3,000 activists hear call to ‘clear the way for a progressive agenda’

WASHINGTON — Fired up by victory over the Republican right in last November’s election, 3,000 progressives at a “Take Back America” conference cheered as speakers demanded that Congress end the Iraq war, restore union rights and enact health care for all.

“I know you’re ready to take back America because you’ve already started,” Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, told the multiracial crowd of union, civil rights, community and environmental activists. Hailing the voter revolt that ended Republican control of the House and Senate, Borosage added, “The conservative era is at an end. This is our time. We now begin a struggle about what comes next.”

He stressed that the Take Back America coalition is an “independent movement,” not tied to either major party but building the “progressive majority” to move the U.S. “in a new direction.” Yet nearly all the Democratic presidential contenders spoke, and all were warmly received, reflecting a determination that the people’s movement complete the task of defeating the Republican right in 2008.

Borosage called for a new national security policy based on diplomacy and multilateralism, not military force. He quoted from a just-released study by the Institute for Policy Studies listing global problems for which “there is no military solution.”

Participants were bused to a Capitol Hill rally demanding Senate passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.

Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, told the World that organized labor “has always been the pillar of progressive movements in America, a pillar eroded by all the anti-worker policies” of the Bush administration. “There is no way we can reverse the stagnation in workers’ wages without a stronger labor movement,” he said. “That’s why the Employee Free Choice Act is so important.”

Climate change was a major topic. During a luncheon, Apollo Alliance President Jerome Ringo said, “In 10 years I want to stand before you and say we faced the danger of global warming and turned it into an opportunity, that the federal government made the investments like the one that put a man on the moon.” Shifting to clean, sustainable energy will reduce greenhouse emissions and create millions of new jobs, he said. The Apollo Alliance is a coalition of labor and environmental groups.

Many speakers from floor microphones voiced frustration that Congress approved funds for Iraq without a date certain for troop withdrawal. Responding, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the first Muslim elected to Congress, who had also voted for an earlier version containing a withdrawal timeline, noted that protesters occupied his office. “I told them, ‘Welcome. You inspire me.’ We have to find a way to resolve our differences internally. When you are impatient for change, sometimes you turn on people you don’t think are changing fast enough.”

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a former grassroots organizer, commented, “We have an inside-outside relationship. Even if you get impatient, you have people inside working for you. Speaker Nancy Pelosi is one of them. Ever since she was elected speaker, her main purpose has been to end this war.” The problem, Schakowsky said, is the slim Democratic majorities in the Senate and House. She called for a Democratic sweep in the 2008 elections to clear the way for a progressive agenda.

Brad Woodhouse of Americans Against Escalation in Iraq told a press briefing that AAEI has organized “Iraq Summer.” The project in 15 states targets nine Republican senators and 31 Republican House members, demanding they end their support for the Iraq war or face defeat in 2008.

Karen Ackerman, AFL-CIO political action director, said, “We’ve begun a massive education program to give our members the facts on corporate economics versus worker economics. We’re arming our members to take the truth and issues into the 2008 election debate.”

A high point of the three-day conference was a workshop on youth. Elandria Williams of the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tenn., noted the center’s 75-year history of promoting social and economic justice. “Take back what is yours,” she said. “Don’t beg for breadcrumbs. I want people who will stand together.”

Juan Pacheco, an organizer with Virginia-based Barrios Unidos, said his group organized a “peace summit” in Washington, D.C., last year attended by 500 members of rival gangs. “They said we couldn’t do it, Black and Latino youth in the same room. They said we hate each other. We broke all those barriers.” He received a standing ovation.

Panelist Jon Hoadley told the World he was campaign manager in South Dakota for a narrowly defeated amendment allowing same-sex marriage. At the same time, he said, an alliance led by women’s groups defeated the most anti-abortion measure in the nation and a homophobic incumbent Republican. Noting the record youth vote in 2006, he said, “I think young people have the most to gain by participating in elections.”

Erica Smiley, Young Communist League national coordinator, called the youth panel “really impressive.” She told the World, “It got to the heart of the passion the youth movement has for real, concrete change and not just talking about it.”