BOSTON - More than 5,000 union members from across the nation heard Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, demand that Congress "stop fooling around and pass the jobs bill that is before them."
"The bill will save or create more than a million jobs and, without it, we won't have an economic recovery," he declared, at the opening session of AFSCME's 39th International Convention here.
"Sadly, that bill is now on life support," according to McEntee, "because just last week Republicans in the Senate blocked it for a second time."
He did not reserve his anger with politicians for Republicans alone, however, saying, "no politicians should ever again expect that labor will allow them to run roughshod over us." He said that a labor-run "accountability campaign," in which AFSCME played a major part, "put Blanche Lincoln, the incumbent Democrat in Arkansas, on the ropes and fighting for her political life."
AFSCME backed her primary opponent after what it saw as her betrayal of labor when she refused to back a public option in the health care reform battle and when she pushed for watering down the Employee Free Choice Act.
"We support the politicians who support workers," McEntee declared, "but these politicians, whether they are Democrats or Republicans, must understand they are being held accountable and if you turn on us, you will pay the price."
The union president said many elected officials were trying "to get away with using the recession as a cover for an attack on public workers, who he described as "the very people who provide whatever it is that makes our communities a great place to be.
"They're using this recession," he said, "as an excuse to privatize public jobs, raid pension funds and cut out jobs altogether."
He said the attack on public workers was a cornerstone of the Bush administration and that the Obama administration has, in 18 months, shown its commitment to a new direction for the country.
"This is why we can't allow the Tea Party, which does not represent America, to set back the progress we've made," he said, to sustained applause. "I look around this room," he told the thousands of Black, white, Latino, Asian and Native American people gathered before him, "and I see the real America. Right wingers, when they get angry, they get bitter. The real America, when it gets angry, fights for a better future. The Tea Party is not the real America. In fact, they're not even the real Tea Party. That's something that happened here in Boston more than two hundred years ago."
McEntee said the success of AFSCME would result in improvements for all workers, including those not in unions. "Our vision," he said, "is to help all workers deal with an onslaught unlike any they have ever seen. This union's agenda is to secure decent jobs that allow people to support their families and preserve the level of services that is worthy of this great nation."
He blasted "the big banks that create nothing yet pocket billions off the sale of empty promises."
"Don't believe for a minute," he warned, "the propaganda that what is good for the big banks and corporations is automatically good for America or for the rest of us."
Among the thousands applauding again were Ralph Miller, president of the Los Angeles County Probation Officers Union, Local 685. Miller said one of his proudest accomplishments was helping a young gang member turn her life around to become a medical assistant at an LA hospital.
When AFSCME members in Pennsylvania didn't receive pay checks for almost a month because the state legislature couldn't agree on a budget, life for many of them became extremely difficult. Jean Thompson, a delegate from Pennsylvania Council 13, Local 2582 was also in the crowd as McEntee spoke. Thompson said she worked with a community food bank in Fayette County to get food to those who needed the assistance. She said it was heart-warming to see how, when the workers got back on their feet, they donated time and money to the food bank.
Some in the crowd were among those AFSCME sent to help out in the aftermath of the deadly earthquake In Haiti earlier this year.
The AFSCME convention will continue all week. On Wednesday the delegates will join forces with local workers at the Boston Common in a protest demonstration against budget cuts and in demands by Boston area union members for a massive jobs program.