HOUSTON — The AFL-CIO’s national conference here, Jan. 11-15, celebrated the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., with a glorious tribute to a great man. Some 500 union activists from more than 15 international unions and many different states, including New York, California, Ohio and Pennsylvania made their presence known in profound ways.

Inspiring speeches on the relationship between civil rights and the labor movement were given throughout the conference.

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, president emeritus of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who worked with King, called for a reinvigoration of the “coalition of conscience.” He said he wants to ordain labor activists as “chaplains of the common good.” He called for a “coalition of the people’s agenda” and noted that King was committed to solidarity and unity to achieve the common good.

“In the old days of anticommunist hysteria,” Lowery said, “we compromised principles, we sacrificed ideals, we glorified violence, we maximized the material and minimized the spiritual, we dehumanized the poor, we trivialized social sensitivity, we castrated compassion, we demonized the saints and canonized the devils. All this in the name of fighting the evil empire.”

Lowery urged activists to “fight for peace” He assailed the forces that divide and challenged people to resist the tactics used by the ruling elite such as “homophobia” and the exploitation of the trauma of 9/11.

Lowery said, “Jesus identified himself with the least. … He did not identify with the fat cats.” Referring to Dr. King, he said, “Martin gave his life for the least of us.”

He also called for a compassionate and sane attitude towards immigration and to save our youth from the exploitation of drugs. He expressed the need for a “rebirth of the excitement of our task when we work for the common good” and added “we need a new belly full of fire — fire that comes from doing the right thing.”

AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson called for working people to organize for the fight against “the very worst president…he is not our president.” She said that undocumented immigrants need the opportunity to choose a union and that union workers make 29 percent more than other workers. Among Latinos, union workers make 50 percent more than nonunion workers, she said.

Fred Mason, of U.S. Labor Against the War, led a workshop on the effect of the Iraq war on people of color and put the problem in terms that everyone could understand. “$300 billion have been taken out of our communities to fight this war to kill hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq … to sacrifice over 3,000 U.S. lives,” he said.

“We can spend $14,000 for a single cluster bomb or put three children in Head Start programs for a year.”

To symbolize Martin Luther King’s commitment to solidarity and action, conference attendees participated in a number of community services projects. I worked on a project which sought to beautify the Martin Luther King Jr. Early Childhood Center. Over 200 union activists took part and planted azaleas and magnolia trees. Other projects included beautifying the SHAPE community center, a city park and senior center.

At a Jan. 15 labor breakfast. AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka said he found Bush’s escalation speech last week “chilling” and “the only thing he left out was to say, ‘I’m going to keep on fighting until the last drop of your blood.’” He said under the Bush administration, profits have gone up and wages and vital social programs have gone down. He acknowledged the great electoral victories in November 2006 and called for continued solidarity in the battle against anti-labor forces.

Interestingly, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) was in the audience listening to every word.

Trumka pledged that never again would the people who exploit workers be allowed to “divide us” as they have in the past. “I’d rather die standing on my feet with my brothers and sisters than to live on my knees like a dog,” he said.

Union activists had the largest contingent in one of the three Houston parades commemorating King’s birthday. The contingent was led by a float with union officials and was followed by ten solid waste vehicles. The lead garbage truck had a sign recognizing King gave his life protesting low wages and poor working conditions for sanitation workers.

Among the unions participating was the United Mine Workers, Unite Here, Transit Workers, Seafarers, Ironworkers, Machinists, Painters, Carpenters and the alphabet soup of AFSCME, AFT, UAW, ILA, USW, CWA and IBEW.

phill2 @ houston.rr.com