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Tefere Gebre embodies AFL-CIO’s transformation

President, Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO

LOS ANGELES (Sept. 11, 2013) — Day 3 of the AFL-CIO 2013 Convention on Tuesday focused on the economic policies and quality labor standards that define what we mean by “shared prosperity” and the fact that we, as labor and community, must define the kind of country and world that we want to live in, placing workers at the center of our economic vision.

gebre-tefereBut clearly the most important thing we did during the day that embodied the spirit of the transformational changes being proposed at this convention was to nominate and elect Tefere Gebre to the Executive Vice President position at the AFL-CIO. Tefere is the first foreign-born trade unionist ever elected to one of the three AFL-CIO officers positions.

He was born in Ethiopia and fled the repressive government regime when he was 14 by walking for weeks across the desert to the Sudan and living in a refugee camp for months until he obtained political asylum in the U.S. Raising himself in Los Angeles at the age of 15 he put himself through high school and then earned a scholarship to Pomona College on a track scholarship as a long distance runner.

Tefere is a member of United Food and Commercial Workers union and as the head of the Orange County Central Labor Council he doubled the membership of the CLC in that bastion of conservatism, quadrupled the political activism of the membership, led the fight against Proposition 32 (aimed at silencing workers’ political voice), and built broad and deep partnerships with the community.

Tefere’s election is a proud moment for the labor movement and proof that we want to build a broad and inclusive labor movement.

The day began with Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz’s analysis of the failure of austerity policies at home and abroad and of how the U.S. has developed the greatest level of inequality of all the advanced economic countries.

This set the stage for a series of resolutions that defined the policies that create shared prosperity. Resolutions 6,9,10,11,13, and 14 focused on the policies that would lead to economic growth based on high wages and quality labor standards. Policy formulations ranged from living wage initiatives raising the minimum wage, paid safe and sick leave, enhancing Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, protecting workers and communities from corporate and public bankruptcies, pension reform, and creating safe workplaces. Worker after worker testified to the need for justice in our workplaces and communities.

United Mine Worker Shirley Inman talked about Patriot Coal filing bankruptcy to get out of paying health care and pension benefits promised to retirees. Shirley has been arrested twice this year in demonstrations against Patriot and Peabody Coal and said she will continue to get arrested until justice is secured.

“We work hard for the company and all we expect is that we get what we bargained for,” Inman said. “When big banks come before people then something is wrong.”

Kalpona Akter from Bangladesh spoke passionately about the atrocious safety conditions in the garment industry and the over 1,800 garment workers who have died in fires and building collapses since 2008 because of the wanton disregard for the health and safety of workers. She told us that the Gap and Walmart are still refusing to sign binding safety agreements for companies in their supply chain.

The head of the Bakery Workers union spoke about the demise of the Hostess Company after an Equity Firm and Hedge Fund Managers took over the company and forced a choice between draconian concessions (no more pensions, no more health care, no more 8-hour day) or liquidation of the company. The workers voted 92% to liquidate rather then become the wage slaves of Wall Street.

perez-thomas-LNew Secretary of Labor Tom Perez had the audience on their feet when he spoke passionately about how it is our job as labor to fight inequality with every thing we have so that employers can not defraud workers, the government and the community through wage theft, so that workers don’t have to choose between their jobs and their health, and so that full time workers earn wages that bring them above poverty. As a former Director of Casa Maryland, a worker center, we couldn’t ask for a stronger advocate at USDOL.

It was also a big day for the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO at the Convention.

I got to offer the only successful amendment of the convention by amending Resolution 10 on raising wages so that it includes support for federal legislation on fair wages to workers with disabilities. WSLC Secretary-Treasurer Lynne Dodson testified on Resolution 12 calling for fair trade and an end to trade agreements negotiated in secrecy. Hilary Stern of Casa Latina and I participated in an action session on the work of labor councils and worker centers broadening the labor movement.

WSLC Secretary-Treasurer seconds the nomination of AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler for reelection. (Click to enlarge.)

WSLC Secretary-Treasurer Lynne Dodson seconds the nomination of AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler for reelection. (Click to enlarge.)

Prior to the convention, Lynne was asked by AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler to be one of her seconds in the nomination process. Lynne gave a beautiful, compassionate, humorous, and strong seconding speech as some members of the Washington state delegation and representatives of her union, the American Federation of Teachers, stood behind her cheering her on.

At the end of the day Richard Trumka was reelected President and Liz Shuler as Secretary-Treasurer, and they are now joined by Tefre Gebre as the third officer, Executive Vice-President of the AFL-CIO.

Jeff Johnson is President of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, the state’s largest union organization, representing approximately 400,000 rank-and-file union members.

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