We Must Give Voice to This New Mood of Hope: Nancy Wohlforth

‘We Must Give Voice to This New Mood of Hope’

[Note: Nancy Wohlforth is a member of the National Executive Committee of the AFL-CIO. She is also a co-convener of US Labor Against the War and co-chair of Pride at Work. The interview below is reprinted from Unity & Independence No. 13, February 2009.]

Question: What is the meaning of the election of Barack Obama?

Nancy Wohlforth
: Whatever opinion one may have of Obama, it is important to note that he got his start as THE antiwar candidate. Early on, in Springfield, Illinois, he spoke out against the war in Iraq. He went on to recruit 15,000 young activists, who become his main campaign team, and then tens of thousands of other volunteers on the basis of his strong antiwar stance.

Obama’s election brought hope to millions of people who have been left out and forgotten – particularly to people of color. There is a huge sense of hope for inclusion.

Of course, Obama is a centrist, mainstream politician. But what we must understand is that the people voted for Obama, the first Black president in our nation’s history, because they want real, profound change. They want to preserve their jobs and their pensions. They want Medicare-type healthcare for all. They want an end to the wars in the Middle East so that this funding can be redirected to meet human needs. These are folks who aren’t going to sit back and allow business as usual to go in Washington. We cannot underestimate the historic significance of this election.

Question: What does this mean as far as the antiwar movement?

Nancy Wohlforth:
We have to seize the moment. There will be no change unless people hold Obama accountable and make him deliver on his promise for real change. We will be the ones to make the change that we want. We will have to take to the streets and lobby for our issues – and appeal to Obama to support us.

The politicians in Washington aren’t about to end the war in Iraq. The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) wants to tie our country into having permanent bases and troops in Iraq. This is not acceptable. We’re for Out Now! – not for SOFA or for keeping troops in Iraq one more day. Fifty-one cents of every tax dollar is going to the war and the military-industrial complex. We have to stop this madness.

The war in Afghanistan is escalating. Obama is talking about 10,000 to 20,000 new U.S. troops to that country. This will be yet one more quagmire. And it opens the possibility of a U.S. war in Pakistan. It is all carefully choreographed in the name of the “war on terrorism.”

Question: What are the repercussions of this election in the trade union movement?

Nancy Wohlforth: The unions have to hold Obama accountable. More than 250,000 union members participated in the union campaign to elect Obama, going door to door. The AFL-CIO spent more than $60 million on the Obama campaign. SEIU spent close to $100 million.

Now the labor movement must follow through and continue to press hard for its demands, using the crack in the door that has been opened. We’ve now got to kick the door wide open. It’s our task as USLAW activists and as labor activists to move our unions to meet this new and historic challenge.

Labor is mobilizing already, and in a big way, to press Obama and the new Congress to enact the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) – which would finally give us the right to organize the workers into unions, a right that exists only on paper given all the restrictions placed in our path. The entire labor movement is in a frenzy about getting EFCA passed.

It won’t be easy. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is spending $200 million to defeat EFCA, and already folks in Obama’s cabinet are telling us that given the economic crisis (with half a million jobs lost in just the month of November) we may not see EFCA in the near term.

But labor cannot become focused solely on EFCA. That would be a big mistake.

We also have to win single-payer healthcare. We have 39 state AFL-CIO federations on board with HR 676, the single-payer bill. Now we need to move from paper endorsements to an active and sustained campaign to win single-payer healthcare. We need to fight for the kind of plan we want – not one that leaves the insurance companies as part of the healthcare equation.

That is why organized a national labor single-payer conference in St. Louis in mid-January [see accompanying article]. We want to put this on labor’s agenda so that we can press Obama and the Congress to give us what we want and what we need.

We have to put forward our message in a positive manner, to reach out to the millions of people who expect that Obama will deliver on his pledge for change. But we cannot remain passive. We cannot let this moment slip away. We cannot let the movement backslide. The challenge is enormous: The economic crisis is mounting by the day. There will be huge pressures on the labor movement to toe the line. Cutbacks and attacks will be carried out against labor in the name of the economic crisis.

We cannot be co-opted into accepting “common solutions” with our employers. The working class needs to have its specific needs met – now, not in some distant future!

We have to say that this is not our crisis, we must not be made to pay for it out of our hides. There is a new mood of hope. If we give this an organized expression, we can prevail.

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