By DAVID GROVES
WENATCHEE (Aug. 6) — These are challenging times to be a union member. But in the face of unprecedented and unwarranted attacks against labor for having the temerity to oppose the selfish destructive policies of the 1 percent, true union solidarity, spirit and sacrifice continue to shine through. This spirit and energy promises to renew the American dream, if we continue to fight for our values: building strong families and communities, a secure middle class, and a better world for our children.
That was the message delivered by several speakers at Monday’s opening session of the Washington State Labor Council’s 2012 Convention in Wenatchee. And no one exemplified that solidarity, spirit and sacrifice more than the first group to take the podium: striking Davis Wire workers, who were welcomed by nearly 500 union delegates and guests with a rousing ovation.
The 85 workers at the company’s Kent facility have been on strike since May 21 after working without a contract since Dec. 1, 2011. Just three days after these workers voted to authorize a strike, the company laid off 27 employees — nearly a third of its unionized workforce. Their union, Teamsters Local 117, contends that the layoffs were retaliatory in nature.
“Over the years, working at Davis Wire has become more and more difficult,” said Union Steward Robert Bruner, listing the types of injuries he’s witnessed due to dangerous working conditions at the company. “With all the extra work, all the extra risks, all of us walked out together and we’ve stayed out together throughout the entire strike. Nobody’s gone back inside.”
“The solidarity that these men have shown has been incredible,” said Teamsters 117 Organizer Brenda Wiest, who thanked the many unions and members who have supported them on the picket lines and by donating to the Davis Wire ONE MORE DAY Hardship Fund. “Together we are stronger.”
Sure enough, that is the theme of the WSLC’s 2012 Convention. Delegates from all types of unions across Washington state convene each year to share their struggles, experiences and wisdom and to strategize how best to represent the interests of some 400,000 rank-and-file union members in the nation’s 4th most unionized state. Delegates will also vote on the policies and priorities of the WSLC in the coming year.
“We have a jobs crisis in this country,” said WSLC President Jeff Johnson in his opening speech Monday. “We need to rebuild Washington state and rebuild America. Giving tax breaks to corporations is not going to create jobs. Give people the means to buy things, and jobs will be created.”
Johnson said the stark choice presented by policymakers and politicians is between a path of shared prosperity for all and a path of austerity for working-class Americans, despite the clear evidence that this approach has failed in Europe and elsewhere.
“It’s not as if there isn’t enough money out there to rebuild our state and our country. It’s just that the money’s in the wrong hands,” he said.
Economist Dean Baker, who is co-director of the Center for Economic Policy and Research, laid out some facts supporting Johnson’s assertion in Monday’s keynote address. Baker outlined the real cause of the Great Recession — the collapse of the housing bubble and the failed trickle-down policies of Federal Reserve Chairmen Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke and the Bush Administration’s economic team. (Policies like more tax cuts for the 1% and big corporations that are again being regurgitated by Mitt Romney and Republicans in Congress.)
“In D.C., everyone gave themselves a ‘who could have known’ amnesty,” Baker said. “They should have known. These guys messed up about as badly as is possible.”
Baker also explained why the conservative response to our economic crisis — imposing austerity measures upon middle-class families, upon our state and local governments, and upon our social safety nets like Medicare and Social Security — are exactly the wrong approach and will only make problems worse.
“We got into this because the Wall Street guys messed up,” he said. “The idea that we’re going to fix this with austerity is absolutely wrong-headed.”
MONDAY’S OTHER CONVENTION HIGHLIGHTS
The 2012 Bruce Brennan Award, presented to the individual who has shown their dedication to education, training and apprenticeship, went to Don Guillot of IBEW Local 77.
His decades of emphasis on electrical workers’ training culminated in the re-opening of the National Utility Training & Education Center (NUTEC), now owned and operated by the IBEW 77 Training Trust in Richland. The first classes were taught this year in this world-class facility thanks to Guillot’s vision, drive and determination.”
A Job Creation and Economic Development Panel was kicked off by Michael Peck, a green energy entrepreneur who is the North American Delegate for the Mondragon Corporation, a huge worker cooperative in Spain with more than 83,000 employees and 9,000 students. He explained Mondragon’s democratic business practices as the embodiment of the philosophy that “labor is not a commodity, labor is the most valuable thing we have. Capital is secondary to labor.”
Also on the panel were: Lee Newgent of the Seattle Building and Construction Trades Council on the need for Community Workforce Agreements to help create more family-wage job opportunities, particularly for disadvantaged youth; Mark Lowry of the Northwest Washington Central Labor Council, who made a compelling case for the proposed $1 billion Gateway Pacific Terminal project at Cherry Point that would bring 2,000 desperately needed union construction jobs to Whatcom County for two years and 400 permanent union jobs to operate it; and Hilary Stern of Casa Latina who described the Caring Across Generations campaign to create 2 million home-care jobs and to make sure they are good jobs.
The Mother Jones Award is presented by the Economic Development and Job Retention Committee each year to an individual and an organization that demonstrate the activism, tenacity and selflessness that exemplifies labor icon Mother Jones. The individual 2012 Mother Jones Award was presented to Charlie Best, Director of the King County Reemployment Support Center, AFL-CIO, for his decades of selfless service on behalf of unemployed workers.
“We fought a multinational corporation,” said ILWU 21 President Dan Coffman as he accepted the award. “A vicious corporation that doesn’t know what the word ‘no’ means, except for when they came to Longview. And we fought ‘em and we won.”
The convention continues tomorrow (see the tentative agenda) with AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker, panels of distinguished speakers on union organizing and on trade, immigrant workers and trafficking, and much more. Stay tuned…