Labor hits the ground running

In Ohio, issues of Iraq, jobs, Social Security and health care top the agenda

CLEVELAND — Flush with victory in the Nov. 7 elections, Cleveland’s labor activists, like their counterparts elsewhere, are pressing to broaden the base of their movement and are already taking initiatives to guarantee that campaign promises are realized.

For Dick Henderson, president of the AFL-CIO retirees organization, “four things are uppermost. We must bring our troops home from Iraq. We must disengage. This is a lost cause. Second, we must bring back jobs and re-establish the middle class. Third, we must preserve Social Security. The Bush administration has not given up on privatization. And, fourth, we need national health care, not some concoction improvised to take care of insurance and pharmaceutical companies.”

Henderson, a retired sheet metal worker, said the leaders of his group met the Friday after the election and decided to work to bring together all retiree and senior groups in the area to map out a legislative agenda.

“We must keep reminding Congress why they were elected. We need to maintain momentum,” he said. “National health care is the starting point for a bigger movement.”

A single-payer state health care plan is the goal of an initiative undertaken by the United Auto Workers and others, said Harold Wilson, chairman of the Cuyahoga and Medina County CAP Council, the UAW’s political arm.

“We need health care that is not for profit and does not have these 30 percent administrative fees,” he said. “We plan to put this issue on the ballot.”

Wilson noted that both Rep. Sherrod Brown, who was elected to the U.S. Senate, and Rep. Ted Strickland, elected as governor, have refused to take the health insurance provided by the federal government to Congress until their constituents receive it as well. “We need to get Sherrod and Ted the health care they deserve,” he said.

“We need to improve cooperation among all the unions and reach out to the pastors,” Wilson said, not only to win health care, but for other issues that were prominent in the campaign, including keeping manufacturing in Ohio and education.

Wilson, an electrician at Ford, was one of the founders of Black Labor for Strickland, which got out 70,000 brochures throughout Ohio exposing Republican Ken Blackwell as a representative of President Bush, not the African American community.

“He may be our color, but he is not our kind,” the brochure stated.

“There was more interest, awareness and sophistication in the Black community than ever before,” said Dick Peery, another member of Black Labor for Strickland. “Because of the war and the Katrina disaster, the dislike of Bush and the administration was as intense as ever in history. The Republican ploy of putting up Black candidates did not work. The Black community rejected Black Republicans.”

Peery, who is chairman of the North Coast (Cleveland) AFL-CIO and recently retired as a reporter for the Plain Dealer, said this was a “higher level of sophistication” than when Clarence Thomas was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court and many in the Black community supported him as one of their own.

Peery said labor must build alliances and especially “its natural alliance with the African American and Hispanic communities.”

“The only way labor can advance is to reach out,” he said. “Building local organization and outreach is the key.”

“We need a two-year outreach campaign to prepare for 2008,” said Merle Johnson, a Cleveland teacher who is another member of the group. “Because of its role in 2006, labor will be at the table with Strickland and Brown. We need a continual series of social and educational events to reach out to the community.”

As a first step, Johnson is organizing a showing of “Iraq for Sale,” a film about the unprecedented theft of public funds by U.S. contractors like Halliburton in Iraq. The event for teachers and the general public will be held Nov. 28 at the Laborers union hall.

Probably no labor leader was more immersed in the election than John Ryan, who took a leave of absence from his position as executive secretary of the North Coast AFL-CIO to be Sherrod Brown’s campaign manager.

“Sherrod ran on a worker platform of economic and social justice,” Ryan said. “He took that message everywhere he went. No matter what his audience was, he talked about job-killing trade agreements, the need to fund higher education and No Child Left Behind and the need for affordable health care for all.

“The results speak for themselves,” he said. “John Kerry narrowly lost in Ohio. Sherrod Brown won by a 12-point margin. He took 46 of the state’s 88 counties, 30 more than Kerry. He won in rural Appalachia and the urban centers.”

This shows the potential that labor has to broaden its base and build alliances, Ryan said. “Now we need to follow up and win on the issues of the campaign. That is how we can make it a mandate not just for one day, but for four years.”