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Described as a “fascinating morning,” Monday’s opening plenary session at the 2012 UAW Community Action Program (CAP) Legislative Conference was jam-packed with a diverse program of speakers from labor leaders to a member Congress, an economic panel and even discussions on the “social revolution.”
The morning was followed by a full afternoon of workshops for the more than 1,600 delegates. Here’s a recap:
Arlene Holt Baker: a political ‘clown show’
Delegates heard from AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker who thanked the UAW for creating a path to the middle class and fighting fervently against efforts to eroded worker gains.
Baker told delegates that for her and many Americans, the UAW’s progress in helping secure jobs for Americans is now and has always been an important factor.
Baker grew up in Texas, and said that as a teenager her grasp of the country’s economic health had a lot to do with what was happening in Detroit.
Admittedly, she said, she didn’t really understand economics back then, but “I knew if the people in Detroit were making it, then America seemed to be making it,” said Baker, the first African American to be elected to one of the federation’s three highest offices and is the highest ranking African-American woman in the union movement.
The UAW, she said, has continued Walter Reuther’s legacy of love for community and country and believing that “we truly are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.”
Today, she said, union members are rightly focused on turning back the anti-labor, anti-women, anti-fairness Republicans who are attacking the middle class on all fronts.
“As you have come here to Washington, D.C., to raise your voices for working people, for good jobs and for fair taxes, and the freedom to form unions and to bargain collectively, Republican primaries continue to dominate the national headlines as the contenders and the contest move from state to state,” she said.
“Tomorrow [Feb. 28] all eyes will be on Arizona and Michigan. We don’t know who will come out on top [in the primaries], but we know what every one of the candidates has in common – every one of them opposes the rescue of the American automobile industry.
“Every one of these candidates supports these voter suppression laws or so-called voter ID laws. They oppose the basic rights of public employees, and they oppose immigration reform to protect a system of immigration exploitation, and now they are competing with one another over who hates the labor movement the most,” Baker said.
“This is nothing more than a clown show,” she added.
“It’s all designed,” she told the group to “keep us in our place when workers only want a decent chance at a fair shake. If any one of those Republican candidates is elected, they are certainly going to make our country look like a circus, and we are not going to let that happen.”
“Sisters and brothers, when we stand together with those organizations and individuals who share our values, the numbers are on our side. United we cannot be turned aside,” added Baker.
Local 1112's Raye Ohl: Energized to work for Obama's re-election. Photos by Joseph Vermillion/UAW Local 602.
“She reminded us of why we have to all work together,” said Raye Ohl of UAW Local 1112 in Lordstown, Ohio. “We are all in this together, and this is what we need to be energized and get out there and help re-elect President Obama.”
Ohl added that “this is something we can take back home and move on with our agenda for getting labor-friendly supporters elected.”
Gene Sperling: an insider’s view
Known in the political arena as “Gene the Machine” for his tireless work ethic, Gene Sperling addressed UAW delegates on America’s current economic climate.
A Washington insider, Sperling is director of the National Economic Council and Assistant to the President for Economic Policy.
Appointed by President Obama in January 2011, he formerly served as counselor to the Secretary of the Department of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner, starting in 2009.
He said that while the economy is making a turnaround, we had to come back from losing 1.1 million jobs to creating 800,000 jobs a month. Sperling added that while this isn’t a modest recovery, it will take time before middle-class working America begins to fully recover.
“The UAW is a symbol of U.S. comeback. It is an unquestionable fact that we have a long way to go to heal from this depression we inherited. When you look at what this president did, he will be remembered as the president who took one of the swiftest, most aggressive actions to protect this country against the next great depression,” said Sperling. “The American economy was growing within six months of President Obama being elected – and a year later, hundreds of thousands of jobs have been brought back.”
Local 249's Jeff Wright: 'Can't imagine what economy would look like without the stimulus.'
“Two years ago, Missouri was No. 2 in the nation in auto manufacturing. Now we are No. 6. I can’t imagine what the U.S. economy would look like if he wouldn’t have pushed through the [economic] stimulus package,” said Jeff Wright, a UAW Local 249 member who works at Ford Motor Co.’s Kansas City facility.
Josh Nassar: house of cards collapsed
It isn’t a mystery why we’re in the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, UAW Legislative Director Josh Nassar told delegates during a Powerpoint presentation on the economy. The Bush tax cuts created a house of cards that collapsed at the end of 2008.
“We’re not in this hole due to working families,” Nassar said. “We got here because of the reckless behavior on Wall Street.”
Nassar, who was named the union’s legislative director in December, said there are two competing visions on how we can rebuild our economic house.
“One involves further weakening the protection for workers, cutting even more taxes for the rich and deeper budget cuts. Does that sound like a good vision?” Nassar asked, followed by a resounding “No!” from delegates.
“The latter involves supporting workers, like the success that came with the auto loans, but we need to build upon that,” he said. “There’s a need to make more investments in manufacturing and infrastructure, such as the American Jobs Act, which would have created 2 million jobs or more.”
States have made large budget cuts, Nassar added, which has made this recession worse. So, we need a bill such as the American Jobs Act, which would make sure the budget cuts aren’t at the local and state level.“It’s all about creating jobs here in America making the investments necessary,” Nassar said.
Panel: Economy’s on the right track
Those words can sometimes mean an audience might be unable to connect with the experts bringing the message.
Not so Monday where the panel included a Pulitzer Prize winner, a co-founder of the American Prospect and director of a national policy advocacy organization and think tank.
The trio of Steven Pearlstein, Robert Kuttner and Heather McGhee received rousing applause and cheers as they told the crowd that labor and the Occupy Movement are both on the right track raising the concerns of the middle class and giving voice to the silent majority.
They talked about the need to build infrastructure, create quality jobs, enforce trade agreements and legislate fair policies.
Pearlstein and Kuttner focused on policy and trade issues from the 1940s until now. McGhee focused on why the Occupy Movement has gained international attention and taken the concerns of a silent majority and made them headline news on the nation’s networks and cable shows.
Local 469's Mike Bink: Enjoyed the experts who explained the need to create jobs.
“A lot of people think that economists are going to be dry and boring,” said Mike Bink of UAW Local 469 in Milwaukee. “But the UAW is good with bringing us experts who are good with explaining the issues.”
Barney Frank: why right wing fails
With his trademark rapid-fire delivery and searing observations, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., blasted away at failed right-wing policies that have led the U.S. down the wrong economic path and resulted in an unprecedented attack on workers’ rights and the middle class.
“The right wing cut taxes while fighting wars. The unfairness of so much of their economic arrangements in this country are becoming clear to people,” said Frank, a 16-term congressman who is regarded as one of the hardest working legislators on Capitol Hill.
“The right wing has to change the subject because of it,” he added. “They say radical disparities in wealth are necessary for economic growth. That’s not true. Appropriate fairness promotes growth.”
Frank said progressives can tell the right wing “we told you so” on “issue after issue.” He said the notion that tax cuts provide more revenue through supply-side economics, as espoused by the right wing since the Reagan era, haven’t worked.
“The GOP had power for a longer period under the Bush presidencies than either party since the Johnson administration,” said Frank. “They have primary responsibility for the state of today’s economy. We [Democrats] told them if they cut taxes, enormous deficits would ensue. Their tax policy, while running two wars, resulted in huge deficits.”
In fact, Frank said, tax rates were much higher for the wealthy during the most robust stretch of economic prosperity in the history of the United States: the Clinton era.
“Under President Clinton, we raised the top tax rate from 33 percent to 36 percent. The GOP said it would bring economic disaster. The U.S. economy performed better than at any time in U.S. history during that time,” Frank reminded delegates.
Another myth perpetuated by the right wing, he said, is that the public sector is too big and is hurting job creation.
“That’s not true,” he said. “Every month’s jobs report shows that we have gained jobs in the private sector and lost jobs in the public sector – workers like firefighters, police officers and teachers. The notion is that fairness and growth are in conflict, and they are not.”
Frank says one of the biggest factors in a strong U.S. economy has been the strength of the UAW.
“What’s striking about the UAW has been its effectiveness as a consistent force in social justice as a whole,” said Frank, adding that the rebound of the domestic auto industry is a stunning achievement of partnership between the private sector and targeted government assistance for the public good.
“The auto company loans from the U.S. government are the most effective piece of economic policy in U.S. history,” said Frank to thunderous applause from the delegates. “It never would have happened if the rightwing had their way.”
Frank says President Obama hasn’t been given a fair shake in trying to tackle the problems of the worst U.S. economy since the Great Depression, an economy he was handed and didn’t create.
“President Clinton left George W. Bush a great economy and Bush profited from it. Bush left President Obama a bad economy and he is being hurt by it. That’s not fair,” said Frank, who will retire and not run for re-election this year.
Local 931's Aaron Warfield: appreciated comments from Congressman Frank on 'appropriate fairness to promote economic growth.'
UAW Local 931 member Aaron Warfield was pleased with Frank’s remarks.
“I was especially impressed with how he spoke about appropriate fairness to promote economic growth. We need to support politicians who support working people,” said Warfield. “I liked his thoughts about being economically self-supportive. We need to support the recovery of the auto industry, fight for good jobs and maintain what we have without giving everything away,” said Warfield. “We’ve already shown we are willing to give up a lot to help the auto companies.”
Dennis Williams: Transnational organizing update
UAW Secretary-Treasurer Dennis Williams brought delegates up to speed on the union’s demand that workers at transnational auto plants be given the right to decide whether they want a union.
“We are at a critical time in the transnational organizing effort. The UAW made a huge commitment to organizing two years ago,” said Williams. “We are working together now like never before. We cannot continue to organize as we have in the past. We have to build alliances and coalitions like never before.”
Williams said the UAW wants to make sure all workers – not just UAW members – make good wages and can live a middle-class life. He said the UAW also is focusing on bringing young activists from around the world into the movement to create global solidarity.
“To achieve our goals, we have to communicate. We have reached out to workers in every [foreign-owned] facility in the United States and are holding meetings with international allies,” said Williams.
Williams also stressed the fair election principles they want transnationals to follow, which demand that workers have the right to decide for themselves whether they want a union.
“If you follow these rules and allow workers a choice, we will not do a campaign as in the past. We will respect the wishes of the workers. They have not responded yet. It’s up to the companies how we react,” he said.
Local 160's Becky Irvin: Progressive groups must work together.
UAW Local 160 member Becky Irvin, a 19-year assembler inspector at General Motors’ Tech Center in Warren, said Williams’ address ties in with the theme of the week of progressive groups working together to achieve big results.
“It’s collective. It’s not just about the UAW anymore,” said Irvin.
‘The Social Revolution’
What can one person do to be a more effective advocate for their cause?
Michelle Ringuette and Jesse LaGreca asked the rhetorical question to UAW delegates in their panel discussion and offered some practical answers.
Ringuette, assistant to American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, and LaGreca, a free-lance journalist and blogger at DailyKos.com, discussed ways to expand social movements for change.
First, bring more people into the discussion.
“We need to go to people who are younger and explain why it’s important to fight for labor rights,” LaGreca said. “We’re looking at the repeal of the 20th century,” she said, adding that it is a stripping of our rights to social and economic justice that the labor movement fought so hard to attain.
Ringuette and LaGreca said the discussion has to move beyond the walls of this legislative conference and local union halls. It must move to dinner tables, over coffee with friends and elsewhere.
“We need to reach out to people beyond the labor movement, and we can’t do it alone,” Ringuette said. “We can’t be just labor or just occupiers. We need to come together.”
An example of people coming together to bring about change can be seen in Wisconsin and Ohio. While public workers were being targeted, it was many union activists – including those from the UAW – who came to the rescue.
Ringuette spent the last year working directly with the UAW and other unions and progressive groups to fight back against the coordinated right-wing legislative attacks in states including Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Florida, Maine and several others.
“If it hadn’t been for your members on social media, we wouldn’t have changed Wisconsin,” she said.
“Labor has so many friends they don’t know about,” LaGreca added. “The 99 percent is all of us. … The only way your neighbors will understand is if you talk to them yourself. Once they understand that, ‘I’m not against capitalism, I’m against crime’ and that ‘I want to work hard and get paid for it,’ they see that we’re both on the same side.”
He gained notoriety last year when he spoke the truth into a Fox News microphone during the Occupy Wall Street protests.
LaGreca has been called a “pinhead” by right-wing pundit Bill O'Reilly, and the New York Observer stated, “Mr. LaGreca is Fox News' worst nightmare.” The son of a union carpenter, he’s proud to fight for working-class people in any way he can. Generally, that’s accomplished through his scorching critiques of right-wing politicians and their extremist views.
Local 602's Mike Huerta: Must re-engage with neighbors. co-workers about issues.
In his blogs, LaGreca has called for more nonviolent civil disobedience against corporatism. “We need a movement to fight corporate personhood, Citizens United and the corrupt trickle down, deregulatory ideology that allowed Wall Street to destroy the world economy.”
UAW Local 602 member Mike Huerta was asked about the overall message about engaging our neighbors in discussion.
“I couldn’t agree more. We’ve lost touch with each other,” he said. “I was talking to co-workers who didn’t show up around election time, and they had pension tax increases. … It’s pretty apparent that elections reflect these results.”
Gwynne Cobb, Sandra Davis, Jennifer John, Susan Kramer, Joan Silvi and Chris Skelly contributed to this story.