WASHINGTON – Mother Jones, the legendary labor agitator, made an unexpected appearance May 2 at the “Women of Steel” election conference here aimed at ousting George W. Bush from the White House next Nov. 2.
Peering over her spectacles and wagging her finger at the 500 labor union women in the Omni-Shoreham Hotel ballroom, she exclaimed, “I’m not here to be a humanitarian. I’m here to be a hell-raiser.”
Actually, it was Sharon Stiller, assistant to the president of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) and first woman to sit on the union’s executive board. She was dressed up as Mary Harris Jones, the Irish-born “Miners’ Angel,” the spirit of fightback for exploited workers in the early decades of the last century.
Clearly, the crowd was in a hell-raising mood. Most delegates wore lapel buttons calling on voters to dump Bush. They applauded every call for his removal.
Present were members of the USWA and the Nashville-based Paperworkers, Allied Industrial, Chemical and Energy (PACE) workers. The participants, about 90 percent women, are active in local “Rapid Response Teams” set up by the two unions across the nation to mobilize phone calls and visits to lawmakers in support of labor’s legislative agenda. Both unions see these Capitol Hill skirmishes as vital to getting out the vote in the battle in November.
At a Monday news briefing, women leaders of the Rapid Response Teams said they would be lobbying on Capitol Hill for an agenda that includes the Kennedy-Miller “Right to Choose” bill to make it easier to organize a union, an increase in the minimum wage, and a “Healthcare Bill of Rights.”
Liz Bettinger, associate legislative director of PACE, said her union has found the Rapid Response Team is the best mechanism for communicating with the membership.
Workshops during the three-day conference trained the delegates in how to organize teams in locals that don’t have them.
Anne Kurtek, a member of the PACE Local 2-719 Rapid Response Team at a plastics factory near Minersville, Pa., said they mobilized an outpouring of phone calls to Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) last winter demanding that he vote to block Bush administration plans to strip 8 million workers of overtime pay.
“His switchboard was so jammed, the receptionist gave us the senator’s personal phone line,” she said.
Sue Duffy, president of PACE Local 2-719, said the Rapid Response Teams are vital for reaching those who are not yet in unions. Asked about the 2004 elections, she said the removal of Bush “is an absolute necessity.”
“We need to get back to a situation where the president of the United States is working with us and not against us. We need to turn our country around right now!”
In his keynote to the conference, USWA President Leo Gerard noted that single women are among the lowest in voter turnout. Vast numbers don’t vote, he said, because the political system is so unresponsive to their needs. “But the only way to make the system responsive is to vote,” he said.
He decried the outsourcing of 3 million jobs since Bush took office, cutbacks in vital social programs and Bush tax giveaways to what he called “latte drinking, Gucci-shoed, Wall Street pick-pockets.”
The 47 million people without health care, he said, are victims of a “racist, sexist, class biased health system,” adding, “All rich folks have health care. … But a worker can lose his job on Monday and lose his health care on Friday.” The majority of the working poor have no health care at all, he said.
“This is the first president since Herbert Hoover to leave office with fewer jobs than when he took office,” Gerard said. “This is the most important election of our lifetime. … If this gang gets a second term, God help us!”
He added, “We want you to be politically energized after this conference. You will determine the outcome of this election in battleground states. It is going to be close and turnout is crucial. We need more women involved in this election process … more people of color.”
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.