A voice for nonunion workers

Working America — the AFL-CIO’s influential grassroots organization for people who don’t have a union — is sending an army of activists to the streets this summer to strengthen the voice of working people in nine states.

By the end of the summer, Working America will have 180 staff members talking face to face with people around the country, mobilizing them around both local and national issues such as health care.

“Our members are the working people whose interests and needs have long been ignored by those who craft the economic policy of our country,” Working America director Karen Nussbaum said. “As the rich have gotten richer, many of these Americans have been left behind — without health insurance, pensions or wages that can support a family. Joining Working America gives them an opportunity to make a real difference in the policies that shape their lives.”

Working America was launched in 2003 as the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO to bring some of the benefits of union membership to workers who don’t have a union on the job. Since then it has grown to 1.6 million members in every state and hopes to reach 2.5 million members by Labor Day 2008.

Steelworkers endorse Franken

The election for U.S. Senate in Minnesota is 18 months away, but the United Steelworkers have already chosen their candidate.

USW District 11 has endorsed Al Franken, who is seeking the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party nomination to challenge incumbent Republican Norm Coleman.

Franken’s “closeness to working families and our issues is the reason why Al received the near-unanimous support of USW District 11,” said Bob Bratulich, director of the district, which covers nine states including Minnesota.

The union cited Franken’s support for fair trade and for the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to organize.

The GOP’s Coleman was elected to the Senate following the death of Democratic- Farmer-Labor Party Sen. Paul Wellstone in a plane crash in October 2002, just weeks before the election. Franken, a comedian, author and former talk show host on the progressive Air America radio network, was a close friend of Wellstone.

Although Franken was a well-known comedy writer in New York and Hollywood, he is a Minnesota native. Two years ago, he moved back to Minnesota to prepare for a Senate run. So far, he has nearly kept pace with Coleman’s fundraising, garnering more than $1.35 million.

China’s unions set busier

China’s top trade union body said last week that by 2012 all companies in China will be expected to have established a system of collective negotiation and collective contracts.

Zhang Qiujian, a senior official with the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, said at a press conference in Beijing that the federation was firmly committed to helping workers in all companies, including state-owned, private-owned and foreign-owned, to fight for decent wages.

Zhang said the federation was particularly concerned with small private enterprises, many of which do not have unions or modern safeguards for upholding labor rights. She said it will urge the government to take measures to help set up a system of collective bargaining.

The federation has set a goal of covering at least 60 percent of China’s workforce with collective bargaining agreements by the end of next year, Zhang said. Currently, 49 percent of workers are covered by such agreements.

According to the federation, a total of 862,000 collective bargaining agreements were signed nationwide last year, involving 112.5 million workers.

New Circuit City cuts

In the wake of a Wall Street Journal report that Circuit City will lay off 850 more workers, the president of the 100,000-member Retail, Wholesale Department Store Union (RWDSU) blasted the management of the electronics retailer as “poster children for corporate irresponsibility.”

The WSJ had reported last week that the company will eliminate the jobs of 654 store managers and 200 workers.

“Circuit City’s management seems intent on leading the company into an abyss,” said Stuart Appelbaum, the union’s head, adding, “Circuit City’s management doesn’t seem to understand that, at the end of the day, the only real asset it has is its employees.”

Appelbaum noted that the RWDSU has already taken up the cause of the roughly 3,400 Circuit City employees who lost their jobs earlier this year and were replaced with lower paid staff. Earlier this month the RWDSU executive board voted to back a lawsuit against Circuit City filed by three California workers.

“Even though the employees at Circuit City are not members of our union, every retail worker has a stake in fighting what Circuit City is doing,” Appelbaum said. “Big chain stores have been pushing retail workers around for too long. It’s time to push back.”

This Week in Labor is compiled by John Wojcik (jwojcik @pww.org).