AFL-CIO President John Sweeney was greeted with a standing ovation when he told a crowd at a Quaker Meeting House in Philadelphia, Dec. 6, that union rights are human rights and workers everywhere must stand up to defend those rights. The town hall meeting was one of scores of similar rallies in 100 cities this week leading up to International Human Rights Day, Dec. 10.

Sweeney blamed the right-wing Republican leadership for fanning anti-labor hostility among corporate employers. He pointed out that 2006 is an election year, adding, “We have to hold these politicians accountable.”

The Republican leadership is blocking enactment of the Employee Free Choice Act endorsed by 200 members of the House and 37 members of the Senate. In sum, it would require the National Labor Relations Board to certify a union when a majority of workers at an enterprise have signed cards asking for a union. It also calls for a federal mediator if workers and their employer have been unable to reach a contract agreement within 90 days. And it would triple the fines imposed on employers found guilty of illegally firing a worker for attempting to organize a union.

Corporations have turned union-busting into an exact science using bully tactics, intimidation and outright firing along with soft-soap appeals that workers and bosses are on the “same team” to keep unions out. Only 13 percent of U.S. workers are unionized. Real wages, adjusted for inflation, have fallen in each of the past seven years. Employers are also stripping workers of health coverage, pensions and other benefits. Victories such as those won by the Houston janitors organized by SEIU and the Asarco copper miners in Arizona represented by the Steelworkers and other unions prove that unionism is alive and well.

Polls show a clear majority of workers would join a union if they could. But breaking the anti-union stranglehold of the Republican right on Capitol Hill next year is key to winning passage of the Employee Free Choice Act. That in turn will clear the way for workers, at last, to exercise their most elementary human right, the right to join a union.