ORLANDO, Fla. – Inspired by Dr. King’s struggles for civil, voting and workers’ rights, the AFL-CIO brought its annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations to Florida this crucial election year. The four days of labor-community actions centered here echoed King’s finest traditions by assembling civil rights activists, union members and leaders with the community to organize voter involvement.

“Welcome to Florida, the scene of the crime,” said Tony Hill, Florida state senator, to the over 150 union members from across the country gathered at the Dr. James R. Smith Community Center Jan. 16 for a public forum on voter registration and community service.

“The plan is to pack our bags, hit the road and don’t stop till we beat Bush,” said Bill Lucy, president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, chairing the forum. “If I didn’t know anything else about Bush other than the appointment of Pickering [to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals], that would be enough for me,” said Lucy.

“Bypassing the Senate to appoint Charles Pickering is an insult to all Americans who still believe in Dr. King’s dream,” said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney in a press statement issued the day of the forum. “Pickering has been rejected in two consecutive sessions of Congress because of [his] record in civil rights cases, including voting rights and employment discrimination cases.”

In fighting against racism and Bush, Lucy cautioned the audience “if the white South is abandoned to the GOP, we will forever lose. This is a contest to win the hearts and minds of people who suffer like we suffer.”

“To win,” Lucy continued, “we have to ask the question, ‘Why doesn’t everyone have health care, education, a living wage?’ We can’t win talking to ourselves.”

“And we’d better not act like business as usual,” warned Andrea Brooks, national vice president of AFGE, the American Federation of Government Employees. Having no union in the Department of Homeland Security means discrimination for thousands of its workers. The supervisor decides raises “without a merit system, so Black and Brown workers and women are not in charge of their lives,” said Brooks. “Federal workers are on the frontline of the fight for merit pay.”

When Bush declared the Iraq war to be over, according to Brooks, soldiers became “not entitled to wartime benefits. How can you say the administration cares when they close outpatient clinics, reduce wards, and put veterans on waiting lists?”

Bush waged war “based on lies – spending billions on preemptive war that has no moral justification,” said an impassioned Kent Wong, director of the Center for Labor Research and Education at UCLA. “Bush is permanent war, racism, sexism and homophobia.”

Calling a second-term Bush an “unimaginable danger” to labor and civil rights, Wong urged the crowd to draw strength from Dr. King who “didn’t turn back.”

In the question period, Linda Chavez-Thompson, AFL-CIO executive vice president, was asked for her proposals on collective action to defeat Bush in November. She put the question back to the whole crowd, saying the leadership “can talk and put programs together, but it comes down to the question: What do you think, and what will you do?”

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org. See related story, page 6.