The AFL-CIO has opened its 24th Biennial Convention here in the glitzy neon heart of this very unionized Sin City, but Big Labor's mood is anything but frivolous. Looming in the lobby of the Paris Hotel Convention Center is a mammoth wall listing the hundreds of names of union workers incinerated in the September 11 attacks.
The dark clouds of that day still shadow the work of the 13 million-member labor federation. "America's Workers: Heroes Every Day" is the official motto of the five-day gathering. And while the Administration has called upon Americans to respond to the emergency by flooding the shopping malls, the AFL-CIO calls instead for a renewal of vigorous, partisan politics on behalf of those same American working families, now threatened by a deepening economic recession and by an empowered and emboldened conservative White House.
"We are engaged in fighting two wars," AFL-CIO president John Sweeney told The Nation. "We stand with President Bush in fighting the war against terrorism. And we stand opposed to him as we fend off a war against workers. This is the most antiworker administration in recent times."
Urging its membership to re-engage the domestic political fight, the federation began its deliberations on Sunday with a pre-convention, daylong Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Hundreds of labor delegates and invited political activists crammed a standing-room-only ballroom to chart the federation's political plan going into next year's mid-term Congressional elections. "It's like the old union song 'Which Side Are You On?'" said federation vice president Linda Chavez-Thompson in a rousing kick-off speech. "And the labor movement is on the side of human rights, on the side of affirmative action, on the side of families being able to earn a living wage and to organize a union."
In the short term, labor is mobilizing to defeat the Bush Administration's push for presidential fast-track trade negotiating authority as well as the House version of the so-called "economic stimulus" package, derided by a long list of conference speakers as little more than a bottomless hope chest of corporate welfare. Sweeney called the package "an insult."
Activists also promised a fight against a number of White House nominations to the federal judiciary. But the AFL-CIO's sights were trained mostly on two big issues: election and immigration reform.
"Election reform is simply the number-one civil rights issue of the 107th Congress," said conference keynote speaker Wade Henderson, head of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Henderson said the most comprehensive legislative proposal in that regard is the so-called Dodd-Conyers bill, which the AFL-CIO helped develop. Such measures are required, he said, to thwart any repeat of last year's prolonged vote-counting fiasco in Florida.