Archive: September, 2009

LGBTs and Those Burly Union White Guys

There were some nice highs at the AFL-CIO convention — visits by President Obama, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, and Caroline Kennedy, re-entry into the Federation by UNITE/HERE. And there were some low lows — too many older white males dominating the podium with too much vulgar language (not good for a union movement wanting to appeal to younger, female and minority workers). But the maximum lifts for me were the Diversity Conference on Sunday, the announcement that fully 43 percent of the convention delegates were women and/or minorities, and those same old white guys standing tall for equal union rights for Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender (LGBT) members. (More)

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Day #3 of the AFL-CIO Convention

2:20 p.m.  President Barack Obama just rocked the house with a 45-minute speech.  It was the most flinty-eyed, dignified and determined speech he’s ever made and 3,000 people in the audience gave him 15 standing ovations before I stopped counting.  He got a big chuckle when he tried to quell his opening ovation by saying, “You’re making me blush.” He sparked a huge roar when he said,  “That’s why I support the Employee Free Choice Act,”  another when he said, “We can’t wait for health care.”  He was forceful instead of folksy. He found his presidential look AND his presidential voice and for the first time in several months you could feel the agenda moving.  The entire speech is now up at

Noon.  Senator Arlen Spector — our Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-Democrat from Pennsylvania — just told the convention that “single-payer should be on the table,”  that we shouldn’t settle without a “public option,” and that he will only support a Employee Free Choice Act that is “totally satisfactory to labor.”   He mentioned “prompt certification” and “binding arbitration,” but I guess the words “card check” got stuck in his throat.  Whatever.  The delegates gave him a half-standing ovation anyway.  

10:30 a.m.  When Dennis van Roekel finishes his speech, someone says aloud to no one in particular, “I think it’s just amazing that he’s here.”  That’s because van Rokel is president of the National Education Association (NEA), which is not only the biggest union in America, but with 2.5 million members is the biggest union in America not affiliated with the AFL-CIO.  Down through the years, the NEA has been at war over the affections of school teachers with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which has nearly 1 million members and is the “teacher” affiliate of the AFL-CIO.  However, for the last few years, the NEA and the AFL-CIO have been talking about a “unified” labor movement and in 2006 the two bodies reached a “partnership” agreement that allows local and regional chapters of the NEA to affiliate with the AFL-CIO at the state and local level, as well as nationally.    van Roekel was introduced by  Randi Weingarten,  president of the AFT and she lathered on the praise.  He praised her back and went on to preach the “power of unity,” the need for national health care, labor law reform,  and the never-ending necessity for change.  By the time he finished, tongues were wagging all over the convention floor about  merger possibilities.

8:00 a.m.  I am reading USA Today (for lack of a New York Times) when I’m shocked by the obituary of Jody Powell, Jimmy Carters erstwhile press secretary. I was in the room so many years ago when Jody was hired to be  Carter’s driver in the peanut farmer’s campaign for governor of Georgia.  We had a falling out in 1976 when Carter was running for president and I was the source for “The Pathetic Lies of Jimmy Carter,”  Steven Brill’s earthquaking piece in Harper’s.  For many years, Jody leaves any room I enter.Fast-forward to January, 2008.  I am pedaling a bike in rehab at Sibley Hospital in Washington following a relative minor heart attack.  The fellow pedaling next to me is Jody Powell, rehabbing from open heart surgery after suffering a major heart attack while chopping wood.  For six weeks we talk and get reaquainted, after a fashion.  He recovers; I recover and we go our ways.  Then yesterday he dies of another heart attack while chopping wood.  The moral of this story:  don’t chop wood. 

6:30 a.m.  I am standing in line outside the Pittsburgh Convention Center waiting to be body-scanned because President Barack Obama is addressing the AFL-CIO convocation today.  I recall a conversation yesterday with a member of the Federation’s security team who tells me a secret service type told him that while Bill Clinton received hundred of threats every day, Obama receives thousands.  I am quite content to stand in line.

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Day #2 of the AFL-CIO Convention

4:45 p.m. Has Spector switched sides again?  On the official AFL-CIO internal schedule for tomorrow morning, he’s listed as “Senator Arlene Spector.”

3:00 p.m.  Wonderful actor-musician-trade unionist-icon Theodore Bikel speaks either in favor of, or in opposition to, the AFL-CIO political resolution. I can’t comprehend what he’s saying, but I’m enthralled by the gravitas with which he says it.  He closes with:  “I’m not afraid of the working class.  We will alter history only when we alter the language as well.”

12:30 p.m.  Caroline Kennedy is speaking, delivering a joint tribute to her departed uncle, Ted Kennedy, and  to John Sweeney.  She looks remarkably untouched by the vice of tragedy that has clamped her family so tightly for so many years.  She’s unassuming, gracious, happy, composed. Her smile is genuine as she recounts how Teddy would add up the years of service shared by his brothers, himself, and his nephews and proclaim, “85 years of Kennedy’s voting with labor!”  She says, “Senator Kennedy had no bigger friend than John Sweeney,” and you know she’s not handing out a gratuitous platitude.  She quotes Yeats on behalf of her uncle, “Think where man’s glory most begins and end/And say, my glory was I had such friends,” and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., saying, “Let us rise up tonight with greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, to make America what it ought to be.”  Sweeney remembers Kennedy insisting on a visit to the AFL-CIO even as his illness worsened, then introduces a video which wrings emotion from the delegates and lifts them into a prolonged ovationm. A cutaway to Caroline as the house lights come up shows her dabbing one eye.  Mine won’t stop watering.   See convention webcast and acess other information, including Caroline Kennedy’s full remarks, at

11:45 a.m.  Pennsylvania junior Senator Bob Casey speaks, enabling many hungover delegates to take 30-minute naps.

11:20 a.m. Party’s getting rough on the convention floor as debate ensues over a resolution supporting passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.  After AFSCME president Jerry McEntee pledges $500,000 to the media fund, steelworker president Leo Gerard hits the mike, tells the gut-wrenching story of a Los Angeles car wash worker who was beaten and hospitalized last week for union organizing, and pledges $510,000.  Gerard holds up a full page ad from this morning’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette opposing the Act and tells the sponsors of the ad to kiss his ass.  AFSCME VP Henry Nicholas from Philadelphia  tops Gerard’s pledge by $10,000 more.  AFSCME staffers in the curtained off office next to mine begin groaning at the apparent loss of their annual wage increase.   

11:05 a.m. Just remembered an interesting story from last night.  Pittsburgh was a hotbed of historic organizing, especially for the mine workers, who were beaten, maimed, terrorized and killed by employers who were not thrilled about paying living wages and providing safe working conditions.  The workers, rough and ready immigrants from Italy and Poland, wore red kerchiefs around their necks to let co-workers know they were union supporters.  Thus, the sobriquet “redneck” was born.  And you heard it here.

10:50 a.m.  Strange sightings among convention attendees:  John Wilhelm, president of the Change to Win union UNITE/HERE, who is in a knockdown-dragout fight to the death with SEIU president Andy Stern; and, Sal Roselli, president of an independent health care union in northern California, who is in a knockdown-dragout fight to the death with SEIU president Andy Stern.  Brother Stern has not been spotted, and is presumed  alive and well and hunkered down in Washington.

10:05 a.m. Holey moley, did John Sweeney just say, “Any union not busy being born is busy dying?”  Did CWA President Larry Cohen just say, “BS” from the podium?  Must be the organizers have taken charge.

9:15 a.m.  Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis is waking up the delegates  by telling her personal story of growing up the daughter immigrant parents from Nicarauga and Mexico, her father working in a battery plant and organizing for the Teamsters, her mom a Mattel assembly line worker for 20 years before she getting a job and a union card as a rubber worker.   She’s straightforwd, serious, and unsmiling as she intones, “My philosphy is that it’s not a good job unless it’s a safe and secure job,” and says she’s hiring 650 new wage and hour inspectors and enforcers, and that since July OSHA has conducted 689 investigations resulting in $1.6 billion dollars in fines.  Well into her speech, she promises she and President Obama will make the “best possible case” for the Employee  Free Choice Act unions are counting on to help restore their membership ranks.  The delegates hit their feet in a standing ovation.  She smiles for the first time, a big one.

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September 13, 2009

Day #1 of the AFL-CIO Convention

6 p.m. Following a stirring video tribute, President Sweeney was waiting for the “voice of God” from backstage to introduce him for his keynote address.  Instead, he was upstaged by his daughter, Trish, who took the stage with her daughter, Kennedy, in her arms and introduced him as “my father, and Kennedy’s Papa Johnnie.”  A big smile slathered Sweeney’s face as he kissed Trish and snuggled his three-year-old granddaughter,  who is named for the late President John F. Kennedy, the Sweeney family not being a clan that hides its affections or political inclinations. Sweeney started his speech by saying, “this week isn’t about what Sweeney has done,”  and thanking everyone but himself for “taking the AFL-CIO in a new, positive direction.”  He nailed the chief accomplishment of his administration when he said, “We built the styrongest grassroots political operation in our country …. brought hundreds of thousands of union volunteers into the fight to protect the dreams we share …. stopped just listening to politicians and started started insisting the lsiten to ther voice of working families …. we made organizing the responsibility of every national union, every local union, every State Fed and every CLC (Central Labor Council …. we threw open the doors of the house of labor to everyone who shares our values.” (For the record, I note that when Sweeney became  president in 1995, the AFL-CIO smugly refused to particpate in “coalitions,” derided community-level mobilizing as “so-called” grassroots action,”  and was famous for practicing checkbook politics.  Lane Kirkland, Sweeney’s acerbic and aloof predecessor, was wont to say that “organizing is the business of the affiliates.)  Recalling that his father, a New York City busdriver, had brought him into the house of labor through the “front door,”  he said, “Now we have to continue our march toward diversity, inclusion and full participation, and make sure no one ever has to knock at our back door again.”  Sweeney closed with a moving homily on solidarity, remarking that “miracles present themselves on the shoulders of commitment, unity and action.”   In a not-so-thinly-disguised reference to seven unions that left the AFL-CIO four years ago, he observed, “Your solidarity is what pulled us through when our federation split apart — you cared more about our common purpose than your own self-interest.”  A full text of  all of Sweeney’s convention speeches can be found at

11 a.m. President John Sweeney just spoke to the AFL-CIO “Diversity is Power” Conference, where he was interrupted 10 times by applause and received six standing ovations in a 15-minute speech.  Introduced by AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer Bill Lucy as a man who “has had the greatest impact on the labor movementne of any labor leader in the last 75 years,” Sweeney recounted the federations 14-year campaign for diversity, inclusion and full partipation of women and minorities.  Lucy announced that a milestone was being reached at this convention: fully 43 percent of the delegates are women and/or minorities. UAW Secretary-Treasurer Elizabeth Bunn praised Sweeney for not pounding on tables and being “our quiet lion.” Sweeney said diversity is a “moral imperative,” but added there are “practical persuasions.”  He said, “We don’t have one dues rate for African-American, Hispanic, or Asian-Pacific-American members, and another rate for the rest of our members.  Our women members don’t pay lower dues than our male members.  We don’t have lower dues for our gay and lesbian and transgender members of for members with disabilities.  So why should they get fewer opportunities  to lead and learn.  We don’t have a two-tier dues rate, and we cannot afford a two-tier leadership culture. ” A full text of  all of Sweeney’s convention speeches can be found at

8 a.m. The 2009 AFL-CIO Constitutional Convention opens this afternoon at 3 p.m. in Pittsburgh.  Today’s activities are largely ceremonial, starting with a welcome by pro football hall-of-famer, former Steeler star and progressive political activist Franco Harris, and ending with retiring AFL-CIO President John Sweeney’s farewell address to the troops.  An opening reception follows, with entertainment by Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers (this is, after all the most blue collar city in a blue state in America).  On Monday night, award-winning film maker Michael Moore will premiere his highly anticipated latest film, “Capitalism: a Love Story.”  On Tuesday, President Barack Obama will make a highly anticipated visit to the convention.  On Wednesday, legendary and highly anticipated coal miner’s son  Rich Trumka will be elected to succeed Sweeney.  He is not expected to sing, but will rock the house with his highly, highly anticpated acceptance speech. Watch this space …..


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September 11, 2009

Hidden Heroes of 9/11: Ironworker Bob Bartels

Like many construction workers, Bob Bartels, Jr., an ironworker, realized his skills were needed and just showed up at the World Trade Center site ready to work.

Bob Bartels (lightly edited):When we got here, everybody was just in shock. It was just a horrible sight. We had the acetylene tanks that were coming off, and the oxygen tanks were coming off and we just grabbed, put a set together, walked out and asked a fireman: “Where do we need to burn?” We started burning. We stayed on West Street for a few days. We found a Suburban that was probably, maybe no more than 18 inches high, crushed. We worked with Rescue Three from the Bronx, trying to free all the steel from on top of that because they thought one of their firemen was in the truck. Probably about 18 hours a day we did nothing but burn steel and remove steel. I mean the time goes. You think you’re there a couple of hours and it’s 12 to 14 hours that have passed. (More)

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Hidden Heroes of 9/11: Laborer Phil Morelli

Phil Morelli, a laborer, was inside Tower On, beginning his normal workday, when the first plane hit.  After barely escaping with his life, he would return to Ground Zero to work for many months on the recovery and deconstruction efforts. 

Phil Morelli (lightly edited excerpts): The building I was in was Tower One and as I walk by 50A into the Secret Service parking lot, that’s when the big impact of whatever hit. I didn’t know what was going on and the big impact threw me up against a wall in the corridor. (More)

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Hidden Heroes of 9/11: Sheet Metal Worker Joe Rubido

Joe Rubido hustled down to the World Trade Center the moment he heard about the attacks.

Joe Rubido (lightly edited): I got down to the Trade Center at the foot of the South Tower probably six, seven minutes before it collapsed. I have some medical training. I used to work on an ambulance at one time, and I thought, there’s no way the city can respond with the amount of people that are probably gonna be hurt, and I thought I could be of some help. (More)

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September 10, 2009

Hidden Heroes of 9/11: Carpenter Hugh Smith

Hugh Smith, a carpenter, was working at the World Trade Center when the planes rammed the twin towers.

Hugh Smith (lightly edited): I was here on that morning. I was in the loading dock at about 6:30 in the morning and the company I was with was starting a job over in One Liberty. I was going across the street to One Liberty to oversee the men, and I came back out and somebody told me a plane hit the Trade Center. I mean, this beautiful clear day, like today, and I couldn’t believe it. (More)

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September 8, 2009

Hidden Heroes of 9/11: Operating Engineer Bobby Gray

Bobby Gray: (lightly edited) I was working as a tower crane operator about 50 stories in the air on Forty-third at Eighth and actually saw the first plane hit.  I know my perception was off a bit, but it actually looked like it was going to hit the tip of the boom [of his crane].  My first reaction was: “Why is this guy so low?”  Then, before I could even get that out, I was like: “And why is he over Midtown?” I kinda followed it [the plane] down and it tucked behind, I guess it’s the Sheraton building, and I said: “Oh, it’s just going to Newark.”  I couldn’t actually see the impact, but I saw the fireball and I, it was, you know, you were, it just didn’t process.  You couldn’t figure out how this could happen and on a clear day.  It was so crystal clear.  I actually called up my partner and said: “Can you come up?  I need to get down and see what’s going on.”  (More)

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September 7, 2009

Hidden Heroes of 9/11: Safety Director Mary Ellen Sachetti

Mary Ellen Sachetti, safety director for a large NYC construction company, was at the World Trade Center on the morning of 9/11.  Her story is as harrowing as it is inspirational.

Sachetti (excerpts, lightly edited): We actually had a job at the site.  We were doing the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Plaza.  I was down there for a final inspection and it was a beautiful day.  I remember that around nine o’clock or so I had gone inside and then all of a sudden I heard these people saying that a plane had hit.  We weren’t really sure what was going on.  I had stepped outside and all these papers were coming down all around us.  We didn’t know.  We couldn’t even fathom where the paper was coming from, and I said: “This is really serious.”  By the time I walked back into the building I had gotten a call from my main office telling me that we were, that something was terribly wrong, and that I needed to evacuate our building. (More)

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