Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Remembering Teddy

Cross-posted from AlterNet

Photo Credit: Jocelyn Augustino

I remember thinking, he seems so much smaller in person. The year was 2003, and I stood directly behind Sen. Edward M. Kennedy on a makeshift stage constructed in front of the Department of Labor, at a rally for International Human Rights Day convened by the AFL-CIO.

I was on staff at the American Federation of Government Employees at the time, and was a member of the team that had put together the rally.

Those were dark days indeed for union workers. The Bush administration was in full throttle in its bid to take down the unions, and it had a special vendetta in its dark heart for unions representing government workers.

"We want this administration to stop being the most anti-worker, anti-labor administration that we have seen," Kennedy said.

Kennedy had just introduced the Employee Free Choice Act, a piece of legislation, yet to see the light of day, that continues to rankle the right. He dressed humbly, in a windbreaker that did little to stave off the bitter cold of a rainy December day in Washington, D.C.

"We have an agenda: the respect and dignity of workers in the United States," Kennedy told the crowd of 2,000 who gathered against the gloom. "As long as I have a voice and as long as I have a vote, I will be with you."

And he was. Today, the Employee Free Choice Act still contends for passage because of Kennedy. But that's just the politics. That day, his bond with regular people was apparent. On that stage, we had a full roster of workers from a range of unions -- parking attendants, hospital workers, airport screeners, Defense Department employees -- and Kennedy shook hands with all of them, and stuck around to hear their stories.

And that's just a glimpse of his commitment to working women and men. I hardly need to mention his commitment to health-care reform.

It's said that in exchange for his endorsement of Barack Obama for president, Kennedy exacted a promise from the young Illinois senator to make health care the centerpiece of his legislative agenda. And Kennedy didn't let Obama forget it. In his endorsement speech, Kennedy said, "With Barack Obama, we will break the old gridlock and finally make health care what it should be in America—a fundamental right for all, not just an expensive privilege for the few."

As I stood on that stage with Kennedy, the cold rain falling on me as we followed up the speeches with our motley rendition of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," I thought, this is bliss.

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