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New industrial union pushes working-class power

by Scott Marshall and Denise Winebrenner Edwards Saturday, Apr. 23, 2005 at 10:52 AM

LAS VEGAS — It was the fire from below that powered up the merger convention of the USWA and PACE, held here April 11-14. Five thousand workers, their families and guests shared stories of battles on picket lines and in battleground state polling places. Many conversations started with, “Let me tell you what that son of a Bush did in Ohio …” or Texas, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Indiana or Southern California.

‘Days of business unionism gone’ vow Steelworkers, PACE

Union dumps anticommunist clause

“I can see the power, working-class power here,” said Chris Horn, a local union official from Alcoa Local 104 in Indiana. “Between Alcoa and Bush we are getting beat up. It’s tough mobilizing our members, but that is the only power we have. That’s what we have to organize and tap because we can win,” he said, barely able to speak from cheering.

The merger creates the nation’s largest industrial union with 850,000 active members and 350,000 retirees, including industry veterans forced out early by plant closings.

But it was in establishing the union’s responsibilities for the struggles of the entire working class, labor observers noted, that the convention marked a turning point for the labor movement.

“The union cannot survive if the only goal is to negotiate better contracts for our members,” declared Steelworker President Leo Gerard, who will lead the merged union. “We can’t survive as an island of prosperity in a sea of misery. Our goal has to be a better world for all, a better future for our children and grandchildren. It’s the system we have to change!” Delegates staged a floor demonstration of support.

Gerard told delegates that he went to meet with the local union in Texas City, site of the recent refinery disaster where 15 workers died on the job. “I breathed a sigh of relief that no PACE members had died,” he said. “But then I was immediately struck with shame. It didn’t make any difference that the people killed weren’t union members — a worker is a worker is a worker!” He announced that the newly merged union, USW, is conducting its own investigation and, if the oil company is found responsible, “the USW will fight with all our resources to bring company officials to justice and prosecuted.” Cheers and angry calls to “lock ’em all up” erupted in the hall.

Gerard referred to lessons of the 1980s when layoffs and plant shutdowns wiped out a quarter million steelworker jobs in just seven years. “We learned that our union had to change,” he said. “The days of business as usual were gone — and so were the days of business unionism.” Business unionism, a steelworker delegate told the World, “is when the union puts the interests of the company ahead of or on par with the interests of the workers.” Another delegate described business unionism as running the union like a business instead of as a workers’ organization.

Without debate, convention delegates removed the infamous anticommunist clause from the union’s constitution. Such clauses have played a devastating role in weakening labor in the face of employer assaults, resulting in the purging of rank-and-file activists from the labor movement.

In another historically significant move, the union’s constitution was amended to establish women’s committees in every local union — a demand fought for by steelworker women for three decades.

The combined union laid out a five-part “Building Power” action program. It aims to increase collective bargaining rights, employer neutrality and card-check agreements, to launch more strategic campaigns, as well as to step up its already high level of political and legislative action.

Corporate interests have been lowering the boom on every social program and progressive law passed over the last 60 years, Gerard said, putting emphasis on the struggle to save Social Security. Right-wing extremists, he told the delegates, “bend over backwards to enrich their Gucci-shoed, latte-drinking, coupon-clipping, job-destroying, money-grubbing cronies on Wall Street and Bay Street.”

The union also plans to increase global solidarity. The pre-merger USWA signed strategic alliances with Mexican and Brazilian metal unions, in addition to one with Germany’s IG Metall. Gerard read a letter greeting the new union from the president of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, former president of that country’s metalworkers union.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney hailed the merger and called on delegates to voice their ideas in the important debates taking place throughout the labor movement. “The future of our movement,” Sweeney said, “will be decided in the union halls and on the picket lines, in the mines, shops and workplaces of our country,” not by union leaders at the top.

Roberta Wood contributed to this story.

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