ORLANDO, Fla. - The labor movement this week chose a neighborhood reeling from the economic crisis as its launching pad for a national campaign for jobs.
Victims of the crisis were among the hundreds who gathered at the Painters' union hall here March 1 and they kept coming until they filled not just the hall but the parking lots and streets surrounding it. Only the loudspeakers rigged up by the painters enabled those outside to hear what went on inside. Side by side the nation's union leaders stood with the people who are suffering - employed and unemployed, the young, the old, Black, white and Latino, some healthy and others sick.
Barbara Medina, the new receptionist at the hall, fought back her own tears as others cried during her remarks.
"The worst part after I got laid off was having to look at my four beautiful children, tell them I could no longer take care of them and that they would have to go to Puerto Rico to live with their grandparents," she said.
"I dreaded the phone calls when they cried and begged me to bring them home. I promised all four of them that when things got better I would never, ever send them away again."
For Medina things did turn around when the Painters hired her as their receptionist. She saved every penny she earned for three months, got an apartment and kept her promise to her four children, who stood up to sustained applause and cheers from the crowd.
For Tameka Pierce things haven't turned around yet. A single mother too, she remains unemployed. "I have lupus," she told the hushed crowd, "so I frequently end up in the emergency room. I don't have health insurance and I depend, when I am in the hospital, on the help of all my good friends to take care of the children."
"I have abilities," she said. "What I need is a decent job with health benefits. Whoever hires me will be getting a smart, dedicated worker. A good job is the only hope I have for myself and my children."
Andy Contreras said that he and his brother Steve were lucky a few years ago when they got jobs for a construction outfit in the neighborhood. They began living in fear, however, as soon as the layoffs began. Part of a group of 100 full-time workers when they started, they are among the 23 now remaining and fear that any day they could be next. As it is, their hours have been cut from 40 to 32 a week. "Without these jobs we won't be able to pay for Stevie's medicine," Andy said. "He has diabetes."
"We're not looking for a bailout," Andy said, "just a steady job so we can keep our apartment and pay for Stevie's medicine."
"What do you think about the guys on Wall Street who got those bailouts?" Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, asked Contreras. "I don't know how they can look at themselves in the mirror in the morning," Contreras replied.
Then came Yessenia Garcia, a student at the University of Central Florida who has two more years to go before she graduates. "I'm already $17,000 in debt," she said. "They just put through a 15 percent tuition increase. Do you know anyone who got a 15 percent raise this year?" The union leaders in the crowd stood up and applauded.
Curtis Duffield owns a small contracting business in the neighborhood. "I had to lay off all 25 of my employees," he said, "because of what the banks have done."
"I was never late on the loans I took out," he said. "Because of the gambling losses on Wall Street money that was once available to keep businesses like mine going is now not available."
There were other community leaders, a Catholic nun, a radio announcer from a popular Orlando program, civil rights leaders and social service providers also at the forum. Trumka was cheered when he told them all that it is labor, working together with all of them, that will build the movement that will lead the way out of the economic crisis.
"I can't think of a better setting than this for the AFL-CIO to launch a national jobs program," he said as he stepped down from the podium and made his way through the crowd. "I personally think we are going to have to take this movement into the streets," he said. He and the other labor leaders in the crowd had their work cut out for them as the AFL-CIO's executive council meeting here continued the next day.
Photo: Before heading to Orlando, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka joined more than 5,000 workers and supporters marching in Evansville, Ind., last week to protest Whirlpool's slashing of over 1,000 jobs even as it builds a new plant in Mexico. http://www.flickr.com/photos/labor2008/ / CC BY 2.0