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Former Brazilian President Lula receives a UAW jacket from UAW President Bob King. Lula was also named an honorary member of the UAW for his steadfast support of workers. Photos by Don Lehman/UAW Local 249.
Nearly 1,500 active and retired UAW members gathered at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington on Sunday to kick off the union’s 2013 National Community Action Program (CAP) Legislative Conference.
UAW delegates from across the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico are assembled until Wednesday to talk about the UAW’s legislative and political agenda for the coming year, meet with congressional representatives to advocate for issues of importance to working families and prepare for next year’s elections.
The week began with an address that highlights the UAW’s global solidarity with unions around the world, particularly with those in Brazil such as CNM/CUT (Confederacao Nacional dos Metalurgicos/Central Unica dos Trabalhadores), which is the largest autoworker union in Brazil. Delegates from CNM/CUT recently attended a community meeting in Canton, Miss., to show support for Nissan workers who are organizing and fighting for a fair election process.
UAW President Bob King, sporting a soccer jersey given to him by the former president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, 68, and known affectionately as “Lula,” told delegates that because Lula was an autoworker – a lathe operator – he believed in workers.
“He was the only leader in the world who rejected austerity economics [when he brought Brazil’s economy back to prosperity for all, not just the elite],” said King. “He overthrew a dictatorship and became president of Brazil. ‘Why aren’t we, here in the U.S., running more of our members for political office?’”
Lula presented Bob King with an official jersey of Brazil's Corinthians soccer team with the message, in Portuguese, "Para meu amigo, Bob King. De Lula," which translates to "To my good friend, Bob King. From Lula." The back of the jersey includes King's full name and the number 8.
Lula was president of Brazil for two terms, from 2002 to 2010, coming from humble origins. His formal education ended in fourth grade when he had to work to help his family. He eventually began working as a lathe operator, later lost a finger on the job in an auto parts factory and didn’t get immediate medical attention, which helped spark his lifelong interest in improving the lives of workers through unions.
University of California-Berkeley professor Harley Shaiken, who introduced Lula, said he brought 20 million Brazilians out of poverty during his presidency.
Lula told delegates that Brazilian workers are in complete solidarity with American workers at Nissan in Canton, Miss., who are campaigning for the right to organize a union, and decide whether they want a union free of intimidation and threats from the company.
“It’s unimaginable,” said Lula. “Labor cannot accept that Nissan comes to America and says workers can’t organize.”
He also said the world economic crisis cannot be fixed on the back of workers.
“The crisis was caused by deregulation. The financial system should exist to lend money to the productive sector!” said Lula, who outlined for delegates the painstaking work of his presidency to restore Brazil’s economy without resorting to draconian, anti-worker austerity measures.
“Why bail out the banks and not the workers?” he told the roaring crowd as they leapt to their feet with applause.
“The UAW is an extraordinary union and plays a huge role,” said Lula. “It is a great, quality union.”
CAP delegate Jonathan Herrold, 28, said Lula’s speech was inspiring, especially for the Canton Nissan workers.
President King, wearing a soccer jersey presented to him by Lula, a former lathe operator, asked why more of our members aren't running for political office.
“Everyone should be able to organize,” said the UAW Local 450 position assembler and union steward at John Deere in Ankeny, Iowa. “We supported Lula when he was in jail for supporting workers’ rights, and it’s important that he does the same for us now, which he’s doing.
“I thought it was most interesting that he was a sheet metal worker and eventually became president of his country. You don’t think a guy on the shop floor can run the country someday. He did,” added Herrold.
"President Lula stressed to never forget where you came from. That’s what really hit home for me,” said Mike Green, president of UAW Local 65 in Lansing, Mich. “Everything he said makes so much sense, and it proves that you can come from humble beginnings and go on to achieve great things for working people.”
“It makes me think about spending more time with members,” said Green. “He inspired me to go to the plant gates more and connect even more with our members. President Lula is a great testament to how to lead and change the world by example.”
Teree O’Neil-Darling, 51, is a CAP delegate from UAW Local 1975 at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Mich. The admissions department worker said his speech made her think about the shame of poverty in this country, especially because Lula said his focus as president in Brazil was eradicating poverty.
“He successfully reduced poverty in his country. We can learn from that,” said O’Neil-Darling. “We need to globalize workers’ rights,” she said, adding that it’s important that Lula outlined his support for workers campaign for the right to organize at Canton Nissan.
Two workers from the Canton Nissan plant were in the audience during Lula’s address. Jeff Moore, 35, said the speech had an impact on him.
Lula: 'Labor cannot accept that Nissan comes to America and says workers can’t organize.'
“Lula's speech was powerful for me,” said Moore, a quality control body shop worker for the past 10 years. “When he stuck his neck out for workers in Brazil, it made me realize he really cares about the labor movement. I think it's going to move my co-workers to get motivated toward a vote for the union.
“It will make everyone want to step off the curb and be braver and bolder in our effort to organize and fight for the rights we deserve,” added Moore.
Moore’s co-worker James Brown agrees. Brown got to meet Lula before his address and has been getting nonstop support from UAW members at the CAP Conference.
“UAW members came up to us and shook our hands. It meant a lot to us to have that type of support and solidarity from UAW members,” said Brown. “I now see that we have a lot more support, and people telling us we are doing the right thing than those at Nissan telling us we are not.”
King will deliver the keynote address Monday morning.
UAW members will spend Tuesday on Capitol Hill visiting members of Congress.
Gwynne Marie Cobb and Sandra Davis Dortch contributed to this story.