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2013 oregon afscme convention

April 22, 2013

I wasn’t really sure what to expect heading into Bend, OR, Friday afternoon for the 2013 Oregon AFSCME Convention. I’m relatively new to my workplace and my local, and I essentially went in blind, not even initially intending to go. Someone apparently couldn’t make it and my union rep got one of the organizers from the Next Wave Young Member Committee to see about giving me their scholarship and taking their place as a guest less than a week before the convention.

I arrived at the Riverhouse Hotel and Convention Center around 3pm, just in time to register and attend the new delegate workshop, which basically gives new delegates (and guests) an idea of what to expect at the convention, particularly when it comes to voting and other parliamentary procedures, and to answer any newb questions they might have.

The opening ceremony began about an hour later, kicking off with the singing of the National Anthem and a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance (which, although written by a socialist, is a bit too nationalistic for my cosmopolitan leanings) and an invocation from local Pastor Chris Kramer, followed by a welcome from the mayor and mayor pro tem of Bend. AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain (definitely no Eugene Debs) and Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley (one of the best congressional representatives currently in office) also spoke. The latter especially impressed me, not so much by what he said as what he’s done while in office, including a consistent stream of bills, votes, and statements supporting workers.

The remaining time consisted of election business, including the nomination of officers and trustees, which wasn’t as exciting, especially since I didn’t know any of the people in question. After the body adjourned for the night, there was a welcome dinner and reception in the adjoining banquet hall, where everyone mingled and networked.

The Next Wave committee also organized a bowling and karaoke event that night at Lava Lanes, mainly for younger members to network and interact in a more informal setting, although it was open to anyone. They rented out the private lounge with seven lanes for a couple hours, and everyone had a blast. I ended up bowling with some pretty cool people, albeit after a fair amount of coercion, including a librarian at Tillamook County Library and one of the local presidents (who coincidentally happened to be elected to the Executive Committee as our workplace sector vice president on Sunday). I also had the chance to meet Jeff Klatke, a Next Wave member who was running for Oregon AFSCME president.

I started off the second day at a workshop called “Massaging Our Message.” As if the name wasn’t funny enough, one of the first things the speaker, Don Loving, said was, “We can’t just spew things out.” I don’t know how everyone didn’t bust out laughing. The focus of the workshop was how union members need to change the way we talk about ourselves and important issues, and they gave some helpful tips about ways to better engage non-union members unfamiliar with union jargon and to get both fair-share and inactive members more involved.

One of the things they mentioned near the end of the workshop is that unions are ‘you’; they care when you care and get involved, i.e., you get out of them what you put in. That really struck me for some reason. Unions are often looked at ambivalently or even suspiciously by fair-share or otherwise inactive members as some kind of like labour-like ‘big Other.’ But unions only seem that way when they’re something external to us. When we’re actively involved and engaged in our unions, however, they cease to be an Other and become a means for workers to be actively engaged in their workplace in a new and more empowering way. At the heart of it, people need people, and unions are people who care about the material needs of their fellow workers.

After the workshops, the convention was reconvened, and AFSCME International President Lee Saunders delivered the keynote address, which was more like a Southern Baptist-style sermon reminiscent of MLK, Jr. than a speech per se.

Saunders was definitely a more charismatic speaker than the rest, and I liked a lot of the things he said, especially when talking about the need for unions to have a unified approach and to be done with ‘fair weather friends’ who talk big about supporting labour until they get elected. With years of declining membership combined with the ability of capitalists and their vast accumulations of wealth and social power to so easily lobby government, influence the discussion in the media, and coordinate anti-labour campaign across the country, as the recent wave of right-to-work legislation illustrates, it’s clear that organized labour needs to start cooperating rather than competing with one another. Otherwise, it’s game over.

Listening to him speak and thinking about charismatic leadership in general, however, reminded me of Eugene Debs famous exhortation about the dangers of relying too heavily on the leadership of others:

I am not a labor leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the Promised Land if I could, because if I led you in, someone else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition; as it is now the capitalists use your heads and your hands.

After Saunder’s key note address came the candidate’s forum, lunch, election of officers and trustees, hours of extremely tedious debates and votes over a number of constitutional amendments and resolutions. There was also a “State of Our Union” address given by Executive Director Ken Allen, echoed Saunder’s message in many respects, stressing the rather dire state of unionism in the country and the need for unity. Allen noted, for example, that he helped craft a unity document between AFSCME, SEIU, and NEA, and that they’re going to cooperate on everything from politics to organizing. “This may take some getting used to for some of us,” he said, “but we can’t be fighting each other anymore—we have big enemies on the outside and we need to band together.”

Saturday ended with a well-deserved cocktail party (everyone got two free drinks to help start things off) and a three-course dinner, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed. They also had a live band (the Swingline Cubs) that played a lot of great Motown hits. During dinner, I sat next to our new union rep and discovered that she was an organizer in El Salvador during the civil war, where they routinely ‘disappeared’ and killed union activists.

I heard from a second-hand source that when she was around 22, the right-wing government junta in El Salvador was killing people at an alarming rate, and she basically got involved in the labour movement and became an organizer to help change things for the better. Eventually, after a few years, everyone on her executive board was disappeared or killed except her. She was eventually fired herself on charges of being a revolutionary, so she actually became one and was active during the civil war. At some point, she came to the US (ironically enough since the US helped fund a second junta to help put down the leftist insurrection) as a political refuge through the Catholic Church, where she was eventually asked by HERE to help organize, particularly among the Latino community. And from there, she got involved at AFSCME while working towards her BA at PSU.

I stopped by the room of one of the Next Wave members for a night cap, where I ran into Jeff and congratulated him on being elected president, before finally heading off to bed.

The final day of the convention started off with a memorial tribute to all the AFSCME 75 members that passed away since the last convention, and the unveiling of a new app that combines social networking and push technology to help keep members more informed and involved with their local unions. These two presentations were followed by more votes on constitutional amendments and resolutions, as well as the congressional district vice president elections, workplace sector vice president elections, and executive board elections. The out-going president, Gary Gillespie, gave his address, all the new officers were sworn in, and the convention was adjourned.

All in all, I had a great time at the AFSCME Convention, and I’m glad that I was able to go. I learned a lot about the inner workings of the union, and met a lot of really cool people in the process. Everyone I talked to encouraged me to be more active in both my local and the union as a whole; and based on this experience, I think I might despite some of the reservations I have about my own abilities.

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