and fellow workers who say they won’t vote for Obama because he is Black: “Do you want to end the war in Iraq? Do you want universal health care for all? Do you want to pass the Employee Free Choice Act and guarantee the right to organize? Do you want four more years of Bush policies that have moved 3.4 million jobs offshore and ruined our economy? Do you want to continue higher gas prices?”
Trumka echoed the fighting spirit of the delegates by concluding, “We are not afraid to fight. We are ready to fight.”
The mood of the convention was clear from the response of the delegates to the opening keynote by USW President Leo Gerard.
Speaking of the last eight years of vicious Bush administration attacks on labor, Gerard said, “We need to fight. We need to be willing to fight.” This was greeted by a thunderous standing ovation.
“Make no mistake,” Gerard declared, “Impoverished workers in the developing world are as much our brothers and sisters as the men and women who brought our union to life. Our adversaries call this global scheme of worker exploitation ‘free trade’. Let us call it what it is — union-busting on steroids. And our response has to be clear: ‘We’ve had enough and we’re not taking that crap anymore’.” Again, a long, loud standing ovation.
“We can make history by working and voting for Barack Obama. Obama — who time and again has said he’ll push for the Employee Free Choice Act. Obama — who’ll go to bat for universal health care that lowers costs. Obama — who’s got a plan to revitalize manufacturing. So, sisters and brothers — there’s a real choice this time around. We can have real change by shooting for the stars. Or we can shoot ourselves in the foot and get four more years of Bush’s assault on working people with John McCain.” Again, a thunderous standing ovation.
Delegates at the mikes and in the hallways made clear the fighting spirit that shaped this convention.
Speakers from the floor told stories of plant occupations and sit-down strikes in Canada. They too were met with standing ovations.
The convention made history in many ways.
It ratified and established the first trans-Atlantic union by merging the USW with the UK’s 2 million-member Unite the Union to found the Workers Uniting union.
The delegates voted unanimously to seat Carol Landry, the first woman, ever, on the international executive board, as a vice president.
To gear up for fights ahead, delegates voted to increase dues to build a mighty war chest for their strike and defense fund.
Some might be tempted to describe this convention as union leaders preaching to the choir. But a better description would be union leaders listening to their mobilized and fired up army of activists ready to pour into the streets to fight and to win.