Texas labor pledges to do more in 2004

DALLAS – More than 400 delegates to the Texas AFL-CIO Committee on Political Education convention last week vowed to make their number one priority the re-election of four Texas congressman whose districts were gerrymandered. They also vowed to “do more in ’04” to drive the radical right wing out of office at both the state and federal level and to ensure that any new administration that takes over in 2005 makes the working family agenda its number one priority.

The convention opened with a panel explaining how the right wing has seized and consolidated power since 2001. Florida State Sen. Anthony Hill, an African American labor leader from both the International Longshoremen’s Association and the Service Employees International Union, described how Republicans illegally barred African Americans from voting in Florida in the 2000 presidential elections and used fear and intimidation to prevent a recount of Florida’s votes.

Texas House member Jim Dunnam (D-Waco) retold the story of how Republican Speaker of the House Tom DeLay masterminded the radical right’s takeover of the Texas State Legislature and ordered them to redraw congressional districts in order to send at least seven new Republicans to Washington. They did so obediently, and thought that it would be a simple matter to win passage. But Democrats, said Dunnam, recognizing that the Republican redistricting plan imperiled minority voting rights, staged a walkout in May 2003 to stop the plan and continued a strong fight for six months. Thus they delayed passage of the redistricting plan and exposed it as a racist power grab.

Dunnam, one of the leaders of the walkout, told the audience that while the press portrayed the walkout as Democrats running away from their responsibility, it was in fact “a case of Democrats running toward their responsibility to the Constitution.”

Delegates also heard from the four Democratic congressmen whose districts were gerrymandered by DeLay’s henchmen to make it nearly impossible for them to win re-election. But the congressmen – Martin Frost, Max Sandlin, Chet Brooks and Nick Lampson – told the convention that they will run for re-election in the new districts and, despite the odds, will win. “We’re at the crossroads in America,” Sandlin said. “A wrong turn will threaten the very foundation of our constitutional government.”

One of the main themes heard throughout the convention was that the right-wing radicals in charge in Austin and Washington, D.C., are waging war on workers. Their main agenda, said speaker after speaker, is to maximize corporate profits by cutting wages, busting unions, and eliminating health and human services for workers. Their economic policies encourage corporations to ship jobs overseas and their education policies ensure that public schools will remain under-funded and the cost of higher education will continue to increase, preventing millions of working-class students from going to college.

Rep. Lampson said, “Since the administration changed (in 2001), their agenda has been to move labor backward. We have to declare political war. We have to step back to the plate and do things differently than we have done in a long time.”

Doing things differently, labor activists say, means that Texans will need to register more union and nonunion workers to vote, educate workers on where candidates stand on the working family agenda, and get these workers to vote on Election Day.

As the convention wound down, delegates heard a panel discussion on the state tax system and school funding. State Sen. Elliot Shapleigh (D-El Paso) and state Rep. Rick Noriega (D-Houston) told the audience that these two issues are joined at the hip. Texas is not providing sufficient funding for public schools because its tax system, the most regressive in the nation, cannot generate enough revenue. Shapleigh proposed an income tax that would lower taxes for working people and raise them for the wealthy.

As a show of solidarity with striking grocery workers in California, delegates contributed more than $2,200 in cash and checks to the United Food and Commercial Workers strike fund.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.