Union members — making change from bottom up

MIAMI — “Change made from the bottom up” is being proven in life here by members of the 12-million-strong AFL-CIO labor federation. Even as an economic tsunami threatens to engulf America’s workers, the union movement is organizing for immediate and far-reaching relief for communities and families.

And they have some pretty powerful friends and allies as well.

“What a pleasure and a joy to have a member of the president’s Cabinet come to our union hall and then spend time with workers in Miami,” Dwayne Whitney, president of Local 1416, International Longshoremen’s Association, told the World during the AFL-CIO’s four-day leadership meeting and related events. “We’ve been cut out and pushed out for so long,” he said referring to the decades of White-House-launched attacks on working people and their unions.

Top leaders of the U.S. labor movement gathered here March 2-5 for a meeting of the AFL-CIO executive council. The new head of the Labor Department, Hilda Solis, and Vice President Joe Biden joined them.

President Barack Obama sent a video message telling labor leaders they would always have a ‘place at the table’ under his presidency. He also reiterated his support for the landmark Employee Free Choice Act.

The meeting focus was almost exclusively on the economy. The course that was set begins with a beefed up drive to insure passage of the free choice measure. The bill would simplify things for workers who want to form a union. Instead of the current situation, where companies are in control, the free choice act would give workers the choice of deciding on union representation through signing cards or an election.

Union membership is a critical economic marker for workers, opening the door to higher wages, thriving small businesses and pay equity.

Hector Capote, a Cuban immigrant, told the new secretary of labor and a huge multiracial crowd at a rally at the Greater Bethel AME Church that after 14 years of dead-end jobs, “many of them off the books, off the clock, and with no pay,” he finally has a good union job. Capote organized his co-workers at AT&T Wireless into Local 3122 of the Communications Workers of America.

He tried, but failed, to hold back tears as he spoke about his father, “who, in his entire life, never made more than $13 an hour, never had a union, never had health care, sacrificed and went without, giving everything he had to hold our family together.

“I really thank God that I had a chance, as a union worker … to provide for some of the things he otherwise never would have had,” Capote said. “Without the union I could never have paid him back.”

As Solis reached out and embraced Capote, the crowd — hundreds of white, black, Cuban and Central American workers — rose in applause.

Yet, when workers try to organize a union at their workplace, they are too often fired. A newly released report by John Schmitt of the Center for Economic Policy and Research says firings took place in 30 percent of workplaces where there were union organizing campaigns.Businesses are stepping up their attacks on unions, the report shows.

Workers in the south Florida area who have been illegally fired told their stories at a March 4 press conference. Phillip Jackson, an apprentice welder and member of Local 630 of the Pipefitter’s union in West Palm Beach told how he was fired from his job at Mechanical Industrial for talking quietly with co-workers, off the shop floor, about joining the union.

Solis said she plans to “resuscitate” the Labor Department by enforcing laws designed to protect workers, hiring inspectors who will “really do inspections” and strengthening job safety measures.

As she toured economically devastated Miami neighborhoods, Solis said it’s important she spend her first few days on the job with working families.

“It is appropriate that I begin this job here in the house of labor,” she said. “We see here in Miami training programs that prepare workers for good jobs that start at $28 an hour. Every member of Congress should see this.”

AFL-CIO leaders assailed Republicans for having brought the country “to the brink of disaster,” by “lining the pockets of corporate leaders and the wealthy at the expense of working people.”

The labor leaders also issued a statement calling for bank nationalization. They urged the Obama administration to intervene when significant financial institutions are on the brink of collapse, but warned that those interventions must “protect the public interest, and not merely rescue executives or wealthy investors.”

“This is an issue of both fairness and our national interest,” the federation said. “It makes no sense for the public to borrow trillions of dollars to rescue investors who can afford the losses associated with failed banks.”

Government takeover should “force a cleanup” of bank balance sheets, and “the result should be banks that can either be turned over to bondholders in exchange for bondholder concessions or sold back into the public markets,” the AFL-CIO said.

“We believe that the debate over nationalization is delaying the inevitable bank restructuring, which is something our economy cannot afford,” the statement said.