LAS VEGAS - Carolyn Wade didn't go looking for a fight, but she's in the middle of a big one. Some call it a war on workers.
"We've had no choice but to fight," Wade said.
Wade, a former social worker for the state of New Jersey, is on the front line of a fightback against the right-wing and corporate-led attack on collective bargaining and worker rights. In her state, that means battling GOP Gov. Chris Christie, who in some ways is even more extreme than Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
"We are going to win this war," she pledged. "We're going to lose some battles, but we will win this war."
Wade is a local and national leader of the Communications Workers of America, and was just elected to the union's international executive board at the CWA convention here July 11. "We need a fighter that's tenacious, intelligent and militant" and can go up against the Scott Walkers and Chris Christies, said one of the delegates who spoke for her nomination.
"Fight back" is the indisputable theme during this convention of the 700,000-member union.
Speeches yesterday by CWA President Larry Cohen and Rep. George Miller, D.-Calif, (the only non-CWA speaker at the convention) showed a union that will not go quietly into the corporate-designed night, a union that works with labor and community allies to build a strong fightback on behalf of working people.
"Movement building means capturing the emotions of our nation as we fight back," Cohen said in the convention's opening session. "We will need new tactics and approaches. Governors like Walker and Kasich [Ohio] and Daniels [Indiana] and Christie make up new rules to crush us."
Delegates gave a rousing ovation to the report that CWA was a part of a broad labor and community movement, Stand Up Ohio, that collected 1.3 million signatures to repeal union-busting SB 5.
Cohen called on all CWA members to capture the "spirit" of Wisconsin and Ohio, as well as Egypt, Tunisia and Italy, where people united and peacefully stood up for democracy and worker rights.
He also gave a quick lesson on political economy, complete with graphs indicating the decline in collective bargaining in the United States, the rise of productivity as weekly wages have fallen, and the soaring salaries of corporate CEOs.
According to the graphs, real wages rose until around 1973, when they began to stagnate and then decline. The decline in wages followed the decline in collective bargaining, with union membership peaking at almost 36 percent of the workforce around 1953.
In the early 1970s, productivity also continued to rise, and at the same time wages begin to drop in relationship to the amount of goods and services produced. If wages had been tied to productivity, workers would be making on average $500 more per week.
"This productivity gap represent $500 per week in lost wages for 90 percent of Americans without collective bargaining," Cohen said. "CEOs and Wall Sreet bankers have grabbed their share and they want our share too."
"That's why they're so invested in both political parties, blocking our efforts to improve bargaining and organizing rights, better health care, quality jobs and retirement security," he said.
Cohen praised President Barack Obama. "The president makes a difference," he said, pointing to a National Labor Relations Board that is willing to enforce national labor law as an example.
But he didn't extend the praise to all Democrats, expressing disappointment at the shortfall between expectations and results.
The 2008 elections ushered in results that were much better than the alternative if the GOP had won, he said.
"But they do not approach the changes we need to improve our standard of living or to reverse the decline in bargaining rights," he said, echoing a similar approach outlined by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in May.
Faced with a few Democrats who "carried water" and voted for Republican Chris Christie's plan to gut union rights and pensions for New Jersey public workers, Wade said the union movement in that state is thinking "strategically" on how to hold those elected officials accountable.
"We don't want to hand the Republicans the state Assembly in November," she said. "But those who voted against workers' interests will not get our endorsement and [financial] support."
The 1,600 delegates, guests and retirees at the convention are contending with how the union can do more in the current political and economic climate and with shrinking resources.
Local presidents, political action teams and others at CWA's grassroots are responding to the call to dig deep and inspire all members to get involved.
"We are in the fight of our lives right now and we have to get out in the streets because they are trying to turn clocks back 70 years," said CWA Local 7777 President Lisa Bolton of Colorado. Bolton is a 30-year employee with Qwest (now merged with Centurylink) and is currently a customer data technician
Bolton said there was definite depression among her members after the Employee Free Choice Act was blocked from passage in 2009, but then "you have to move to the next thing."
Photo: Just after being elected to CWA's executive board, Carolyn Wade, left, receives congratulations from other CWA members. (Teresa Albano/PW)