LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — I just happened to be visiting my cousins in Arkansas when I got word of a rally in Little Rock to support the Employee Free Choice Act. I rushed up to Central High School to join the rally. Central High School was the focus of the entire nation in 1957 when Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus attempted to prevent African American children from being admitted to attend school. One of the speakers at this historic rally on 7/11/09 aptly stated that Central High School was the “center of the Universe for civil rights”.
About 1500 people, according to the AFL-CIO organizers, participated in this march which they stated was the largest demonstration in 20 years in Arkansas. The participants were culturally and ethnically diverse and included Anglos, Latinos, African Americans and Native Americans. Members of various unions were highly visible including United Steelworkers, ACORN, Painters, Plumbers, Pipefitters, IBEW, Boilermakers, AFSCME, OPEIU, CWA, TWU, UFCW, AFGE, Sheetmetal Workers, UAW, Arkansas Interfaith Worker Justice and Jobs with Justice.
The Little Rock Nine were also visible and in support of the effort. The Little Rock Nine were the courageous students who faced down the ugly face of racism and integrated Central High School.
Marchers prevailed in spite of 100+ degree Arkansas heat. Many energetic chants could be heard including “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Union busting has got to go!” Participants marched from Central High School to the steps of the Arkansas state Capitol. We were treated to many rousing speeches from labor leaders from around the country and from the state of Arkansas.
As I arrived, loudspeakers were blaring Billy Bragg’s version of Joe Hill in front of Central High School. Prior to the rally, columnist John Brummet of the Arkansas Times quipped, “That ‘card check’ issue,…is not dead…And the center of gravity today will be the historic capital city of a state long considered anti-union. That would be Little Rock…Never has so much labor muscle ventured at once into our little state.”
The rally was opened by a delightful group of African American youngsters who were singing an inspiring song. Leo Gerard, President of the United Steelworkers took the podium and quoted President Obama, “Our destiny is not written for us, it is written by us!” A banner behind him declared, “Worker’s rights are human rights.”
Arlene Holt-Baker, executive Vice President of AFL-CIO, who was originally from Texas, pointed out, “Central High School is sacred ground for those of us who believe in justice.” She highlighted the importance of linking civil rights with worker’s rights and “sending a message to the Senators here in Arkansas…they were elected by working people to do the right thing for working people.” She also made a pointed comment to Senator Blanche Lincoln, “there are advantages for women to be in a union…Wages are 30% higher for women who are union members.” She demanded, “Do the right thing for working people in this country!” Arkansas state senator Joyce Elliot, former President of the teacher’s union in Arkansas, added, “We need to make sure both Senators know this is about free choice in a free country.” Both Holt-Baker and Elliot are African American.
Some union members discussed the importance of unity among union members. The Arkansas Democrat Gazette was predictably negative about the march and rally, crudely attempting to split working people on this essential democratic right, i.e. the right to organize and form a union. Union members commented that the rally had struck a nerve since the newspaper was so heavy handed in its response.
It was pointed out that 70 industrialized countries already have the right to organize unions and the rate of unionization is subsequently higher in South Africa, a number of European countries and China.
Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, thanked Senator Pryor of Arkansas for his support on the Employee Free Choice legislation. He also encouraged Senator Lincoln to “do what’s right by working people” and to enable them to “negotiate their way into the middle class rather than borrow their way into the middle class.”
Deborah Berger, President of the California Nurses’ Association, pointed out that improving nurses’ rights to organize will improve patient care and ultimately health care in general.
Stewart Acuff, special assistant to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, told the World about the rally, “Huge success!” He noted that people marched in 100+ degree heat and this showed the “commitment of people to passing the Employee Free Choice Act.” He said they, “stood and marched in the heat to make this point to Blanche Lincoln. We couldn’t be more pleased by the participation of elected officials and the faith community in Arkansas and people of good will from all over this state.” Acuff is originally from western Tennessee, not far from Little Rock.
From the AFL-CIO website, “Writing in the Texarkana Community Journal, the AFL-CIO’s Stewart Acuff explains how the decline of workers’ bargaining power contributed to our economic crisis and how the Employee Free Choice Act will help bring about a sustainable recovery:
The most effective and real economic stimulus to get us out of our economic morass is to restore workers’ freedom to form unions and bargain collectively. Given the real freedom to form unions and bargain collectively, workers will bargain for a fairer share of the wealth we create and a return on our productivity increases. We will bargain for a larger, stronger middle class. We will bargain for an exit ramp from poverty. We will bargain for spending and buying power to generate consumer demand. We will bargain for an economy that works for all.”
Martha Blackmon of the Arkansas Interfaith Worker Justice organization in Little Rock told the World, “This is one of the most important things the working class needs. It is very good to see so many people coming together to rally around this issue that effects us all. We need to get our Senators on board to pass this act.”
My cousin reminded me of a famous quote from William Jennings Bryan in his speech to the Democratic National Convention on July 9, 1896 in which he exclaimed, “You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold!” referring to the capitalists. Many union members think this is the core of working people’s demands for the Employee Free Choice Act 113 years and two days later.
Editor’s note: For more information on Arkansas and the Employee Free Choice Act, read labor editor John Wojcik’s article “12 Senate Dems are key on employee free choice, union leader says” at .