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.
Dodd-Conyers has garnered fifty-one sponsors in the Senate, but that's not enough. A 60-40 margin is required to stop any oppositional Republican filibuster. "Dodd-Conyers is dead," said Harvard Law professor Christopher Edley Jr., who also addressed the conference. "The Democrats just don't have enough votes to pass it." But Edley expressed confidence that a more moderate measure, known as Ney-Hoyer, not only has a good chance of being adopted but will also go a long way -- if not all the way -- in guaranteeing a more equitable election system. "I believe we are winning on this issue," Edley said as he warned against labor "overstating" its criticism of the bill.
Where labor's victory seems less certain is on the thorny issue of immigration reform, the focus of the conference's afternoon sessions. In February 2000 the executive council of the AFL-CIO pushed aside decades of labor's nativist reflexes by endorsing a general amnesty of undocumented workers and by pushing immigration reform to the top of the federation agenda. It wasn't only the right and ethical thing to do, Hotel and Restaurant Employees president John Wilhelm told the conference; it was also a matter of labor's own survival. "Virtually every union in our movement is now trying to organize," he said. "And what we found is that there isn't one industry in America, not one city, not one town, not one hamlet that doesn't have immigrant workers."
The AFL-CIO political push for fairer immigration policies built over the course of a year of organizing and lobbying and reached its peak the first week of this past September, when President Bush met with Mexican President Vicente Fox with the amnesty issue at the top of the agenda. "But then came September 11," says Wilhelm, who now chairs the federation's internal committee on immigration. That committee met in November, Wilhelm said, and found a "passion for the fight" against the anti-immigrant "backlash" that has ensued since the September 11 attacks. "The bad news is the backlash," he said. "The good news is that the labor movement is going to jump-start this national debate once again."
For starters, a resolution endorsing the battle for liberalization of immigration policies will be put before the assembly of convention delegates later this week. It's expected to pass easily. As a second step, the AFL-CIO is also helping to draft a bill to be carried by friendly Democrats as early as next month that would grant federal benefits to the survivors of undocumented workers killed in the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. From there, the federation plans to renew its full-blown campaign for major overhaul and some form of legalization of the millions who now work in the United States with no official status or documentation.
Union officials recognize that it will be a tough, uncertain fight. Not only because of anti-immigrant sentiments riled by September 11 but also because periods of economic recession usually contribute to the nativist impulse.
While the outcome of the fight is difficult to predict, there seemed to be no lack of willingness or passion to join the fray at the convention. The nearly 1,000 attendees were brought to their feet cheering, clapping and hooting when Clayola Brown, vice president of the clothing and textile workers' union UNITE, shouted to the crowd: "They say if you say anything against the government you are unpatriotic. Well, I say George W. Bush is the same sucker today as he was before September 11!"