LAS VEGAS, Nev. - "Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed."
The 2011 convention of the United Steelworkers union opened here with an inspiring video which itself opened with the above quote from Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln went on to say in the same address, "Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."
The quote captures the fightback spirit and the growing self-awareness of the steelworkers union as it faces down the current economic and political crisis in the United States and Canada.
Over 3,000 delegates from across the country thundered their approval of the themes in USW President Leo Gerard's opening address. (see video below) "Stand Up, Fight Back" is emblazoned on jumbo video screens around the MGM Grand conference center.
Drawing clear class lines in his speech, Gerard hammered bosses, the super rich, the corporations and their "bought and paid for" politicians. He made it clear that only those who support labor and working families will get the support of steelworkers. At the same time, Gerard also stressed the need of the USW and all of labor to lead struggles for the whole working class in the U.S. and Canada.
The Political Action resolution calls for the USW to play a key role in "reelecting Barack Obama president of the United States, replacing the anti-union majorities in state legislatures, and electing a strong pro-labor majority in the House of Representatives and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate" in 2012.
President Obama Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., were among those who addressed the convention. Other political figures included Democratic state legislature leaders from Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana, who have led battles against union busting efforts in their states.
A tremendous highlight of the convention was the participation of trade unionists from around the world. International delegations participated from some 23 countries, many of whom risked their lives and jobs to travel to the convention. They received several prolonged standing ovations from the delegates. The excitement reached a fever pitch when Leo Gerard and leaders of Los Mineros, the Mexican miners and metal workers union signed an enhanced strategic alliance agreement. "Enhanced" because it takes even further steps towards merging the two unions into one continent-wide industrial union. There are still legal and technical impediments to completing a full merger to be overcome.
The convention also took steps to build support for the striking Verizon workers. Jim Weitkamp, vice president of CWA District 9, spoke about the more than 100 takeaway demands of Verizon despite record profits. Leo Gerard called on the convention delegates to go all out in support and a sign-up pledge was circulated that committed members to mobilize their locals and turn out for picket lines, demonstrations and other strike support actions. Gerard stressed the need for heightened solidarity in the face of the attacks on workers and their unions. Several delegates described solidarity action their locals had already helped initiate.
Another important highlight was the introduction of a Next Generation Advisory Council. International Vice President Fred Redmond, surrounded by young steelworker members of the council, said, "As our movement and our union come to a critical crossroads, it is with both morality and necessity that we recommit ourselves to preparing the next generation of leadership." A young member from Texas read a resolution that outlined a plan to develop the youth council, including participation in the AFL-CIO's "Next Up" youth organization and its upcoming convention in Minneapolis. The delegates enthusiastically and unanimously adopted the resolution and action plan.
Photo: Scott Marshall/PW