ST. LOUIS - "We represent the workers of this state," Labor Council President Bob Soutier told union leaders and political candidates here at a Labor 2010 Kick-off meeting. "We fight for legislation that protects workers. If we're protecting workers," he added, "we're protecting union members."
The Labor 2010 Kick-off was the first in a series of meetings to be held throughout the state. Organized by the AFL-CIO, Labor 2010 will work directly with union locals to educate and mobilize union members to participate in the upcoming primary and mid-term elections. It will also work with candidates to make sure they understand labor's priorities.
Labor 2010 zone coordinator Bill Otto hit a nerve when he said, "There is a lot of angst out there. People are tired. People are hurting. But we have to bring each other up. We have to bring our region up."
Otto, a retired air traffic controller, knows first-hand about the attacks on workers. His union, the Air Traffic Controllers' Union, was one of the first causalities in a 30-year-long right-wing assault on labor spearheaded by then-President Ronald Reagan.
"Our message is simple: We want to elect labor friendly candidates," Otto said.
He said victory here relies on three things. "First, we have the local unions. They provide the people and the money. Second, we have the labor clubs. They are the grassroots. They can reach people outside of the worksites. And third, we have you, the candidates."
"You are the front lines," Otto said to the assembled candidates. "Without you 'we' lose. We need you to be there. We need you to advocate for labor."
According to Otto, Robin Carnahan's bid for the U.S. Senate is a "national priority." "A campaign for her here is a campaign for 'us.'"
Carnahan has pledged to stop giveaways to corporations that ship jobs overseas; to create jobs in Missouri; to hold Wall Street and Big Oil accountable; and to stop letting CEOs and lobbyists call the shots in Washington.
Otto then turned his attention to the assembled union leaders, and added, "We can win hands-down if we can turn out our members."
Randy Kiser, from the Missouri AFL-CIO, agreed and said, "The more our members get contacted from their unions the more likely they are to vote. When they turn out, union voters are the single largest bloc of voters in the state." There are currently 445,777 union households in Missouri.
Kiser asked every union to appoint a coordinator who can oversee worksite literature drops, mailings, phone-banks and member-to-member contact.
"We want to contact every union member at least 25 times," Kiser said.
Missouri Labor 2010 communications director Cathy Sherwin added, "We need to build excitement around the elections. We need to make sure our members understand that good elected officials don't just happen. It takes work."
Sherwin then invited everybody to an action at U.S. Senator Kit Bond's St. Louis office, urging the senator to support unemployment extensions for millions of unemployed workers.
At Bond's office Ralph Ruzzo, a laid-off painter, told Bond's aid, "We didn't cause this recession, but we're stuck in it. Unemployment benefits is something we have to have."
According to Ruzzo, the local Painters' Union has lost about 1,000 members since the recession started. Ruzzo, who has been a painter since 1985, has only worked about five months in the past two years. He's six years from retirement.
Senator Bond recently voted against expanding unemployment benefits for laid-off workers. Around 5 million workers are expected to exhaust their unemployment benefits by the end of the year.
Ruzzo will exhaust his unemployment benefits in six weeks.
"If you don't want to extend unemployment benefits," Ruzzo added, "get us a job."
Kiser summed up the action when he said, "Enough with the hypocrisy, Senator Bond. Enough with playing political games with people's lives. Enough with protecting lobbyists and CEOs. It's time to take care of the unemployed and put America back to work."
Photo: Gary Otten