LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — With Central High School as a backdrop, the fight for the Employee Free Choice Act took center stage here in this southern state. About 1,500 people rallied and marched July 11 in what was considered the largest demonstration in the state in 20 years.

Arkansas has two Democratic senators, Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, and Lincoln is currently not on board in favor of the worker rights bill. Pryor just recently announced his support for the free choice legislation.

In addition to the main rally in Little Rock, workers and religious leaders rallied in Pine Bluff, Texarkana and Fort Smith, bringing the message of support for workers all across the state.

Central High School brought to life the July 11 rally’s theme “Worker Rights Are Civil Rights.”

Central High School was the focus of the entire nation in 1957. That was when Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus tried to keep African American children from being admitted to the all-white school. One of the speakers at the rally here said that in 1957 Central High School was the “center of the universe for civil rights.”

The Little Rock Nine were also visible and in support of the Employee Free Choice Act. The Little Rock Nine were the courageous students who faced down the ugly face of racism and integrated Central High School.

Picking up on the history-making nature of the rally, Arkansas Times columnist John Brummet quipped, “The center of gravity today will be the historic capital city of a state long considered anti-union. That would be Little Rock…Never has so much labor muscle ventured at once into our little state.”

Arkansas is the home of retail giant Wal-Mart, which has been one of the national leaders of the corporate lobbying campaign against the Employee Free Choice Act.

In spite of 100+ degree heat, participants marched from Central High School to the steps of the Arkansas state Capitol.

Texas native, Arlene Holt-Baker, who is the AFL-CIO’s executive vice president and the federation’s first African American executive officer, said “Central High School is sacred ground for those of us who believe in justice.”

She highlighted the importance of linking civil rights with workers’ rights and “sending a message to the senators here in Arkansas. They were elected by working people to do the right thing for working people.”

Holt-Baker added, “There are advantages for women to be in a union. Wages are 30 percent higher for women who are union members.”

Arkansas state Senator Joyce Elliot, former president of the teacher’s union in Arkansas, added, “We need to make sure both senators know this is about free choice in a free country.”

Some 70 industrialized countries already have the right to organize unions and the rate of unionization is subsequently higher in South Africa, a number of European countries and China, rally speakers noted.

Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, thanked Sen. Pryor for his recent support on the Employee Free Choice legislation. He encouraged Sen. Lincoln to “do what’s right by working people” and to enable them to “negotiate their way into the middle class rather than borrow their way into the middle class.”

Stewart Acuff, special assistant to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, told the World he thought the rally was a “huge success!”

“We couldn’t be more pleased by the participation of elected officials and the faith community in Arkansas and people of good will from all over this state.”

Acuff was recently published in the Texarkana Community Journal explaining how the decline of workers’ bargaining power contributed to our economic crisis and how the Employee Free Choice Act will help bring about a sustainable recovery.

“The most effective and real economic stimulus to get us out of our economic morass is to restore workers’ freedom to form unions and bargain collectively. Given the real freedom to form unions and bargain collectively, workers will bargain for a fairer share of the wealth we create and a return on our productivity increases. We will bargain for a larger, stronger middle class. We will bargain for an exit ramp from poverty. We will bargain for spending and buying power to generate consumer demand. We will bargain for an economy that works for all,” Acuff, who is originally from Western Tennessee, wrote.

Martha Blackmon of the Arkansas Interfaith Worker Justice organization in Little Rock told the World, “This is one of the most important things the working class needs. It is very good to see so many people coming together to rally around this issue that affects us all. We need to get our senators on board to pass this act.”