On Human Rights Day, 2003

WASHINGTON – Chanting “Workers’ rights are human rights,” more than 1,000 union workers rallied in front of the U.S. Labor Department Dec. 10. The multiracial crowd wore union caps and jackets identifying them as members of the American Federation of Government Employees, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Service Employees, Iron Workers and Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The demonstration here was one of scores of rallies, vigils and marches across the nation sponsored by the AFL-CIO and its allies on International Human Rights Day, the 55th anniversary of the signing of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

While U.S. workers have the legal right to form unions to negotiate for better benefits, pay, safety standards and working conditions, human rights advocates charge that employers across the country routinely block their efforts with threats, coercion and intimidation.

Forty-five million workers in the U.S. say they would join a union if they could, but are prevented from doing that by employers and anti-worker elected leaders who “have systematically stolen the freedom to organize from workers,” declared AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, who led thousands of New York City workers and their allies on a march from Wall Street to the New York office of the National Labor Relations Board Dec. 10.

“It is an outrage and it is a disgrace that we have in the White House a president who is anti-worker, anti-democracy,” thundered AFSCME President Gerald McEntee at the D.C. rally. “This administration is trying to take away overtime for 8 million workers, a right we fought and died for.”

Gesturing toward the building behind him, McEntee denounced Labor Secretary Elaine Chao who “hasn’t had a word in support of workers’ rights. That is the department that is supposed to defend workers rights.” In the guise of national security, McEntee added, “this administration has denied collective bargaining rights for Homeland Security workers. That’s why we have to clean this place out” in November 2004.

AFGE President John Gage said, “Every action, every bill, every regulation rammed through by this administration lines the pockets of big campaign contributors.” He too denounced the administration for stripping Homeland Security workers of union representation and seeking to privatize 700,000 federal workers jobs.

“There is something terribly wrong in America,” Gage said. “Very smart, very powerful people are pillaging our country behind a smokescreen of guns … institutionalizing their greed by destroying any organization that stands in their way. But there is a way to stop them. … Stop them for good in November.”

Josh Williams, president of the Washington Metro AFL-CIO said, “We are going to make this capital the capital of human rights. We are in the streets everywhere because workers’ rights are human rights.”

Evelyn Thomas, a 10-year veteran of Sterling Laundry, the capital’s largest laundry, said she and her coworkers have been on strike for eight weeks while Ken Jacobsen, the company’s owner, vows to “sell or burn” the company rather than allow union representation. “We are African American and Latino workers,” she said. “We work hard. Ken Jacobsen has government contracts, but he refuses to pay government contract wages. We are sticking together, we are united, and we are going to win.”

Sean Franklin, an African American baggage screener at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, said he is “a proud member of AFGE.” Franklin reported that a lot of his coworkers are afraid to join the union. Some warn him that he risks being fired from his federal job. “My answer,” he said, “is that standing up for the union is the right thing to do. We need a union to protect the flying public.”

Lynn Tyree, employed by the Defense Logistics Agency in Richmond, Va., said the union rights of 17,000 workers in her agency “could disappear at the snap of somebody’s finger – somebody in the Bush administration. If I lose my union rights, it’s a bad deal for all Americans. Whistleblowers will be fired and the federal government will become a pool of corruption and cronyism.” She said, “I want a government that is a beacon to the world, that practices what it preaches.”

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) branded the Bush-Cheney administration, “the most anti-labor, anti-worker administration we have seen since the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Kennedy is cosponsoring the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) with Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.). The proposed legislation, S. 1925 and H.R. 3619, will allow employees to freely choose whether to form unions by signing cards authorizing union representation. It provides mediation and arbitration for first contract disputes and establishes stronger penalties for violation of employee rights when workers seek to form a union. The AFL-CIO reports that more than 125 members of the House and Senate are supporting the EFCA.

The author can be reached at greenerpastures21212@yahoo.com.