The United Steelworkers union is holding its annual convention this week. Union conventions in presidential election years invariably deal with presidential politics, and this one is no different.
Except, perhaps, for the quality of the oratory – and the depth and meaning of the message.
Barack Obama may well be the most eloquent presidential candidate the Democrats have run since William Jennings Bryan.
But what is fascinating is the extent to which Obama’s candidacy is inspiring his supporters to hit their rhetorical strides.
AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka, a veteran mineworkers union leader who has always been known as one of labor’s fiercest public speakers, was dispatched to the convention to whip up enthusiasm for the Obama campaign.
Trumka knew that the steelworkers had backed John Edwards for this year’s Democratic presidential nomination — and that the union had only endorsed Obama when Edwards finally came around. He understood that a part of his job was to get a union that is especially strong in the battleground states of Ohio and Pennsylvania excited about a candidate who must win those states.
Trumka knew, as well, that there are steelworkers — and autoworkers and machinists and others– who are committed to the labor movement but cautious about backing a person of color for president. So te Pennsylvania populist went to the heart of the matter — challenging ignorance and fear and calling on the House of Labor to identify and reject the politics of race in order to elect an ally to the presidency.
“(There’s) no evil that’s inflicted more pain and more suffering than racism — and it’s something we in the labor movement have a special responsibility to challenge,” declared Trumka is a speech that will rank as one of the most important of the 2008 campaign.
Of course, there will be efforts to divide working Americans against themselves, said Trumka.
Union activists must be in the forefront of fighting against those efforts, he argued.And their message must go to the bottom line of the 2008 election:”(At) the end of the day, what people are going to need to hear is that when it comes to protecting jobs, when it comes to protecting pensions, when it comes to health care, child care, pay equity for women, Social Security, Medicare, seeing to it that people can afford to go to college and buy a home — and restoring the right to collective bargaining — Barack Obama has always, always been on our side.”This is a guy who’s voted with labor 98 percent of the time!”Now, contrast that with John McCain.