Unions bring holiday cheer in hard times

COLUMBUS, Ohio — For over two decades, unions here have mobilized during the holiday season to give food and children’s gifts to needy families. This year, however, the campaign was bittersweet. The hundreds of union volunteers who braved the brutal cold to get the gifts out at the big United Auto Workers Local 969 hall on the city’s west side had heard that the Delphi plant where the local’s members worked was being closed.

“It’s especially hurtful this time of year,” said Mark Sweazy, Local 969 president, “but it would hurt anytime. At one time we had over 5,500 workers here. We made door latches, but worked on all sorts of infrastructure related items.”

“It’s just so damned ridiculous,” he said. “We have bridges failing, people that can’t get homes. We need roads, transport, schools and hospitals, but all this government wants to spend money on is a damned war that nobody wants. It’s driving us to disaster! They’re taking jobs overseas at the very time we most need to rebuild our own nation.”

Asked what needed to be done to change things for the better, Sweazy responded, “We need a revolution! At very least, we need someone like FDR as president. Someone who’d put people back to work building things we really need. Rebuild the infrastructure — we all go back to work and we rebuild our nation.”

Despite bitter cold and a major blizzard, volunteers from all the unions in the area flocked to the UAW on Dec. 15 hall to help pack food, wrap packages, direct traffic and hand out the boxes.

Nearly 3,000 families, mostly nonunion, piled into the long lines to get the union gifts.

At the lunch break, steelworker Dave Caldwell, president of the Columbus Central Labor Council, read a card one of the recipients had given him. “Our family is so grateful to all of you,” it read. “Without the union’s help we wouldn’t have a Christmas this year.”

He added that, while organized labor had been doing this mobilization every year since 1982, this year was by far the largest. “Without organized labor,” said Caldwell, “people in many cases would have nothing because of what these corporate Republicans have been doing to us. We must use this as a boost to get ourselves organized to beat them next year.”

Even with the tough times this year, the mood was festive and optimistic. Kim Joseph, an AFSCME member who works for Ohio’s Environmental Protection Agency, said she was having a wonderful time. “I just love the camaraderie!” She is a Steelers fan who moved to Columbus from Pittsburgh a decade ago. “This is the only time I’ve seen Browns and Steelers fans get along,” she laughed.

Ohio is one of the economically hardest hit states, having lost nearly 300,000 jobs since George W. Bush took office. Ohio leads the nation in foreclosures. Besides the Delphi closing in Columbus, Lazarus and Shottensteins department stores have closed. Management at the Buckeye Steel mill here used a phony bankruptcy to break the union and steal workers’ health care and pensions.

As the gifts were distributed, Walt Workman, executive secretary of the Franklin County Central Labor Council, said, “People this year are just more appreciative than ever before.” He commented, “This started with just a few folks, but it has become huge. All the area unions are now helping out, sending volunteers and donations. Unions even approach local businesses for donations. The past six-seven years it’s gotten so much worse, with jobs being shipped overseas. People are more in need, and it’s great to see all the unions pitching in to help.”

Among the local volunteers were Lien and Van Nguyen. Vietnamese immigrants and local business owners, they’ve both been volunteering for the past few years. Not only that, but they are now returning to Vietnam every year and working with unions on similar projects there. “We just feel that we should give back to our community,” said Lien. “We just love working with people. We feel lucky to be able to help out.”

Transport worker Andre Jordan, a longtime activist in the inner-city community, spoke for everyone when he said, “I get a great feeling working with the unions, helping people out, but I’ll feel a whole lot better when we change things and we don’t have to do this. In this rich country, we shouldn’t have to do this!”