Workers rights are human rights: Week of action spotlights labors right to organize

CHICAGO — “Today I am proud to join workers, community and religious leaders in an urgent call for stronger U.S. and international laws that protect workers’ rights on the job,” Illinois AFL-CIO President Margaret Blackshere told a Dec. 8 rally at the city’s historic Haymarket Square. More than 175 union members, activists, religious leaders and community supporters braved a snowstorm to join the observance of International Human Rights Week, Dec. 3-10.

The Chicago event was just one of scores of actions nationwide involving thousands of workers throughout the week. The activities highlighted workers’ rights to improve their lives, calling on employers as well as lawmakers to restore the basic human right of workers to form unions and win union contracts.

“There is no better tool than a union card,” Chicago Federation of Labor President Dennis Gannon told the crowd. But, he warned, “despite U.S. and international laws intended to guarantee working people the basic human right to form a union, employers take advantage of loopholes in the law to harass, intimidate, threaten and even fire workers when they try to exercise that right.”

Former Resurrection Health Care employee Paula Rojas described the illegal reprisals she faced after publicly supporting the organizing campaign to form a union with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

“I worked as a housekeeper at Westlake Hospital for 21 years,” said Rojas. “But when Resurrection took over a few years ago, staffing was cut and our workloads doubled.” She added, “I was committed to the hospital, but I knew conditions had to change. I became a very public supporter of our union, and I believed that with Resurrection’s missions and its values of compassion and respect, they would let us decide if we wanted our union. But I was fired for my union activity.”

Rosa Ramirez, a temporary worker and Chicago Workers’ Collaborative member, said, “We have been underpaid because of our race and because we are immigrants. We are 1.5 million in Illinois and we are denied our right to form a union. We are sick of temporary work. We want permanent jobs with unions.”

According to Peter D. Hart Research Associates, over half of America’s workers say they would join a union tomorrow if given the chance. But too few ever get that chance because employers routinely violate workers’ freedom to form unions.

It is estimated that 30 percent of employers fire pro-union workers, and nearly half of employers threaten to close a worksite when workers try to form a union (though only 2 percent actually do). Fifty-one percent of employers coerce workers into opposing unions with bribery or favoritism and 82 percent hire high-priced union-busting consultants to fight union organizing drives.

These figures show why many of the national “workers right to organize” actions focused on support for HR 1696, the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). The bill would outlaw “captive audience” meetings, increase fines and penalties for labor law-breaking, write into federal law card-check recognition of unions and order first-contract mediation and arbitration. HR 1696 now has 41 sponsors in the Senate and 207 in the House, including nine representatives and one senator from the congressional GOP majority.

Reflecting on the Human Rights Week events, AFL-CIO Director of Organizing Stewart Acuff told the World, “Our job is to drive this issue (the right to organize) into the core of the culture of America. We have a job to try and engage elected officials in support of workers. Anyone who cares about social and economic justice has to care about labor as one of the principal engines of the movement for change.” He added, “The welfare, soul and political democracy of America are at stake here. George Bush is the workers’ number one enemy right now.”

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said in a statement, “Workers need a voice on the job more than ever. This is the time to take a stand for the basic rights of America’s workers, we need to build a united front telling our employers and our elected leaders that this is it — we refuse to accept the erosion of our basic human rights.”

“Every worker should have what the Haymarket fought and died for,” said Margaret Blackshere, alluding to the pioneering martyrs who fought for the eight-hour day. “We’re going to keep marching, keep fighting, keep coming out on snowy days. Brothers and sisters, let’s keep fighting!”

Despite the cold and snow that day, a much larger storm raged in the name of freedom and justice for workers’ rights to organize, as the crowd made its presence known with chants of, “Hey hey, ho ho, Union-busting’s got to go!”