AFL-CIO Western Conference in Seattle confronts labor’s challenges
By JUSTINE WINNIE
SEATTLE (Mar. 25, 2013) — Over the weekend, labor and community leaders from Washington, Oregon, Alaska, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming, Arizona, Idaho, Hawaii, Nevada and Utah gathered here for the largest AFL-CIO Western Regional Conference ever held, with 180 attendees from AFL-CIO state federations, central labor councils, and community organizations from the AFL-CIO’s Western Region.
Leaders from the West discussed many topics around one central, impossible-to-ignore theme: the urgency and strategies for reinvigorating the labor movement. From practical techniques to national AFL-CIO campaigns to sharing the power of personal stories, the group rallied around a new commitment to innovation and diversity. The three-day event blended workshops, lively discussion, thoughts of the nation’s top labor leaders, and a successful solidarity action with UNITE HERE 8 workers at the Space Needle, as well as a celebration of the diversity of labor culture at a reception held at the Seattle Labor Temple.
This year, the Western Region welcomed both AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka and Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler. The proceedings were moderated by AFL-CIO Western Region Director Lori Ortega, and supported by local Washington State Labor Council President Jeff Johnson and Secretary-Treasurer Lynne Dodson and M.L. King, Jr. County Labor Council Executive Secretary David Freiboth.
Communicators, organizers, and officers from each Western state attended to hone skills, deepen understanding, and build a stronger region. True to the national’s 2013 campaigns, workshops and plenary sessions centered around comprehensive immigration reform, campaign strategy, innovative communications and new media, community coalition-building, and the engagement of young workers.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka brought his grounded, vigorous message to an enthusiastic crowd, which he recognized as the “heart and soul of the labor movement.” Working families in Washington State, he explained, have fought against “paycheck deception” and protected Project Labor Agreements, voter rights, and bargaining rights.
“Workers here in Washington do make the best airplanes in the world!” Trumka said. “Washington cleaned up the mess made by Boeing’s outsourcing and offshoring.”
Trumka gave the regional group a sense of the national urgency and unity of the AFL-CIO’s plan for 2013: comprehensive immigration reform, raising the minimum wage, paid sick leave, job creation, and the expansion of voter rights.
“We are making an America that we dream of and fight for,” said Trumka. “We are edging closer, but we still have a long way to go.”
Placing today’s struggle in historical context, he described a stark reality: working people everywhere are vulnerable, the incomes of working families are falling, and we as a nation face the worst class inequality in 30 years. It’s all connected, Trumka said.
Union density is falling, and so is middle-class well-being. That’s not because they’re interconnected: we are one and the same. The union workforce is the foundation of the middle class. We will be the change that we need to see… There’s no time for business as usual. We need to listen to voices from inside and outside the movement. The key word is ‘together.’
Trumka next asked the young workers in the audience to stand up.
“We have to foster young activists. Here’s why I love young people: They don’t know what can’t be done.” He advised, “Don’t ever lose that feeling — just go ahead and do it.”
AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler also recognized the young worker movement, which is a development she has worked hard to foster.
“Green shoots are blossoming!” Shuler said. “We’re planning lots of young worker actions for (the AFL-CIO’s National) Convention.”
This is the first year that promotion of the regional conferences included an explicit request that young workers attend. The Young Worker’s Advisory Council, comprised of several regional young worker leaders, played a role in the planning of the regional conferences, helping to develop workshops on engaging young workers with local young worker groups in each region.
At the Western Region conference, young workers were included in panels as well, being recognized for the tenacity and vision they show in their work. Young activists Jasmine Marwaha of UNITE HERE 8 and Cariňo Barragán of Casa Latina as well as “Dreamers” — immigrant students able to remain in the U.S. under the Dream Act– spoke on the topics of young worker engagement, community coalition-building, and comprehensive immigration reform.
Kamaria Hightower, President of the Washington Young Emerging Labor Leaders, collaborated with Josette Jaramillo of Colorado, Nick Gaitaud of Oregon, and Lorenso Arciniega of California on a workshop designed to help workers both young and old go home with concrete goals and strategies around organizing young workers.
Conference attendees later joined a flock of local union activists — UNITE HERE members, community partners, and union brothers and sisters — who gathered at the iconic Space Needle to support UNITE HERE workers. The group was so vibrant that sympathetic community members enjoying the sunshine joined the picket line. Local and national leaders raised their voices above the crowd, declaring that justice and victory would be had for the workers of this symbolic Seattle attraction.