LAS VEGAS – Just as these are no ordinary times, the AFL-CIO’s 24th Convention, held here Dec. 3-6, was no ordinary convention.

The 1,200 participants expressed their grief and anger over the events of Sept. 11, commemorating the heroism of the 631 union members who perished that day. Many delegates wept openly during the opening ceremony as the names of those trade unionists – 343 of them members of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) – were scrolled slowly down large screens in the front of the convention hall.

But that same grief and anger are fueling something new – a steely resolve to fight for justice for every worker and every community savaged by the twin blows of Sept. 11 and a deepening economic crisis. Participants applauded speakers’ demands for fairness and social justice.

“We don’t want homilies,” Harold Schaitburger, president of the IAFF, said. “We want health care for every worker. We don’t want praise – we want adequate and just benefits for the hundreds of thousands of workers who have been victimized or displaced by this tragedy.”

The question of organizing the unorganized topped this year’s convention agenda and AFL-CIO President John Sweeney minced no words in his call for rededication to the goal of annually adding a million new members to the ranks of organized workers.

“The American labor movement is failing to help new members organize anywhere near the level necessary – and this failure must be addressed now,” Sweeney said. “The decline in union density since 1950, when unions represented one worker in three, to one in eight is the harshest judgment history can make of our collective leadership. If we do not meet this challenge, we face slow but certain decline.”

Sweeney said if the labor movement had maintained the union density of 1950, the 24th Convention of the AFL-CIO would have represented 40 million workers.

AFL-CIO Organizing Director Mark Splain estimates the federation will gain 450,000 – 550,000 members this year before taking into account losses from discharges, retirements, layoffs and plant closings.

Sweeney used his keynote speech to catalogue the accomplishments of the AFL-CIO since 1995:

• 2.5 million workers organized into unions.

• 4.6 million new voters brought to the polls in 2000.

• Winning a first contract for farm workers at the nation’s largest strawberry farm.

• Defeating Fast Track legislation three times. (As we went to press a House vote on Fast Track was set for Dec. 6.)

• Widening the struggle against capitalist globalization through participation in protests against the World Trade Organisation, World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

• Defeat of “paycheck deception” in California and 33 other states.

• Conducting “dozens” of college teach-ins and training 3,000 Union Summer interns.

Sweeney said the decision by the AFL-CIO Executive Council in February 2000 to revise the federation’s immigration policy made him “the proudest labor leader in the world.”

That policy was high on the agenda again at this year’s convention. “The labor movement was built by immigrants,” said John Wilhelm, president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union. Speaking to the AFL-CIO Civil Rights Conference, held here Dec. 1-2 and attended by many convention delegates, he said the war against terrorism “gives a new urgency” to the problems facing immigrants.

Wilhelm, chair of the federation’s Committee on Immigration, said the call by the AFL-CIO for amnesty to undocumented workers and their families had “jump started” a national debate on the question. “We were well on the road to important changes and then came Sept. 11 and we suffered a set back of gigantic proportions. And almost immediately immigrants – especially those from countries of the Middle East – became victims of suspicion and xenophobia,” Wilhelm said.

In a resolution, titled “A Nation of Immigrants,” the convention said the growing tolerance, respect and understanding of immigrants who live and work among us has been replaced in some quarters with fear and scapegoating.

“Many who have always opposed immigration and fair treatment of immigrants now seek to capitalize on this fear,” the resolution said, “to push for policies that penalize hard-working immigrants for the deplorable acts of criminals who came to the united States not to pursue the American dream but to destroy it.”

Among other reforms, the resolution called for legalization of undocumented immigrants; federal, state and local action to ensure that immigrant families are treated the same as their U.S. citizen counterparts with regard to benefits and services; and full protection of workplace rights, including the right to organize, regardless of immigration status.

The resolution concluded with a pledge “to firmly build bridges and tear down walls within our own ranks” by educating union members about the problems faced by immigrants. “We will work to teach all our members the importance of solidarity and that our destinies as workers are intertwined regardless of immigration status or country of origin,”

Jim Lane contributed to this story.