ST. LOUIS — Barack Obama, in a telephone hook-up May 22, welcomed the 37th annual gathering of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists here by declaring, “We need to reward labor and hard work with a few basic guarantees — health care, education and the right to form a union.”

The presumed Democratic nominee for the presidency aimed his fire at Republican presidential candidate John McCain who, he said, is running for Bush’s third term. “McCain is anti-union and pro-war,” Obama declared, warning, “He has pledged to continue the Bush tax breaks for the rich, the no-bid contracts in Iraq and to continue ignoring the health care crisis while he hangs workers out to dry.”

Over 1,000 members of the CBTU gathered at the convention where they attended workshops, plenary discussions, a town hall meeting and women’s, youth and retiree conferences. The gathering ran from May 21-26.

Lew Moye, president of the group’s chapter here, recalled the last CBTU gathering in St. Louis, 21 years ago, “when Nelson Mandela was in jail and we were fighting to free apartheid South Africa.” He noted that “today, like then, we are in serious times for working families.”

The delegates heard optimistic reports about victories won since those days.

St. Louis Central Labor Council President Robert Soutier described the “historic” defeat of the so-called Missouri Civil Rights Initiative. The initiative would have crippled affirmative action programs in Missouri and was supported by a host of right-wing groups. They wanted it on the ballot as a means of motivating and mobilizing the right in this year’s elections, and labor played a leading role in preventing that from happening.

Soutier described how the We Can Coalition (Working to Empower Community Action Now), led by the Service Employees International Union, Jobs with Justice and ACORN, mobilized hundreds of volunteers who logged thousands of hours to “defend affirmative action.”

He hailed the campaign as “a perfect example of how workers, community activists, and religious leaders can come together to defend fairness and equality.”

We Can is credited with causing the failure of “initiative” supporters to collect the required number of signatures to get the right wing measure on the ballot.

On May 23 CBTU delegates attended a women’s awards luncheon keynoted by Nicole Lee, executive director of Trans Africa, who described the coalition as “the backbone of the U.S. labor movement. While we were condemning U.S. policy in apartheid South Africa, our greatest ally was U.S. labor,” she declared.

Lee said that “the labor movement has an obligation to ensure that U.S. foreign policy is fair and just.” She talked about the negative impact unfair trade agreements have on workers in Latin America and Africa on the one hand, and on workers in the United States, on the other hand. “We live in a racist economic system of global apartheid where corporations put profits before people,” she declared.

Lee was excited about the upcoming elections, however, and told the assembled delegates that “if we get our way, Inauguration Day next January will be a day of celebration.”

CBTU President William Lucy spoke at a May 24 town hall meeting titled “Take Back America for Working People.” He called for massive rebuilding of the infrastructure and the creation of millions of jobs in a new, greener economy. “We need to build a high wage economy and usher in a new economic order,” he declared.

The town hall meeting also focused on the housing crisis.

Arlene Holt-Baker, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, warned that “2.5 million will likely lose their homes this year.” She outlined both short and long term solutions to the crisis including:

• Legislative measures to increase government regulation of the housing industry.

• A six to 12 month freeze on mortgage foreclosures for people about to lose their homes.

• Changes in bankruptcy law that would allow home owners to re-negotiate their subprime loans.

• “Hitting the streets to build a real grassroots movement for change!”

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) urged delegates to put the housing crisis “in its proper context. We’ve had 30 years of frozen wages. However, in 1984 CEOs made 42 times more than the average worker. But in 2005 CEOs made 411 times more than the average worker. As a result we consume less and borrow more. Our wages stagnate, while the rich get richer.” Ellison called for a “grassroots movement married to legislation.”

Others spoke about the “spill-over effect.” They noted that in addition to the millions who will lose homes there could be 44 million other homes losing much of their value and then loss of tax revenue to city, state and local governments.