HARTFORD, Conn. – A fighting spirit filled the hall last week as the Connecticut AFL-CIO convention mapped out plans for the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, support for striking machinists and university workers, and turnout for the 2004 elections.

In the days leading up to the convention, 700 machinists filled the streets in Hartford to protest job erosion at Pratt & Whitney, 10,000 union members marched in solidarity with Yale strikers disrupting business as usual in New Haven, workers at the University of Connecticut Health Center won union recognition, and union members won Democratic primaries in several cities.

Speaking of the Bush administration, John Olsen, president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, told the convention, “This group wants to shut democracy down. This is our time to rise up, we are making history.”

A major focus of the convention was the loss of 2.6 million manufacturing jobs since George Bush took office. Calling for an end to outsourcing and unfair trade deals, Bob Baugh, director of the Industrial Union Council, said Connecticut’s 45,000 job loss is the second highest in the country.

The International Association of Machinists Aerospace Council held its annual meeting in Hartford a week earlier, in the shadow of United Technologies Corporation’s world headquarters. UTC, parent company of the state’s largest employer, Pratt & Whitney (P&W), has been under fire for moving jobs out of the state to low-wage, nonunion areas.

On Oct. 3, materials workers at P&W voted 219-203 not to take pay cuts in order to get better job security. After the company’s recent announcement that 160 jobs in the parts shipping and crib departments would be eliminated, the union filed a lawsuit and hit the streets with the support of the state’s Congressional delegation and small manufacturers who depend on P&W contracts to survive. The affected departments have the largest concentration of women and African American workers, most with 20 to 30 years of service.

The company finally offered to rescind the layoffs, but only if the union agreed to steep cuts in pay.

The convention extended strong support to 48 locked out members of IAM Local 782 at Standard-Knapp fighting against a permanent layoff of half the workers.

“Bush is an abysmal failure,” declared IAM International President Thomas Buffenbarger to a standing ovation. “Three million lost jobs is not a record, it’s a crime.”

Emphasizing the role of manufacturing as the foundation of the entire economy, Buffenbarger called for broad labor unity. “The labor movement is best when it’s together. This is no longer a time for ‘me,’ it’s time for ‘we,’” he said, eliciting cheers from the convention with the call to “go out and tell George W. Bush good-bye.”

Recognizing the “ferocious and energetic support for Connecticut workers” in the past year, AFL-CIO Regional Director Joe Alvarez said the next stage is a “dramatic moral crusade to gain organizing rights for all workers in this country.”

Citing the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride as “the most critical justice fight right now,” Alvarez paid tribute to 14 immigrant workers who came out and joined their union brothers and sisters on the picket line at Yale University after having been recruited as strikebreakers.

In a passionate address which evoked repeated standing ovations, John Wilhelm, international president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees, brought the convention to its feet in unison when he proclaimed, “What makes us strong as a labor movement is embracing every worker no matter their color, no matter their country, no matter their gender, no matter the way they worship.” The important issue, he said, is “What side are you on.”

After a detailed report from Teresa Younger, director of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union, the convention passed a strong resolution in opposition to the USA Patriot Act.

The author can be reached at joelle.fishman@pobox.com