Labor leader calls for 500,000 "soldiers" to defend democracy

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CLEVELAND - With the drive to repeal a drastic union-busting state law in full swing, Harriet Applegate, executive secretary of the North Shore AFL-CIO Federation of Labor, rallied over 100 key labor and community activists here May 16.

Speaking at the annual Spring Celebration fundraiser for Cleveland Jobs With Justice, Applegate called for mobilizing an army of "upwards of 500,000 newly activated soldiers" in the fight to save the right of workers to bargain collectively.

That is the number of teachers, safety force workers and other public employees whose right to negotiate wages, benefits and working conditions was eliminated when Republican Gov. John Kasich signed what is known as Senate Bill 5 into law March 31. Since then, tens of thousands of workers and their supporters have hit the streets circulating petitions to put the measure as a referendum on the November ballot.

"This is our moment," Applegate said, "in both an exhilarating and terrifying way. Exhilarating because this is our chance to come back strong...and terrifying because of the consequences if we fail.

"John Kasich has done for us what we couldn't do for ourselves," she continued. "He has unified us. More importantly, he has unified us around an issue that is not only fundamental to unions, but fundamental to democracy: collective bargaining."

The ultra right "is not interested in dialogue, discussion, bargaining or any other form of communication much less dispute resolution," Applegate said. "It is their way or the highway."

Collective bargaining, she continued, "is the verb of democracy."

Groups like Jobs with Justice are critical to winning the fight because unions "aren't structured to reach out to the community and they're not so good at it by and large." They "need all the help they can get in the coalition-building department."

Applegate called for building teams of labor and community activists in every precinct to go door to door "winning hearts and minds" and overcoming an expected massive "campaign of divide and conquer" once the referendum is on the ballot.

Senate Bill 5, she said, has activated people as never before. "We haven't seen this ever in our state and rarely in our nation since the 1930s. "[W]e cannot afford to fail to take advantage of this wonderful moment of engagement," she said. "Shame on us activists if we cannot seize this opportunity, win it and take it as far as possible. We are only limited by the limits of our hopes and dreams. We are not likely to get this chance again. Let's seize the day!"

Awards were presented to State Sen. Mike Skindell and State Rep. Mike Foley, leaders of the fight against the union-busting measure in the Legislature, as well as to Sue Brown of Workers United and Mike Martino of United Food and Commercial Workers for their longtime contributions to the labor movement.

Photo via North Shore AFL-CIO Federation of Labor.

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