MEMPHIS, Tenn. – One thousand leaders of the nation’s labor movement, gathered here for the AFL-CIO’s Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Observance, launched a drive Jan. 18 to “take back the country” in the 2008 elections.

Heeding King’s 1961 declaration that “the vote is our most powerful weapon,” labor and civil rights leaders mapped plans and held training sessions to arm trade unionists with tools they hope will elect a pro-worker president, larger pro-labor majorities in the Senate and the House, pro-labor governors and hundreds of progressives in state legislative bodies. Observers called it the most ambitious election effort ever by labor and its allies.

Before they launched their actual plan the unionists were fired up by remarks made by Ron Walters, professor at the University of Maryland-College Park, who said “in 2008, the elections are the key vehicle for civil and workers’ rights.

“Dr. King would indeed be proud if he could see the field of the main Democratic contenders for the presidency, a woman, an African American, and a white male who opened his campaign for the job in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans,” Walters declared as delegates rose to their feet and cheered.

“As always, we must keep the issues on the front burner,” he said, “but I think we can live with any of these three candidates and when could we ever say that before about all the possible nominees of one of the big parties?”

Also fueling the determination of labor and civil rights leaders to focus on the elections is the dismal record of the Bush administration which was emphasized by speaker after speaker at the King commemoration. Included on the list of “Bush disasters” were 4,000 dead American soldiers in Iraq, first the lack of and then the wrong response to Hurricane Katrina, the obscene and growing income gap between rich and poor, and use of the National Labor Relations Board, which was intended to protect union organizers to instead destroy organizing rights.

Among other “Bush disasters” cited by labor and civil rights leaders here were the unprecedented budget deficits, systematic attacks on voting rights, an increase in the number without health insurance to 46 million and the subprime mortgage debacle. Many speakers noted corruption in Washington with delegates laughing when Karen Ackerman, AFL-CIO political department director said, “because of Bush, Nixon is starting to look great.”

A major focus by labor on the elections is giving Republicans cause to be fearful.

AFL-CIO figures discussed at the King commemoration show that in 2004 the Democrat, John Kerry, lost to Bush by just 135,000 votes, a razor thin margin. If the trade union vote were subtracted from the 2004 totals the vote would not have been close at all. Kerry would have carried only Washington, Maine, Vermont and Connecticut.

Dr. King’s commitment to labor rights in America and around the world actually began long before the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike here when he was assassinated. His Dec. 11, 1961, declaration that “Our needs are identical with labor’s needs” was invoked here by several speakers who called for continuation of the “historical unity” of the labor and civil rights movements. That unity, they stressed, will make the 2008 election plan realizable.

In addition to electing a pro-worker president, the AFL-CIO announced here Jan. 18 that it will increase the pro-labor majority in the Senate by targeting 17 states where it believes progressives can be elected. The states on this list are Maine, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, Missouri, Iowa, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Alaska.

Labor will add to that list three states, Alabama, Nebraska, and South Dakota, in which it believes it can elect pro-worker governors.

Anti-labor forces are responding by trying to divert some of labor’s time and efforts. Labor leaders in the relevant states were called together in groups in Memphis to study these right wing initiatives and to map plans to defeat them. The anti-labor efforts are coming in the form of “right to work,” “paycheck deception” and “anti-affirmative action” initiatives in Oregon, Colorado, Missouri, and Michigan. Unionists in Memphis were confident they could defeat all of the right wing initiatives.

Labor’s intention to elect Senators and governors and to defeat right wing ballot initiatives mean that unionists will be fully engaged in special efforts in at least 24 states.

Also included in the planning were Congressional seats. Unionists in Memphis mapped plans to take 68 additional seats in Congress, which would create a large pro-worker majority in the House.

In state legislatures across the country they targeted 200 state legislative seats. “Labor, when all is told,” Ackerman said, “will be mobilizing 15 million union voters in 528 races across the country.”

“The issues they will be mobilized on,” she said, “will be an economy that works for all, universal health care, support for the Employee Free Choice Act, so everyone can exercise their right to form a union, and an end to the war in Iraq so that money will be available to rebuild this country.”

Each month from February through June “leadership training” will occur in various states for those who will head up labor’s efforts in that state. On March 9 – 11, for example training for women, African American, Latino and other minority union leaders will take place in Ohio. Complete listings are available from the AFL-CIO’s political action department.

When it came to the 2008 elections, unionists gathered in Memphis left no stone unturned.

Noting that enormous numbers of African American votes are not counted, they launched a “protect the vote effort” that involves activity in more than 30 cities to alert voters to methods used to suppress African American votes. Delegates were presented with examples of treacherous tactics used by the right in recent elections including posters that warned people to pay all their fines and back bills before showing up at polling places. “They’re not going to get away with this stuff this time,” said David Carpio, AFL-CIO’s national political education coordinator.

In addition to efforts already outlined, local unions are being assigned responsibility for parts of a drive that will result in the registration of and the bringing to the polls of 4,000,000 additional pro-labor voters. “131,000,000 people are expected to vote,” said Ackerman. “After this drive we will boost this total to 135,000,000.”

Major tactical shifts in how union voters will be reached were announced. A decision was made to focus more on reaching workers at their work places. Polls have shown that 74 percent of union voters reached at their work place by a union rep or a shop steward vote for the union-backed candidate. Until now, however, direct mail has been the main method through which unions reach voters. Only 20 percent of union voters, until now, have been reached directly at their workplace. “Even with this problem we have been very effective,” Carpio said, “but this year we will use the direct contact approach and we anticipate an even higher rate of success in getting union members to vote for the union backed candidate.”

Every one of the more than 1,000 participants was asked by Carpio to “leave behind here in Memphis one tactic in election work that you have used that did not work and take with you a new tactic learned from someone else that did work. If we all do this, we will win in 2008.”