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On the Ground with Working Families in Oregon

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As the nation's economic crisis deepens and the focus of voters shift from silly attack ads to America' s dire problems, Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate move up in the polls--including in Oregon. Jeff Merkley now is running about even with Republican incumbent Gordon Smith. It's not hard to see why. Smith opposes the Employee Free Choice Act and has voted with George W. Bush 85 percent of the time. As speaker of the Oregon House, Jeff Merkley has shepherded Oregon legislation, including greater freedom for public workers to form unions and bargain and other key working family issues.

The Oregon AFL-CIO and its very energetic and effective president, Tom Chamberlain, have made electing Merkley to the Senate and Sen. Barack Obama to the presidency as the highest priorities of the Labor 2008 state plan.

I joined them for an intense day of campaigning Wednesday, part of our effort to highlight these Senate races in our struggle to create a 60 seat pro-worker Democratic, filibuster-proof majority.

In one day, Tom and his affiliate leaders and staff provided a snapshot and microcosm of what the AFL-CIO union movement is doing in Labor 2008 political mobilization outreach across America.

Tom picked me up at 5:30 am so we could begin the day with members of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) at the city transit authority. We met local union President Jon Hunt outside the transit authority's main hub. Jon led us into the break room where bus drivers and train operators clock in, grab coffee and prepare for their day.

For an hour, we moved from driver to driver, distributing the worksite leaflet and talking about the change working families need in Washington. It was very apparent the union's education had taken root. We found few dissenters and lots of enthusiasm. Jon then took our group of Labor 2008 union volunteers to the two huge maintenance garages. Hunt warned:

We'll find some resistance in here.

But there was very little. For another 45 minutes we walked through the worksite talking with mechanics and cleaners and handing out leaflets. Not a single supervisor interfered. We talked freely--about the economy and Republican attack ads, about working conditions, the Iraq occupation, our faith traditions. One steward said he had to miss the coming Saturday labor walk because he had committed to painting the Lutheran Church where he worships.

Jon took us to his and Tom's favorite greasy spoon pancake house for breakfast to fuel a long day.

Tom and I drove from there to his office for his Labor 2008 coordinators meeting. Fifty labor leaders planned the next week's activity--staffing phone banks, selecting worksites to leaflet, setting up local union mailings and events with Merkley. I gave them a very brief snapshot of Senate races around the country and told them that with 60 seats now a possibility, their work for Merkley was even more important.

From his hall, Tom drove us to the AFSCME hall where six rank-and-file workers from ILWU, IBEW, AFGE, ONA, AFSCME and IAM along with Tom and I prepped for worker roundtable with Jeff Merkley. They did a great job talking in their own words about the issues making life harder for their families and the families of all of us--bad faith bargaining, declining wages, the healthcare crisis, poor physical and mental health care for returning Iraq veterans and employer intimidation and retaliation when workers try to form unions.

Merkley listened intently and responded with warmth and a familiarity that showed his concern for working families and his grasp of our economic issues. One reporter asked him about the attacks the corporate community and the radical right had made against him for his support of the Employee Free Choice Act. He reaffirmed his support for the act and described how silly and ineffective the attacks were. Several workers thanked Merkley for what he had already done--attending a rally and demonstrating his support for striking Machinists at Boeing and his pro-worker leadership in the state legislature. And Merkley thanked the workers for their support of his candidacy.

Back into Tom's car to walk the Machinists' picket line at Boeing. In their 26th day, they are striking to protect the future of their local and future young workers. They are striking against outsourcing and a two-tier wage system which would punish the next generation of their members. Their factory with 1,500 workers makes airplane parts. Only one person had crossed the picket line to go back in. One young worker said he wasn't going to vote. The strike captain, two decades his senior, said

We're all out here for you and you won't bother to vote so the Democrats pull us out of this damn mess that Gordon Smith, John McCain and George Bush created!

It is a special kind of voter education on a picket line. Somehow the issues become more clear.

Tom and I then joined a Teamsters local union with a solidarity charter leafleting a union print shop. Again we found support and no dissenters.

After a brief break, we joined 200 Jobs with Justice demonstrators at the federal building calling for the prioritization of working family needs in response to the economic crisis. One handmade sign read, "Bail Me Out." Another: "Stop Corporate Greed." Another: :Employee Free Choice Act."

Faith leaders, including a Catholic priest and a United Church of Christ minister, spoke to the group. Jobs with Justice leader Laurie King called for the enactment of the Employee Free Choice Act as a necessary part of a real economic recovery. Environmental and labor activist Barbara Dudley called for electoral action and more militancy. And Tom and I spoke about our hopes, our possibilities, and our obligations to win on Nov. 4 and Turn Around America.

In cities and small towns and rural areas across America thousands and thousands of union brothers and sisters are having days like this as we meet our responsibilities as citizens and trade unionists. We are Turning Around America by will and strategic action and compassion and vision and hard damn work. Our work will change America and history.

Now I'm on the way to Jackson, Miss., where we hope to replace Republican icon Trent Lott with Democrat Ronnie Musgrove. Do you have any idea how hard it is to get from Portland, Or to Jackson, Miss?