Merrilee Milstein Day puts working families needs first

New Hampshire attracted a lot of excitement in 2004 as the only state in the country to flip from red to blue in the presidential elections. There was jubilation that night as Kerry defeated Bush by just over 9,000 votes, before the national results were counted.

What happened in New Hampshire? A big part was labor’s role.

“An anti-union right wing has been active in the New Hampshire State Legislature for years,” Merrilee Milstein, then AFL-CIO deputy northeast regional director, told the People’s Weekly World at the time (10/16/04).

She credited local unions and the help from neighboring states with “creating a new sense of the labor movement in New Hampshire. Thousands and thousands of people have been involved in a very personal way to fight George Bush and the right wing.”

As labor coordinator in New Hampshire, Merrilee didn’t go for the vote alone. She organized in a way to develop new leaders and lay the basis for a stronger, more united movement that could win better wages and working conditions and increase political power for working families.

When Merrilee died this June at age 61 it was devastating not only in Hartford, Conn., where she lived but in New Hampshire and elsewhere as well.

Like the song “Joe Hill is at your side,” the call went out from the New Hampshire AFL-CIO throughout the state and to Connecticut and Massachusetts for a special Merrilee Milstein Memorial Labor Walk on September 27 to honor “a great woman, great activist and great friend.”

SEIU had organized buses of volunteers from surrounding states, and also declared September 27 as “Merrilee Milstein Day.”

Honoring the memory of their union sister brought the New Hampshire AFL-CIO and SEIU together, even though they had been conducting separate election efforts.

Nearly 50 of Merrilee’s family and friends traveled to Nashua by van and car from Connecticut to knock on the doors of union members and talk about why Barack Obama’s election is so important for working families.

Mark MacKenzie, president of the New Hampshire AFL-CIO, gave a big thank you. “I think for our members the choice is really clear,” he said. “Barack Obama supports the Employee Free Choice Act, he has made a commitment to put forth trade agreements that make sense, he is for universal health care, and he will make sure our pensions and retirements are kept secure.”

It was enjoyable to knock on doors and find voters who were enthusiastic and inspired by Obama’s historic candidacy, like the teacher who said her whole family was spreading the word. There were several families of divided opinion and others who declined to say. The most challenging conversations were with voters who did not want to support Obama because they were caught up in the lies and rumors undermining his integrity and patriotism. Those who were ready to discuss appreciated the comparison of McCain’s anti-worker record with Obama’s near perfect score.

It was exciting to be part of the quarter million union volunteers across the country, the biggest election mobilization in labor’s history, which has influenced the political climate in working class swing states and districts, laying the basis for a much larger labor movement.

The example set by labor’s top leaders talking directly with white sisters and brothers about how Obama represents their best chance for a secure future will have a lasting impact.

The idea that it takes unity and struggle to win big gains was something that Merrilee carried everywhere. Insisting on sharing this lesson earned her deep respect.

Merrilee was determined to win on the side of the working class. Her enthusiasm, creativity and persistence were contagious.

On election night 2004, after scores of volunteers had finished their assignments, word came that voters were leaving the polls because of long lines. Campaign workers were immediately dispatched to the polls with bags of candies, chips and other snacks to give encouragement and keep the parents and kids, older voters and young first time voters from leaving. It worked.

This year the chance to uproot ultra-right corporate political dominance is much greater. Voters want to be part of history. They see that the policies of the Bush administration, which McCain-Palin would continue, are bankrupting the country and endangering the world.

This year New Hampshire will not be alone. Merrilee would have been building for a landslide.

Labor’s giant effort along with massive organizing by African American, Latino, women’s and youth groups has turned historically Republican states’ House and Senate seats into battlegrounds, including the Senate seat in New Hampshire.

A landslide victory for Obama and Congress will open the door for big new struggles to organize workers into unions and place the needs of working families front and center in this economic crisis.

See related story: Merrilee Milstein mourned