U.S. Social Forum draws 10,000, links peace, worker rights and Katrina

ATLANTA — Ten thousand community and human rights activists, trade unionists and young people converged in this city of epic civil rights struggles June 27-July 1 at the first United States Social Forum.

By the time all the thousands who came by plane, train, bus, car and on foot arrived, it was clear that a significant left political movement in this country is deeply involved in struggles that matter to working people, women and communities of color.

The greatest point of unity at the forum was the need to stop the war in Iraq. Many signs calling for an end to the war were held up by thousands who marched peacefully through downtown Atlanta on June 27, passing historic sites including the grave of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

At a plenary session June 28, thousands jumped to their feet and roared approval when Judith Le Blanc, from United for Peace and Justice, said, “No headway can be made on justice while $600 billion is spent on wars abroad. We must unite with the 70 percent who are against this war even where that is the only thing on which we agree with them.”

Earlier that day, a plenary session on Gulf Coast reconstruction in the post-Katrina era laid out a searing indictment of Bush administration policy in the region.

“Katrina was not a natural disaster but a man-made disaster and Bush, not Katrina, is our disaster,” declared Monique Harden, a moderator representing Advocates for Environmental Human Rights. She went on to say that the destruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast only began with the storm but was “planned and continued by Bush who represents the historic forces of genocide, slavery, militarism, exploitation of all workers, white supremacy and sexism.”

Harden added, “This is a planned, purposeful destruction of a community of people of color, a community of immigrants and a community of poor white working people.

“It is a warning to all Americans,” she said, “that Katrina can and is in fact happening to you.”

Javier Gallado of the New Orleans Workers Center said, “The ongoing struggle to win the right of return for displaced people and the right of workers to return to their jobs has grown into a fight against gentrification and privatization — and a fight for housing, education, health care, public services and the right of workers to collective bargaining in their workplaces.”

The growing unity of labor unions and non-traditional workers’ organizations in the fight against the ultra-right was evident at a June 30 workers’ rights plenary.

Francisco Pacheco of the National Day Labor Organizing Network said that “workers inside and outside of trade unions are under assault and the bosses and government have made it impossible to organize. We refuse to let them pit us against each other.”

“In the Gulf Coast,” he said, “they make the day laborers, the guest workers and the immigrants into the new slaves to replace the old slaves they kicked out. Our answer is unity. We will not let them divide us.”

Stewart Acuff, organizing director of the AFL-CIO, deplored the fact that CEOs “are making 422 times as much as workers” and that “every 17 minutes in this country a worker is fired for exercising his right to organize a union.” He received a standing ovation from the thousands in attendance when he called for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would force employers to recognize a union as soon as a majority sign cards indicating their desire to be represented by the union.

Acuff received a second standing ovation when he announced that 100,000 workers in South Korea went on strike against the “free trade” agreement just signed by the United States and South Korea. The agreement will allow powerful multinationals to exploit Korean workers, driving down wages and working conditions further in developed countries.

The readiness of grassroots and left political activists to link arms with trade unionists was dramatized in support activity at the forum for workers at the Smithfield plant in Tar Heel, N.C.

Workers from the plant came to the forum to participate in a workshop where they were able to enlist support for a march through downtown Atlanta to a Publix Supermarket. At the supermarket the marchers rallied against the nonunion store and sent a delegation inside to demand removal from its shelves of products packaged at the Tar Heel plant.

Forum organizers expect to maintain momentum after the enormous Atlanta gathering. “This won’t end in Atlanta,” said National Planning Committee member Ruben Solis. He explained that bringing together 10,000 activists representing over 1,000 organizations in 50 states has set in motion a process by which “grassroots activists can continue to build the kind of unity necessary to create both a different kind of country and a better world.”

jwojcik @pww.org