More than 1,000 delegates from across the state took part in the New York State AFL-CIO’s 29th Constitutional Convention on Aug. 21 and 22. The convention was held in New York City, for the first time since 1971.
Welcoming the delegates to “this union town,” New York City Central Labor Council President Brian McLaughlin pointed to some recent victories – such as the organization of 20 companies in the limo industry – and urged labor solidarity with the SAG/AFTRA and MoMA strikes. (At the end of the day, hundreds of delegates joined the picket line in front of the Museum of Modern Art.)
Paul Christy, a leader of SAG’s strike committee, gave an eloquent description of the issues involved in the four-month-old strike that brought the delegates to their feet. He noted that this is not a struggle about money (contracts with actors represent less than 2 percent of the total budget of the major advertising agencies) but about the industry’s future, and the share that workers in the industry will have in that future. He noted that many unions will have to confront the same issues, and that this battle has provided an important opportunity for forging alliances.
In his keynote speech, NYS AFL-CIO President Denis Hughes emphasized that the labor movement has the opportunity to become the major force for social progress in this state. But he expressed concern that we have lost our sense of outrage, pointing to several strikes that have been going on for a very long time – such as the strike at Domino Sugar, and the SAG-AFTRA battle – and the appalling conditions farm workers still labor under.
Hughes outlined four initiatives that will be the federation’s priorities:
- A “right to organize” campaign for workers who currently cannot choose to join unions – such as the 25 thousand cab drivers in New York City. This initiative will include a campaign to stop the growing trend to make workers independent contractors.
- A campaign to win one day of rest per week for farm workers. This will build on the victory won last year, when the state federation’s ongoing battle to improve farm workers’ conditions won them a minimum wage equal to that of other workers in the state.
- A statewide campaign for affordable and safe housing – the first such priority the federation has adopted. The program, which will be financed with union pension funds, will not only provide much-needed housing for working people, it will create job training and employment for union members. Community leaders, housing experts and developers will be invited to contribute to this initiative, which will be headed by Ed Malloy, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council.
- A campaign to empower union members and build a more effective labor movement.
A highlight of the meeting was the speech by Hilary Rodham Clinton, whose campaign for the U.S. Senate has been endorsed by the state’s labor movement. Pledging to champion the needs of working people in the U.S. Senate, she listed priorities including health care reform, lowering the age for Medicare eligibility to 55 and adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. Her proposals to raise the quality of education include establishing a Teachers Corps, which would provide full scholarships for a college education for people who pledge to teach in the public schools for at least four years. Her platform also includes raising the minimum wage, assuring that women receive equal pay for equal work, strengthening OSHA and protecting the Davis-Bacon Act.
Clinton urged convention delegates to study the record of her opponent, Rick Lazio, and his ties to drug and insurance companies. She pointed out that his AFL-CIO rating was 25 percent in 1999, a drop from his lifetime record of 45 percent.
The delegates also heard from AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and from the Texas Truth Squad, four unionists from Texas who are touring the country describing their working lives under Texas Governor George W. Bush.
Much of the rest of the day was spent on Congressional endorsements. As is often the case, there were a number of districts where the state federation recommended that no endorsement be made. However, the Westchester Central Labor Council pressed for a discussion of their district’s candidates. They noted that the labor movement in Westchester, Dutchess and Putnam counties had joined in endorsing Larry Graham, who is challenging the incumbent, Sue Kelly. Their description of the labor movement’s growing activity in Westchester, and of Kelly’s anti-union position, resulted in a two-thirds vote of convention delegates to endorse Graham.
State Comptroller Carl McCall spoke during the second day of the convention, expressing strong support for the AFL-CIO’s housing initiative, and stressing the need to improve public education and safeguard the environment. He spoke enthusiastically for the Democratic ticket of Gore for President and Clinton for Senator.
The rest of the day was spent in deciding on endorsements for the State Legislature. In the main, the federation will support the incumbents in both houses.