PHILADELPHIA — Unity was the watchword at last week’s Pennsylvania state AFL-CIO biennial convention, as the 721 delegates cheered calls for a united effort to put a Democrat in the White House and to defeat John McCain in November.

The delegates gave a warm welcome to both candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, and, in keeping with the spirit of the occasion, the candidates concentrated their fire on McCain and the failed policies of eight years of the Bush administration.

In this battleground state steeped in labor history and trade union struggles, the convention became a testing ground for labor’s ability to unify the Democratic Party effort for the fall campaign.

The state AFL-CIO has not endorsed a candidate. Major unions in the state that have endorsed are about evenly split between Senators Obama and Clinton. In these circumstances, the labor leaders and all the major speakers drove home the unity message and the delegates responded in the same spirit.

State AFL-CIO President Bill George told the delegates on the first day, “Come November, we will all be united. You can’t separate us. Ask any delegate. They come from Main Street, not Wall Street.” Said AFSCME President Gerald McEntee, a Clinton supporter, “We have two great candidates, ten times better than that boob in the White House. Put a Democrat in the White House this November so America can be proud again.”

Before introducing his candidate, Henry Nicholas, Hospital Workers president and an Obama supporter, alluded to talk that he had heard from some pundits about division in labor’s ranks: “We say no, no, no. In November we will be one!” Senator Bob Casey, another Obama supporter, thanked the delegates for turning Pennsylvania blue and helping him get elected in 2006.

In her remarks, Senator Clinton promised to appoint pro-labor representatives to the National Labor Relations Board and to posts in the Labor Department. She also pledged to support the Employee Free Choice Act, to rebuild America’s infrastructure and create three million jobs and to replace the No Child Left Behind Act with a new law supporting public education. The next day Obama told the delegates, “It’s time we had a president who didn’t choke on the word union. It’s time to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. It’s time to end the war in Iraq and take up the fight for decent health care at home and for good jobs at home.”

The convention addressed basic issues confronting Pennsylvania’s workers. In addition to calling for the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, the delegates passed resolutions endorsing HR 676, “Enhanced Medicare for All,” supporting the AFL-CIO nationally in working for “balanced and job friendly national climate legislation,” opposing the Colombia Free Trade Act and condemning the murder of trade union leaders in Colombia.

The convention passed two other ground breaking resolutions on issues regarding international relations and foreign policy. Resolution 60, submitted by UFCW Local 1776, resolves that “the labor movement in the United States virulently opposes war,” and calls upon “our elected leaders not to go to war in the future, unless it is in self defense of our country, is declared war by the Congress of the United States and is not in violation of respected and long standing international law.”

In passing Resolution 61, submitted by the Philadelphia Central Labor Council, the convention supported the national AFL-CIO’s call for the “rapid withdrawal” of our troops from Iraq and decided to affiliate with U.S. Labor against the War (USLAW).

Rosita Johnson and Debbie Bell contributed to this story.



Ben Sears
Ben Sears

Ben Sears is a retired teacher and AFT member in Philadelphia. He is the author, as John Bennett Sears, of the book "The Electrical Unions and the Cold War" (International Publishers 2019).