Unions mobilize to elect Obama

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DENVER — Two thousand union members, more than half of them delegates to the Democratic National Convention, rallied here last week and then joined with delegates from numerous mass movements to launch an unprecedented effort to change America this fall. The huge labor gathering served to kick off and set the tone for the entire convention. In a dramatic show of unity Aug. 24, leaders of the AFL-CIO, the National Education Association (NEA) and Change to Win clasped hands and raised their arms above their heads. The gesture brought down the house as African American, Latino, Asian American and white members of nearly every union in the country rose in prolonged applause, chanting, “O-BA-MA, O-BA-MA!”

The presidential race is the first since several unions left the AFL-CIO to form the Change to Win coalition. “It’s important to note we are united in our determination to turn around America,” declared AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. “And by united, I mean all of us — the AFL-CIO, the NEA, Change to Win, 17 million members, 28 million potential voters from union households — all of us together. We are united behind two champions of a better America — Barack Obama and Joe Biden — an incredible choice.”

Civil rights, peace, women’s, youth and other movements were fully in there with labor making their impact here. It was reflected in a range of powerful convention speeches, including those by Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama, and in the party platform.

Speakers at an economics forum attended by 200 delegates during the convention noted that sections of the party that supported “free trade” and loosening of regulations on the finance industry in the 1990s are shifting in a more progressive direction now. It is seen as a new political realignment with the center more and more joining with those further to the left. The platform has the strongest plank ever on women’s rights and trade union organizing rights. At the labor rally, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker laid out the labor delegates’ “special responsibility.”

“We are making sure this week that every single delegate to this convention understands as well as we do that we cannot turn around America unless we restore the free choice of working people to come together in unions and bargain for better wages and benefits and a real voice on the job.

“Barack Obama gets it,” she declared. “He knows the Employee Free Choice Act is key to rebuilding our middle class and restoring hope to working America.”

Obama is a co-sponsor of the EFCA and has repeatedly pledged to sign it into law. “Barack Obama has a 98 percent voting record for working families,” Holt-Baker said, “while John McCain has a stunning record of voting with President Bush 89 percent of the time.” When retired steelworker Steve Skvara took the podium, saying, “Now I know what corporations really fear — us,” he brought down the house a second time.

Skvara’s moving account at the AFL-CIO presidential debates in Chicago last year of how he and his wife had to choose which of them would get health insurance was viewed on TV by millions of Americans. “Our feet have got to hit the street to get Barack Obama elected,” he told the cheering crowd here.

He was followed by a virtual parade of leaders of almost every major union in the country, who brought the crowd to their feet over and over. Among them was Leo Gerard, president of the Steelworkers, who said the country needs another New Deal.

“The message from labor and then the message from this whole convention to the Bush-McCain crowd is that if they even dream about dividing us along lines of race, sex, age, religion, cultural ideas or anything else we are going to wake them up so we can knock them out,” declared Reg Weaver, NEA president.

“If someone tells you they aren’t ready to vote for Obama because of his race, you tell them ‘That’s too bad but this is 2008 and I am ready. America is ready. This is a matter of our economic survival’,” declared Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer.

Terry O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers, related how he had just gotten an offer to appear on a right-wing talk show: “The host said, ‘Hey, O’Sullivan, what’s up with all this I hear about you supporting Obama?’ I told him what’s up. Unemployment, prices, gas at the pump, the number of jobs shipped overseas, the death toll of our soldiers in Iraq, the cost of health care, and when the workers win, after Obama is elected, the time for Bush, McCain and all his crowd will be up.” The right-wing pundit, O’Sullivan said, decided against having him on the show.

Get ready for a bigger-than-ever attack by the right wing, the union leaders warned. “After today, what they’ve thrown at us in the last years will only get worse,” declared Gerald McEntee, president of AFSCME and the federation’s political action director. “Bush, Cheney, the corporate crowd, the right wing — they’ve hit us with the kitchen sink and we’ve been tattooed, beaten up, bruised and thrown against the wall.

“We can’t let them get away with this. Not this time, not ever again. Labor, the sleeping giant, woke up. Now the giant must stand up and fight like hell.”