Postcards From Out West

By Rachel Bennett Steury
Jul 13 2015 |
AAM staffers Jenna Dickinson and Rachel Bennett Steury grab a photo with Montana Governor Steve Bullock.

AAM talks economic justice with disperse communities.

Last month, the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM) traveled to Big Sky Country for the 59th annual Montana AFL-CIO Convention. The Montana AFL-CIO — with more than 45,000 members from 38 different international unions — takes the economy, the environment, and Montanans’ quality of life very seriously. Delegates from the ranks of organized labor gathered in Anaconda to participate in workshops, presentations, and discussions on how to improve conditions for Montana’s working families.

There’s a lot to talk about. Montana’s rich history of activism, its abundance of natural resources, and its infrastructure challenges present an opportunity for the state to lead the way in building a sustainable economy while bring unlikely allies together in collaboration. As Delegate and United Steelworkers member JW Weston said: “Issues divide us, but values can unite us.”

Delegates heard from several members of the Montana government, including Attorney General Tim Fox and Governor Steve Bullock. I, too, had an opportunity to share with the delegates the importance of manufacturing and fair trade for the state’s economy. More than 18,000 Montanans are employed in the manufacturing industry, making food and widgets and everything in between. And their jobs support employment in other sectors of the economy. Given its smaller population, when Montana faces job loss due to unfair trade, they feel it more than higher populated states. 

Losing 3,500 Montana manufacturing jobs since 2001 is cause for concern and more than enough reason to act. Delegates joined our #sosjobs campaign to tell their elected officials to make trade work for America. It’s pretty simple: When you have fair trade, the good people of Montana and across the country have a better chance of achieving the American Dream. And when you’re surrounded by the beauty and opportunity that exists in Big Sky country, you’re inspired to stay united and fight for what’s right. We’re stronger together!

AAM staff display the Toolkit.

Not long after, in Portland …

AAM was on hand for the 54th Annual Unitarian Universalist (UU) General Assembly held in Portland, Oregon. This year’s theme, “Building a New Way,” focused on encouraging and inspiring its members to live authentic, courageous, and compassionate lives and focus on new ways of responding to community needs.

This was AAM’s third year joining the UU’s for their annual convention, which drew 5,000 attendees, including 300 youth representatives. The week-long assembly included many activities, workshops, forums, and Actions of Immediate Witness – the UU process of identifying timely social issues in need of attention and action from its congregations. Climate change, racial violence, and unfair trade were among those issues discussed and debated.  And just like AAM, consensus among UU’s is that trade can only work if it’s fair.

Meghan, Jenna, and I talked with attendees about trade, manufacturing, and jobs. And just as years past, many folks we talked with agreed that these issues were vital to their communities back home and wanted to share our information.  Our Organizing Toolkit, a guide for congregations to take action on manufacturing issues, was very well-received as we heard dozens of stories about factories closing down in small-town America and the trouble many attendees experienced trying to find American-made or fair trade products to buy.

The toolkit provides ideas for congregations to act on economic justice issues by using their consumer power, hosting film screenings in their communities, and by arranging meetings with their elected officials to work for change. Mr. Barb, a member of the UU Right Relationship Committee, put it well when he said, “To live our values means doing more than just discussing them.” 

We were also able to participate in the Public Witness event that focused on climate justice and the Lummi Nation of Washington State. An outstanding lecture was given by Rev. Dr. Cornel West, who autographed his recent book “Black Prophetic Fire” and spoke about living a life of integrity, decency, and virtue. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) was presented with the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights Leadership for lifelong work toward social and racial justice. In other words: AAM was in great company, making connections with amazing people who understand that to raise all boats, we should take Rep. Lewis’ advice and “find a way to get in the way.”