Labor summit: Beat Bush agenda, save affirmative action!

DETROIT — A clarion call for unity was sounded at a Labor Summit on Affirmative Action and Segregation here April 28. Conference-goers heard the Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and local civil rights and labor leaders urge the civil rights movement, labor and their allies to turn out the vote in November to defeat the Bush agenda.

Nearly 1,000 people attended the summit, which was initiated by the Detroit NAACP.

In 2006, Michigan is ground zero in a national struggle for equality. An initiative to outlaw affirmative action is on the November ballot. It was introduced into Michigan by California millionaire Ward Connerly, whose paid signature collectors deceptively told signers they were supporting civil rights.

Besides destroying affirmative action in Michigan, the measure is meant to help the Republican Party draw its base to the polls.

Detroit NAACP President Rev. Wendell Anthony said the state could either be a model for the nation or a starting point for a new assault on democracy. “Michigan is the citadel of labor and civil rights,” he declared. “We cannot allow someone from the outside to divide our house.”

Affirmative action is about giving people the opportunity to compete on a more level playing field, said Granholm, a Democrat. She warned that both Michigan’s Republican-controlled Legislature and the state’s Supreme Court are turning back the clock on labor and civil rights.

A negative high court ruling on the constitutionality of requiring photo identification at the polls will jeopardize the voting rights of 370,000 voters who do not have Michigan-issued photo driver’s licenses. Forcing them to pay for a state photo ID will be the equivalent of a poll tax, Granholm said, adding that Republicans “will try to manipulate every institution possible to win.”

The governor said the Republican Legislature is “all about division” — rural residents from city dwellers, Black from white, and haves from have-nots. She said the Legislature has repeatedly singled out Detroit for punishment by cutting funding for the city’s Wayne State University and earmarking mass transit funds and increased tax revenues for every city except Detroit.

Lowery, a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said America’s “soul” is in greater peril than it was 50 years ago. Quoting retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, he said the current assault on the judiciary is a prelude to dictatorship, adding that it is time for a rebirth of labor, civil rights and women’s groups.

Lowery warned that our democracy is also threatened when corporate executives make 400 times the average worker’s wage, and a handful of people have more than they will ever need, while others have so little.

Jackson, head of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, emphasized the common threads that bind all workers and people of color. He told the crowd that NAFTA has allowed subsidized U.S. agricultural products to undercut Mexican farmers, forcing millions to abandon their farms. Job losses in the auto industry, he said, are not caused by undocumented workers, but by U.S. trade policies.

Detroit NAACP Executive Director Heaster Wheeler pointed out that from gay marriage to immigration, the Bush administration is using weapons of “mass distraction” to split the people’s movement. “Talk of building a wall with Mexico is foolishness, unacceptable. We don’t talk of building a wall with Canada,” he added.

State AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney, a leader in the effort to save affirmative action, said that with 5 million more people impoverished because of Bush’s policies, and the wealthy becoming wealthier, “this is an election we cannot afford to lose.”