“We’re going to use our saw to trim that shrub,” vowed carpenter Pat Stell, using the tools of her trade to describe the role of union women in next year’s presidential campaign. “He is not of sufficient stature to qualify as a bush,” she added to cheers. The vice-president of Washington State Coalition of Labor Union Women welcomed the 800 delegates from local chapters and national unions to that organization’s biennial convention in Seattle, Oct. 9.

In a meeting infused with the warmth and power of working-class sisterhood, CLUW President Gloria Johnson set a tone of determined defiance to the Bush administration “running roughshod over our schools and reproductive rights, invading our privacy, and other nations.” Taking on the Patriot Act and its assault on civil liberties, Johnson challenged the assembly, “Do we want to go back to the days of McCarthyism?” “No!” they roared back. “Hell no!” Johnson added.

CLUW’s role in the 2004 elections is to make the women’s vote the decisive one, said Johnson, who is also a member of the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO. CLUW’s officers represent 17 international unions and the striking diversity of the organization’s membership.

Health care was a major focus of the delegates, with five chapters introducing resolutions in support of HR 676, Rep. John Conyers’ (D-Mich.) bill that would provide expanded and improved Medicare-type coverage for all Americans. “We should put the politicians’ feet to the fire on this,” said an AFT member who is a school nurse. “It will get people out to the polls like other things won’t.”

AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson put aside formality and her prepared speech to speak to her union sisters “from the heart.” As an overburdened mother and union activist, she said, she had sometimes been discouraged, but it was her anger that kept her going. “As union people, we talk about justice, solidarity, and equality,” said Chavez-Thompson, who started her work life picking cotton in Texas, “but we can’t leave out hope.”

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) declared that in her state “we don’t just encourage and empower women, we elect ’em.” Both of that state’s U.S. senators are women, as are a majority of its supreme court justices and a larger percentage of state legislators than any other state in the U.S. Murray announced plans for legislation to expand the Family and Medical Leave Act so that parents could take time off work to attend school conferences.

Murray pointed to the convention’s theme “Vision, Voices, Votes” as the same plan of attack that led to victory recently in stopping the Bush administration’s attack on overtime pay. “We need to give people the vision, make their voices heard, and count the votes,” she said.

“In the scheme of things, there are them and us,” said Coalition of Black Trade Unionists President William Lucy, going on to describe “all-out class warfare between those who have the power to make the rich richer and the rest of us who just want a good life.” In the light of 3.1 million jobs lost under Bush, “the stock market going up has nothing to do with you and me,” he added. Lucy asked CLUW members to be recruits in an army to educate the labor movement on the value of labor’s constituency groups. Lucy said these organizations will meet in coming weeks to organize local issue forums and policy seminars. “We need to take the offensive against those who would take us out. We can’t let them pick us off one by one. We are intending to educate this nation about critical issues facing working people. All we have to do is tell the truth.” Lucy called for the rejection of Bush’s $87 billion Iraq fund, calling it merely a down payment for what will be a tremendous financial burden to come.

Christina King, 22, called the convention “an eye-opening experience.” The third-year sound and communications apprentice, a member of IBEW Local 11 in Los Angeles, told this reporter, “I knew what was going on in the world, it was out there, but I didn’t know how it impacted us, things like health care.” King describes herself as shy and “pretty laid-back, someone who would never complain,” but now she plans to start her activism by making sure her employer meets the requirement for the women-only porta potty with locking door now missing from her job site. “Even if it doesn’t bother me,” she explains, “I have to speak out for the good of the next girl.”

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Canada Labour’s New VP

Thousands of Canadian men and women have taken to wearing woven cloth bracelets declaring “No on FTAA,” according to Marie Clarke Walker, the newly-elected executive vice president of the 2.5 million member Canadian Labour Congress. Walker says Canadians are particularly concerned that the health care system they have fought so hard for could just be negotiated away. “Labor needs to be more pro-active and globalize solidarity,” she says.

Walker’s election in June 2002 was a result of pressure from women labor activists to make the culture and structure of the labour movement more effective in carrying out its work, the former education worker told the World in an interview at the CLUW convention Oct. 11. In reality, “all issues the trade union movement deals with are women’s issues,” but rank and file women don’t always see them because “we don’t do a good enough job talking to them as individuals, making them take them personally.” The Jamaica-born activist’s election also reflects a change in the Canadian workforce, which, according to Walker, is approaching 50 percent people of color, including large numbers of South Asian, African, Caribbean and Latino immigrants as well as aboriginal people.

The introduction of Walker as one of Canada’s four top labor officers, brought CLUW convention delegates to their feet and dancing in the aisles, joined by the dynamic 39-year-old labor leader herself.

– Roberta Wood