NEW HAVEN, Conn. - "We are not letting anybody divide the unions of the Connecticut AFL-CIO!" exclaimed Randi Weingarten to a standing ovation and loud applause as she addressed the organization's tenth bienniel political convention.
Weingarten, national president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and Lee Saunders, national president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) both traveled to New Haven to warnAFL-CIO convention delegates of the danger of the billionaire Koch brothers attempt to defeat Democratic governors and legislatures in order to destroy collective bargaining for public sector workers and all workers, as was done in Wisconsin two years ago.
"We need to be at the center of the community, to guarantee economic security for all," said Weingarten. "That is who we are, that is what we know!"
In 2010, bucking the national trend, Connecticut voters narrowly elected a Democratic governor, Dannel Malloy, for the first time in two decades, along with the full Democratic slate of constitutional officers, and Democratic majorities in the state House and Senate.
Weingarten was escorted to the platform by the presidents of three locals of AFT Connecticut at Lawrence and Memorial Hospital whose members sustained a four month lockout earlier this year, during which Gov. Malloy walked the picket line with the health care workers.
The two-day convention opened with remarks by Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary treasurer of the Wisconsin AFL CIO. "The Koch brothers came for us in Wisconisn and they are coming for you," she said, warning the delegates to step up their organizing. "We are fighting for the vision of America that treats all people equally, where democracy is not for sale. We cannot let that light be extinguished."
Addressing the convention, Malloy acknowledged mistakes he had made during his tenure which angered teachers and state sector public workers, while emphasizing his commitment to strong unions that "build the middle class and protect our families."
He listed major accomplishments including the Earned Income Tax Credit, raising the minimum wage, paid sick leave, creating over 50,000 private sector jobs, investing in public education and universal access to pre-K, investing in manufacturing and infrastructure, getting building trades back to work, and signing legislation that has enabled 20,000 workers to win collective bargaining rights including at the University of Connecticut and home health care and child care providers.
Malloy's Republican-endorsed challenger was on the defensive, attempting to explain a comment he made when running against Malloy in 2010, that he was hoping for a "Wisconsin moment in Connecticut." At the convention his denial that he was referring to Gov. Walker's elimination of collective bargaining for state workers drew laughter.
A video, "We are Not Wisconsin," filmed at a recent rally of 800 public sector workers in Middletown, gave voice to several union workers from Wisconsin who lost all their union bargaining rights and benefits under Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
After the presentations the convention voted unanimously to endorse Malloy for re-election this year.
The election is expected to be close again this time around. Delegates expressed concern that Jonathan Pelto, a Democrat who has formed the Education and Democracy Party to run for Governor and challenge Malloy's education reform program, could swing the election to the Repiublicans.
Four days before the convention, AFT Connecticut had endorsed Gov. Malloy.
Responding to Pelto's appeal to rank and file teachers for support, Weingarten asked, "Is this election about helping out a friend, or it is about doing what we have to do to restore the American Dream?"
"It's not easy to be a progressive governor in the United States today," she continued. "Connecticut doesn't need a billionaire (Foley) who doesn't care about kids to take teacher's rights away."
At the same time, the convention expressed its dissatisfaction with the policies of Malloy's Commissioner of Education by passing a strongly worded resolution to "mandate minimum educational and classroom experience for the State Commissioner of Education to include at least the same requirements as any individual serving as a superintendent."
Convention workshops were geared to educating members and getting out the vote, including trainings on voter registration, common sense economics, and member communication and mobilization.
Executive Secretary Treasurer Lori Pelletier concluded the convention with a strong appeal to the delegates to take the information and the message back to their members and get them involved. Summer labor picnics and a Labor Day Breakfast will all build up toward full scale mobilization for labor walks, phone banks and workplace discussions.
Representing over 200,000 union workers from more than 900 union affiliates statewide, the Connecticut AFL-CIO is the largest federation of unions in the state.
Photo: Gov. Malloy, seen here shaking hands on his way out of a session of the Connecticut State Legislature. Stephan Savoia/AP