At the Democratic National Convention - Unionists talk jobs, health care

BOSTON (PAI) – When he gets to Boston, Richard Martin will discuss health insurance and homeland security.

When she greets her colleagues, Maria Balestri will push for education issues and raise questions about our future course in Iraq.

After his plane lands, Brett Voorhies will talk trade and jobs. And Ann Henkel of Jacksonville, Fla., and Sharon Palmer of Waterford, Conn., will tell Democrats about “teaching to the test” and “flexibility” in the classroom.

What do all these people have in common? They’re all unionists, and they’re all among the hundreds of union members who will be delegates to the Democratic National Convention here, July 26-29.

A few examples: the American Federation of Teachers will send 121 members. Indiana’s group includes 20 union delegates and four alternates, from eight different unions. And 28 fire fighters hail from 19 states.

Joining them will be dozens of steel workers, laborers, UFCW members, SEIU and AFSCME activists, leaders of state federations, and more. There are so many that labor is co-sponsoring its own discussion during the conclave – on trade – on July 27.

The high number of unionists in Boston is no surprise. They were 26 percent of the vote in the 2000 election, and the AFL-CIO has set a target for union families to be 31 percent of the vote this year.

Voorhies, USWA District 7 coordinator from Avon, Ind., an elected delegate, will talk trade and jobs. “They’re committed to us, and he [Kerry] says he would not sign the Free Trade Area of the Americas pact or CAFTA,” the proposed pro-business Central American Free Trade Agreement, Voorhies says.

Martin, of Murphysboro, Ill., brings the perspective of a small-town firefighter – which he is – as president of Local 3042. He also brings perspectives of a parent and school board member.

“Health care and homeland security are huge, for me and for other fire fighters,” he says. Health care costs are up so high Martin’s members had to sign a contract with no pay raise. “I’m on the school board and because of health care, the money is not there,” for the schools, he adds.

Not only that, but older firefighters, whose reactions are slower, don’t retire, because they can’t afford health care. That reduces fire department reliability, Martin worries. And though Bush promised more homeland security after the 9/11 terror attacks, Martin hasn’t seen it – even though 344 New York firefighters died as “first responders” trying to rescue people from the collapsing World Trade Center.

“I was out in Las Vegas for our IAFF convention and Bush promised us all these things on a nice little video – and the next day he vetoed them,” Martin said, referring to Bush budget cuts in first responder money.

For Balestri, a high school history teacher from LaSalle-Peru, Ill., the convention will be part lobbying effort on education issues, and part civics lesson she can use for her students. “I’ll be talking about issues as an educator, and as a parent, too,” Balestri explains.

Health care troubles Balestri, because she saw a contrast. A friend became deathly ill on a recent trip to Denmark and was hospitalized for 10 days there, she says. “Do you know what her bill was? Zero! Denmark has national health care.”

Henkel and Palmer, two veteran teachers, will raise the impact of the Bush regime’s No Child Left Behind law on both teachers and schools. Henkel notes third-grade pass-or-fail achievement tests put incredible pressure on schools and kids. “I had one third-grader, an outstanding student, who woke up in the middle of the night with an anxiety attack over the test,” she says. “I wonder how many of our legislators would pass it.”

Charter schools are another issue that Henkel, a Floridian, will raise. GOP Gov. Jeb Bush pushes them there but with no standards, unlike public schools. “The bottom line for the schools is to fix and fund them,” Palmer said.

Balestri is also concerned about the war in Iraq. “All these experienced men put our sons and daughters in harm’s way – and for what?” she asks. “But the question we have to answer is what will we do now.”