DETROIT – The United Auto Workers Special Bargaining Convention, held here last week, was like nothing this reporter has attended before. The March 22-24 event was three days of preparing the union to do battle with, and defeat, extremist Republicans and Wall Street. The goal of building broad unity within the working class movement and with all its allies to fight to save our nation was front and center.
That was reflected in the union’s invitation to Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, head of Green for All, to address the convention. Introducing her, UAW President Bob King said the union is now a “proud member” of the labor-environmental Blue-Green Alliance.
In an earlier era, the UAW had sided with U.S. auto corporations in opposing higher fuel-efficiency requirements for cars and trucks, with the idea that any curb on the companies would hurt autoworkers. But that outlook has changed.
Ellis-Lamkins quickly won over the 1,200 delegates and guests here, saying, “We both fight for good clean jobs. There is no better movement to be a part of.” And she brought the house down when she declared, “This room is filled with heroes and heroines. People who believe this country is for all.”
To deafening applause she continued, “When you return home after the convention and people ask what you were doing, answer: ‘I was saving our country.’ This is a revolution to keep our country. You are not alone. Organizations like ours are with you.”
Reacting to her remarks, UAW Local 963 President Mike McComb, from Adrian, Mich., said he is a strong supporter of clean manufacturing. He pointed to Ohio Governor John Kasich’s refusal to accept federal funds for high-speed rail. That’s “insane,” McComb said. “It’s missing the boat, it’s so obvious.”
A presentation on nonviolent direct action by activist Lisa Fithian was an indication that union leaders are looking at a variety of tactics to meet today’s challenges. Recalling the 1936-37 Flint, Mich., sit-down strikers, King said, “This is how the UAW was won. If we don’t build a mass street movement, we will hand our children a world that is not as good.”
Delegates rose to their feet again and again during a talk by actor and activist Danny Glover. Receiving the UAW’s social justice award, Glover said, “The economic paradigm has failed us. We need a new vision of humanity. Whatever we call it, it is being built by workers in Wisconsin and Indiana.”
Developing global solidarity is increasingly see as important to the survival of this union – and every other union. The UAW is moving quickly on this front.
UAW Secretary-Treasurer Dennis Williams said the union has established a Global Organizing Institute. The goal is to focus on one transnational company’s disrespect for global human rights in this country and abroad. Williams said interns from other countries have been in the U.S., talking to workers at unorganized “transplant” companies here, and learning the tools to organize autoworkers in their respective countries.
The interns have come from India, Australia, South Korea, Japan, China and other countries. Interestingly, while talking to workers here, they were surprised to learn the steep challenges U.S. workers face in organizing unions.
Chidambaram Sai Prasad, from India, told delegates, “This is not the idea of America that we had. We thought that America is a free country and that people had rights.”
Another focus at the conference was solidarity with public sector workers. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten gave a moving defense of public workers under attack by Republicans here in Michigan and in other states.
Weingarten warned that Republicans are “hoping people will be so demoralized they won’t go to the polls” in 2012.
That happened in November 2010, said Lew Moye, a retired Chrysler worker who is president of the St. Louis chapter of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. But now, he said, “Everybody is ready for the 2012 elections. Now is the time. We lost some members in 2010 to the Republicans. We’ve started the process to bring them back home.”
Radio and TV host Ed Schultz told cheering delegates, “If they can turn you all into cheap labor, they will put up the banner: ‘Mission Accomplished.’ We can’t let them do it.”
Fittingly, the convention did not adjourn until delegates marched to the downtown Detroit office of Bank of America. Chanting “Money for schools, not for banks. We pay taxes, why don’t you?” the 1,000-plus crowd temporarily shut down the bank.
“We didn’t cause this crisis but we are the ones being attacked” said Tiffany Bush, a UAW Local 1781 member who works at Blue Care Network in Southfield, Mich. Bank of America should “pay taxes like everybody else,” she said.
As the convention delegates headed to the bank, UAW workers from Wisconsin marched in front. Mike Godlewski, vice president of UAW Local 75 in Milwaukee, said, “The more solidarity between unions, the better chance we have to save collective bargaining for everybody.” He said he was “fired up,” ready to “spread the word” about the convention’s proceedings.
That summed up the spirit here as delegates headed home.
Photo: UAW delegates march to the Bank of America office in downtown Detroit, March 24. PW/John Rummel
Corrected 3/31/11: An earlier version of this article had an incrrect name for Blue Care Network in Southfield, Mich.