March 19, 2006

Guest Editorial: Winning Back Our Rights, Taking Back Our Country

By Stewart Acuff, AFL-CIO Organizing Director

Our nation and our people face a profound choice this year; once again a choice that will define the future for tens of thousands of working families and their children, seniors, the working poor, and the middle class and students.

We can choose the side that will further squeeze the middle class, destroying or further off-shoring good paying jobs. We can choose the side signing trade deals that serve to exploit workers in developing countries while closing factories and destroying futures here. We can choose the side that is helping corporate America offload pensions, break their promises to workers, and sentence hundreds of thousands of workers to an old age of poverty or near poverty. We can choose the side that risked the safety of our families and our homeland in the pursuit of a reckless foreign policy.

We can choose the side that raised the pay of Congress seven times, but refuses to increase the minimum wage. We can choose the side that does nothing to solve our healthcare crises.

We can choose the side that tried to gut social security with a privatization scheme and that created a ridiculously complicated senior prescription drug program that hides a massive giveaway to the rich. We can choose the side that has turned the largest budget surplus in the history of our country into the largest budget deficit. We can choose the side that has embraced corruption.

We can choose those who created a Federal Emergency Management Agency, which failed dramatically in the crises along the Gulf Coast and further victimized poor people already victimized by one of our nation's worst natural disasters. We can choose the side that everyday furthers the erosion and decimation of basic workers' rights and fundamental human rights in the workplace.

Or, we can choose to fight for a much, much different direction and future. We can choose to elect those who worked to save our social security and preserve the private pension system, those who want to serve our national healthcare crisis and raise the minimum wage. We can elect those who don't want to hand the nation's treasury to the filthy rich and give corporations a blank check to do our land, our people, our country any way they want to. We can elect those who want to clean up the corruption in Washington, who will save student aid and college opportunity who don't think multi-national dollar lobbyists should write our country's laws and policies and dictate the future of our kids. And we can elect women and men who are determined to preserve what workplace rights we have left and restore those fundamental human rights that we've lost, who will restore the right to organize and bargain collectively.

The freedom to form unions, the right to organize and bargain collectively * those are internationally accepted fundamental human rights * referenced in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights three times. And those rights which when they were enforced *helped to create the modern American labor movement and consequently the American middle class. Yet, today workers in America have lost any effective right to organize and bargain collectively.

Five years ago, Human Rights Watch issued a report documenting the fact that the United States is in violation of international law and internationally accepted human rights standards for failing to protect the rights of America's workers to freely form unions. According to the National Labor Relations Board an average of 20,000 workers a year in America are victimized by their employers for trying to form a union.

The most important reason we've lost the right to organize and bargain collectively is a 25-year unrelenting assault by corporations and their right wing allies and the effects on the labor movement and working families of destroying the right-to-organize and de-industrialization have been disastrous:

  • Steadily declining density of the percentage of workers in unions. That decline in density has cost us bargaining power, the ability to win gains in wages and benefits for workers at the bargaining table.
  • This decline of unions has cost workers power and voice in their workplaces, in our communities, in our cities and states, and in our nation.
  • Real wages have been stagnant for 20 years.
  • Our healthcare system is completely broken and is not meeting our needs and costing us all a fortune to fail.
  • Though we have for now saved Social Security, our private pension systems remain under attack.
  • American democracy is threatened.
  • And many of us go to bed every night and get up in the morning wondering if our kids will inherit a harder life, more work, less pay, a less secure future and a less just country * a country with more less justice, more greed and less compassion.

As bad as it is for our labor movement and our nation, it is worse for individual workers trying to do the right thing. Imagine you're a residential immigrant construction worker in Phoenix. You make $6.50 an hour with no healthcare, no pension, and no workers compensation. You live with your wife and kids with another family and you want more than anything to secure your family's future, get your own apartment, get your kids an education and a better life.

And so you begin to do what you thought you were entitled to do, to try to help your kids and your coworkers at the same time * by beginning to form a union. Forming unions is one of the highest forms of human endeavor, to work cooperatively to help everyone, not the way corporate America says to do it * not by climbing over anyone else or ratting out anyone, not by sucking up * but by trying to do the right thing * working together.

Yet, when this happens -- workers like these every day are harassed, intimidated, and even fired by unscrupulous employers who routinely violate the law.

We have to change this -- and it is a fight we can win.

We must garner majority support for the Employee Free Choice Act, Federal legislation which ensures that when a majority of employees in a workplace decide to form a union, they can do so without the debilitating obstacles employers now use to block their workers' free choice. Already, there are 212 co-sponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives a mere six shy of a majority with an 42 additional co-sponsors in the United States Senate.

Then we must educate our coworkers, our friends, and neighbors. We must stand with workers trying to form a union in our communities. All people of conscious especially union members and shop stewards must know what's at stake and every worksite must develop a strong communication system. We need to hold elected leaders accountable on where they stand on restoring the free to form unions in America, support these candidates, and turn out for them on Election Day. Let's make the right to organize and bargain collectively the number one issue in this election year!

The truth is that the ultimate power of the labor movement is our members unified and in motion. We exercise that power at the polls, in the streets, and in civic life. And so to win back this right, we'll have to exercise all the elements of our power. Additionally, progressives outside the labor movement have to help workers lead this fight. The single greatest internal threat to the success of progressive policies and values is the evisceration of the freedom to form unions.

We need to take to the streets like we did on December 10, 2005, International Human Rights Day, when more than 60,000 union members and allies held more than 100 events nationwide and in 15 countries internationally in support of restoring this fundamental human right. This was the largest union movement wide mobilization in fifteen years, but now we must think even bigger by waging larger organizing campaign * targeting growing sectors and whole companies -- demanding that employers recognize majority sign-up and respect workers' decisions by remaining neutral in campaigns * and form unions outside of the current delay-prone National Labor Relations Board process.

Our action is motivated by our values we believe in the common good, that we can and must improve the future for our kids by working together, towards justice, and fairness. Our country is way off on the wrong track, but we can and must point it the right way again if we work and fight together.

In the despair of the Great Depression came the actions and the mobilizations that led to the New Deal, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance and the right to organize and our labor movement.

Out of the despair of the Jim Crow segregated, racist South came the struggle, the feet in the street and the mobilizations that ended legal discrimination and segregation, changing the South and the nation.

The history of our nation and indeed our world is toward greater freedom and more justice, sometimes two steps forward, one step backward. Our nation has stepped backward. It is our responsibility and obligation to take it forward again.

We will! And we will win!

Posted by natasha at March 19, 2006 05:45 PM | Labor | Technorati links |