October/November 2011

FOCUS Politics

Grassroots Political Activism Mobilizes
Delegates Across Borders
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Building a cross-border grassroots political mobilization to reverse the hostile political climate and take on the legislative attacks on workers' rights was one of the top priorities at the 38th International Convention.

"Organizing, collective bargaining and political action are interdependent parts in the anatomy of our labor movement," International President Edwin D. Hill told delegates at the pre-convention political conference Sept. 17. "Power in the workplace is directly connected to our ability to mobilize our members at the ballot box and move our issues in the legislative arena—from the city hall on up."

Sharing his experiences from Wisconsin, ground zero last winter for the fight against executive overreach was Racine Local 430 Business Manager Chris Gulbrandson. Nowhere have working people been more under the gun than in the Badger State, but Gulbrandson says Gov. Scott Walker's attacks on collective bargaining rights have woken up the labor movement and built a massive pro-worker grassroots mobilization that few predicted possible.

"IBEW members stepped forward in a big way, going to Madison for the protests and walking door to door to tell voters the truth about Walker's real agenda," he said.

Guldbrandson also credits Walker with helping to forge unity between public and private sector workers that emerged during the massive protests that erupted in Madison in the wake of the governor's decision to strip bargaining rights from public employees.

"For a long time we didn't have much contact with the teachers and firefighters, but since Walker we've been working as one," he said.

It was a sentiment echoed on the convention floor as delegates unanimously passed a resolution calling on all IBEW locals to support the rights of public employees.

In Ohio, Columbus Local 683 Business Manager Mario Ciardelli says the Buckeye State labor movement has had similar success in putting Gov. John Kasich on the defensive in the months since he launched his attack on public workers.

Activists gathered more than 1.3 million signatures on petitions to repeal Senate Bill 5, which eliminated collective bargaining for state employees. That is more than four times the number needed to put the repeal on the November ballot.

Delegates and speakers reiterated the point that the No. 1 job of elected officials is job creation.

A video address from President Obama asked delegates to contact Congress to urge them to pass the American Jobs Act, which would help put construction workers back on the job doing vital infrastructure work, revamping the country's bridges, power system and schools.

"We are encouraged that [Obama] has forcefully challenged Congress to finally address our catastrophic job crisis," said Building and Maintenance Trades Department, AFL-CIO, President Mark Ayers on Day Four of the convention. "And everything in his proposal has been supported in the past by Democrats and Republicans alikeā€¦ So the question remains: What the hell is Congress waiting for?"

But the challenge is not only creating jobs, said delegates, but making sure they pay a decent, living wage and offer health and retirement security to help reverse the decline of the middle class.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, for example, is running for president on a pro-jobs platform, boasting that the Lone Star State has created more jobs than anywhere else in the United States.

But Houston Local 712 Vice President E. Dale Wortham says the kind of jobs created under Perry's watch won't contribute to rebuilding our economy.

"The jobs Perry has produced are all low-paying, minimum wage, service-sector jobs," he said. "They aren't the kind that can actually drive the economy."

Wortham, who spoke on the 38th International Convention floor in support of a resolution calling for strengthening the minimum wage, has family members who know firsthand the struggles faced by low-wage workers. His sister, a single mother, works two restaurant jobs.

"With two minimum wage jobs, the childcare and the transportation, she is lucky to just break even," he said.

Members in Canada are also facing increased threats to their rights and working standards from the emboldened Conservative Party government of Stephen Harper and anti-worker provincial governments across the country.

The First District has been beefing up its political action program in the past few years to meet the rapidly changing situation in the country. Matt Wayland, newly hired First District political action coordinator and media strategist, presented delegates with an update on pressing legislation of concern to Canadian members at the political conference.

Placing blame for the continuing economic crisis squarely on the shoulders of Wall Street and Bay Street, Canadian Labour Congress President Ken Georgetti asked delegates on Day 2 of the convention: "Did anyone here in this room take billions of dollars in bonuses while killing jobs? Of course not."

Delegates unanimously approved a resolution calling on all locals to educate and engage their members on the issues and candidates to further the union's grassroots political action program.

One of most important responsibilities of union activists is to educate their co-workers, neighbors and families on the major issues facing all working families—union and nonunion—a point driven home by British Columbia New Democratic Party leader Adrian Dix on the last day of the convention.

"It's our job to change the frame of political debate in our communities," said the Legislative Assembly member. "If we come together, if we work community by community, if we tell a different story about how we can succeed as a society—one that puts the middle class and working people first—then we can win."

Read more: Focus Growth: Delegates endorse growth

Read more: Focus Youth: First-ever IBEW youth delegation

Read more: Focus Partnership: Employer cooperation highlighted

Read more: Focus Community: Convention seeks community engagement

Read more: Focus Diversity/Inclusion: Discussion, diversity flow at conferences

Delegates addressed the importance of grassroots political action.

British Columbia New Democratic Party leader Adrian Dix