Gebre: ‘Court will decide if workers still have a voice’
Tefere Gebre |

WASHINGTON—All workers, union and non-union, public and private, have their workplace rights up for grabs, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre says.

“Sometime this month, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide if workers still have a right to a voice in the workplace,” he told the American Constitution Society, a coalition of progressive attorneys and jurists, including pro-worker labor lawyers. He did not differentiate between classes or types of workers. The way Gebre and many union leaders see it, the answer to that question will be “no.”

Gebre’s assertion came during a June 9 panel discussion on “Reclaiming the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.,” 50 years after the famed civil rights leader was assassinated while leading marches and mobilization for sanitation workers forced to strike in Memphis, Tenn.

The workers, in the original “I am a man” movement there, wanted recognition of their union, the State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and negotiation of a contract with decent wages and safer working conditions.

The High Court ruling by the end of the month in Janus v AFSCME District Council 31 is expected to make the current unionized Memphis sanitation workers, and every single other state and local government worker nationwide, a potential “free rider,” able to use union benefits and services without paying one red cent for them.

National “free ridership,” turning every state and local governing body into, in essence, a “right to work” site, would cost unions around the country millions of dollars in so-called “fair share” fees and, one study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign says, 726,000 members combined over time.

Gebre said the impact goes beyond just the state and local government workers. That’s because it would lessen worker power nationwide to campaign for – and win – decent working conditions for themselves, public or private.

Just over half of U.S. unionized workers are in private industry, while other non-union workplaces match their unionized counterparts in wages, to keep pace and keep their people.

“If you want equality in the workplace, there is no better solution than a collective bargaining agreement, which is color-blind,” Gebre told the crowd. Quoting King, Gebre added: “If democracy does not start at the workplace, then it is not a real democracy. If equality does not start at the workplace, then it is not real equality.”

If he was advising King today on priorities to push, “I would remind Dr. King of Memphis,” Gebre said. “This is not the time to be patient, when the ‘working class’ is defined as ‘the white working class’ and the rest of us are written off,” the former Teamster and current AFSCME member said.

Until the U.S. finds a solution to problems of job and income inequality, “we’re dancing around the issue, when we have to be out in the streets” campaigning against it, Gebre declared.

The other panelists agreed with Gebre, but advanced other priorities modern Kings – including the Black Lives Matter movement and the New Poor People’s Campaign – have adopted. Those other priorities, which Gebre and the other panelists said all interlock, include:

  • Environmental justice. Yale law professor Marianne Lado cited the lead poisoning of drinking water in minority-majority Flint, Mich., by a white-named, state-named financial czar who switched the city’s water source to save money, as a prime – but not the only example.
  • Criminal justice reform. Former D.C. prosecutor Paul Butler, now a Georgetown University law professor, pointed out that African-Americans allegedly commit 13 percent of the nation’s crimes, but comprise 60 percent of its jail inmates.

“When prisons become privatized, there are more laws to lock up more poor people,” Gebre added. He did not mention that GOP-run states and GOP-run federal agencies instituted much of the privatization.

  • Voter suppression. Panelists said that goes far beyond the Supreme Court’s ruling several years ago effectively gutting enforcement of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That law was one of the civil rights movements, and King’s, signal achievements.

Voter suppression, including restrictions on polling places and times, demands for “voter ID,’ closure of polling places in minority neighborhoods and disenfranchisement at college campuses, has spread far beyond the states of the Old South which the Voting Rights Act initially targeted, the panelists said.

Though the panel did not say so, the “Voter ID” law the U.S. Supreme Court upheld years ago – a model for the others enacted since – was from the GOP-dominated Indiana legislature.

  • The separation of race from class. Concentration on race has produced a massive backlash, led by, as one panelist put it, “an openly racist president.” That includes backlash from those who should be class allies, the white poor, the other panelists said.
  • Official surveillance and crackdowns on mass movements. The panelists said current movements, like King’s civil rights movements, should hit the streets against all the inequalities of U.S. society, despite such official responses. One noted that as U.S. Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy – also, when later running for president, murdered in 1968 – authorized FBI surveillance of King, his Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the civil rights movement in general. The movement marched anyway.

Another panelist noted an insidious form of surveillance in “police protection” legislation for mass protests, just signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-N.Y.

  • Inequalities in education, and not just in the nation’s colleges. Indeed, said Century Foundation fellow

Robert Kaltenberg, the most-elite university of all, Harvard, is now majority-minority – including women, African-Americans, Latinos, Latinas and others. But most of its students are from the top one percent in family income.

Gebre said it’s not just colleges. “I went to high school in downtown L.A.” after entering the U.S. as a political refugee from war-torn Ethiopia, he explained. “My books were stamped ‘Grenada High School’ and they were from five years before. We never had the access to resources at the ground level” that schools in richer neighborhoods, even in the Los Angeles Unified School District, had.

“We need to go back and produce economic justice, environmental justice and educational justice in our neighborhoods,” Gebre said.

But that still leaves one big problem, of attitude and indifference, said the moderator, U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves of Mississippi. “America has always been very good at demonizing ‘The other.’ How can we get voters to not think of ‘The other’?”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).