WASHINGTON – With Enron as a symbol of what has gone wrong, a coalition of labor, civil and human rights groups met here April 10-12 to chart a fightback against corporate America and the Republican right in the 2002 elections.

“Reclaiming America: A Conference on Progressive Strategies for the New Era” was the title of the three-day gathering here. “It is time for progressives to stand up, to lay out an agenda for progress and take our case to the American people,” said Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future (CAF), initiator of the gathering.

It was the second year in a row that CAF sponsored a grassroots conference seeking to stiffen the Democrats in the House and Senate to stand up to Bush and the Republican right. Speakers included several members of the House Progressive Caucus and Black Caucus. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) spoke, as well as Sens. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) and John Edwards (D-N.C.).

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said Enron “ripped the mask off crony capitalism thriving on our own shores.” After Sept. 11, he said, workers were praised in public but policies were rammed through “that make working families’ futures more perilous, led by George W. Bush. ”

“They talk red, white and blue,” Sweeney said, “but are blind to all but the color green. We must defeat George W. Bush in the war on working families.”

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) charged that when she and others protested the thievery of Enron, the GOP House leadership accused her of inciting “class warfare.” To cheers she continued, “If this is war, they started it and we better be prepared to finish it.” For working families, she said, “everything is at stake” in the 2002 House and Senate elections. “We represent the majority of Americans. If we lead they will follow.”

“I want to take back the House,” said Rep. Gephardt. “Don’t let anybody tell you Social Security doesn’t work. It’s a baldfaced lie. It is not broken.” But if Bush retains the House and regains control of the Senate, he warned, “they will pass Social Security privatization.”

Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, warned that if the Republicans regain a Senate majority, Bush will pack the federal bench with ultra-rightists. “This is the time to pick fights,” she said. “It is a badge of honor to be called unpatriotic by [Attorney General John] Ashcroft.”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson called on the coalition to reach out to the African American and Latino communities. “The Republicans have no hesitations about being exclusive,” he said. “The Democrats make a pretense of inclusion.” He urged the coalition to speak out on issues like the Israeli-Palestinian crisis and the U.S. Navy bombing of Vieques. “You lose elections when you fail to take positions on issues that matter,” Jackson said.

Among participants was Greg Speeter, executive director of the National Priorities Project, who assailed Bush for proposing a $397 billion military budget. “What would missile defense do to protect us? Nothing,” he said. “The F-22 fighter will cost $225 million per plane. You could buy 1,000 fire trucks for that amount of money. People need to raise this issue in the elections.”

Dennis Vegas, a former Enron Vice President, told the meeting that Enron continues to stonewall the demand for severance pay for 4,500 furloughed workers but has put together $130 million in retention bonuses for Enron executives. “Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Bank of New York and Chase continue to promote the pervasive practices that permitted the collapse of Enron,” he said.

Vegas told the World his life has been transformed by Enron’s collapse, in which he lost everything. “My dad was a union subway toll booth worker in the Bronx,” he said. “He would tell me everyone needs a union. I told him, ‘Dad, I can represent myself.’ Now I am trying to alert white collar workers. If it can happen to me, it can happen to you.”

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