“Workers organizing for justice and for an economy that lifts all”
By Stewart Acuff, National AFL-CIO Organizing Director
Adapted from remarks delivered at the US Social Forum in Atlanta, Georgia
September 6, 2007
We from the AFL-CIO and the labor movement have been inspired, energized, and moved by this great gathering of warriors for justice and peace, freedom and compassion here in Atlanta.
We are reminded that we have much work left to do both externally and internally, and we are humbled by the challenge. But we will leave here renewed in our fundamental struggle for economic justice and for pushing down wealth and power from those who have too much to those who have too little.
The economy no longer works for the vast majority of America. Since 1973, productivity has grown dramatically, yet wages have stagnated. As a result, average wages today are only 15 percent higher than average wages in 1980, despite a 67 percent increase in productivity.
We have also seen a dramatic rise in CEO pay. Whereas the ratio of CEO pay to the pay of average workers was 42:1 in 1980, today it is 411:1. The average CEO earns more on the first day of the year than the average worker earns all year.
The ranks of the uninsured continue to rise. Today, over 46 million Americans have no health insurance at all, despite the fact that as a nation we spend more on health care than any other country. As health care costs continue to rise, employers are shifting more and more of those costs onto the shoulders of America’s workers. Working families with stagnant earnings are in no position to shoulder these costs.
A corrupt corporate culture and its radical, right-wing Republican political friends tell us that these economic facts are unavoidable, a result of nature or divine will or “market forces.”
The reason this economy is not working for working families is because of a 30-year sustained, strategic, intentional assault on workers, unions, worker power, and our standard of living and quality of life—a class war against the working class.
This assault has taken several forms: outsourcing, de-industrialization, so-called “free trade,” small government, deregulation, privatization, and the most important—the destruction of any freedom to form unions and bargain collectively. This willingness to do anything to stop workers from forming unions and bargaining collectively is now a part of a corrupt corporate culture.
Here in the United States, over the past five years, over 20,000 workers a year have been fired or victimized for trying to form unions. That means every 23 minutes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, someone is fired or otherwise victimized for trying to form a union. You know the statistics when faced with an organizing campaign: 90 percent of American employers hire an attorney consultant to frustrate the will of the workers, and more than three-quarters of American employers force workers to sit through one-on-one supervisory sweat sessions when they’re trying to form a union. Half of the employers threaten to shut down the facility or the enterprise or to move it offshore. And the worst part is that a quarter of all American employers, when faced with an organizing campaign, fire their worker leaders.
This assault has caused a dangerous decline in union density. The decline in union density has caused a loss of worker power. But it does not have to be this way.
Imagine you are a Latino immigrant construction worker in Phoenix, Arizona. You work very hard, 60–80 hours per week in 110–115 degrees, with no water breaks, for just over minimum wage, with no benefits and no dignity. And you want more than anything in the world to provide a life of dignity for your family. You want your own apartment for your family and you want to be able to take your kids to the doctor when they get sick. As it is now, when your baby is sick and cries all night, there is nothing you can do but stay up and cry with her. So you begin to talk with your co-workers, and you call the Sheet Metal Workers or the Painters Union or the AFL-CIO, and you begin to engage in one of the highest forms of human endeavor—organizing to try to lift up everyone together—everyone’s kids, every family, to collectively assert your dignity and demand respect. Not to do what corporate America says to do, not to get ahead by yourself, not to push anyone aside or to climb over anybody’s back or kiss the boss’s boots. For your trouble, you lose your job and your livelihood, you are sent back to Mexico, and you lose your kids’ futures. Brothers and sisters, we gotta have a fight about this.
Here is how we must look at immigration. If you come across a border to find work and a future for your family, to provide food for your kids, you are not illegal, you are my sister, and you are my brother.
So we are fighting for legislation called the Employee Free Choice Act. The Employee Free Choice Act would go a long way toward protecting workers who are trying to form unions. The Employee Free Choice Act would restore workers’ freedom to form unions and to bargain by 1) strengthening penalties for companies that coerce or intimidate employees, 2) establishing mediation and binding arbitration when the employer and workers cannot agree on a first contract, and 3) enabling employees to form unions when a majority express their decision to join the union by signing authorization cards.
The Employee Free Choice Act has bipartisan backing in Congress and is supported by more than two-thirds of the American public, including a majority of Republicans.
Opposition to this legislation is now the number-one priority of the radical right-wing noise machine and their corrupt corporate cronies. But we have waged the most ambitious, multi-year, grassroots campaign labor has seen in decades for this legislation, and as surely as I stand before you tonight, we will see this legislation enacted!
On March 1, the Employee Free Choice Act came roaring out of the U.S. House 241–185. More than 130 members of Congress listened at nearly 100 separate events, as workers looked them in the eye to tell them the grueling obstacles they faced when they tried to form unions. Another 300,000 union members and allies sent e-mail, wrote letters, and made phone calls to their elected leaders. When the battle hit the Senate, an additional 50,000 phone calls flooded Senate offices, and more than 130 events took place around the nation to target Republican senators.
Let me also be clear when I say that we are not waiting for the Employee Free Choice Act to organize. In fact, in spite of all the hurdles, risks, firings, and intimidation, an average of 400,000 new workers have organized during each of the last 10 years.
We are working to change, but we have to do more, move faster, devote more resources to organizing, and change our internal cultures to be more externally focused and less internally focused. The need and yearning to work collectively for dignity, justice, and a better life for your kids is very powerful. And it is our responsibility to help create the collective structure and the organizations that can fight collectively so workers win.
It is not just traditional unions. All workers in America have lost any right to collectively bargain, but many can fight and win. But in some instances, collective bargaining is just not possible; we still must fight to build worker power. That is why we have joined the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in their campaigns at McDonald’s and now at Burger King and why we work to use the poser of the labor movement to help them win. That is why we have partnered with National Day Labor Organizing Network, and how we know we need a labor movement as richly diverse as our country is becoming. We are building a new labor movement with new structures and formations.
And we know all workers are victimized by a corporate-fueled economic race to the bottom…a globalization scheme that protects intellectual property rights but will not protect children….a scheme that forces nine-year-old kids to learn to sew but denies them the opportunity to learn to read. So we join with trade unions in Columbia and Korea to stop these no-good trade deals. In the last 10 months, we have marched with Korean workers in the streets of both Seattle and Seoul against Korean ATE free trade.
That is why we are meeting with union workers from around the world. We will develop the global capacity of workers to fight all over the world and for us to fight the bosses together! The AFL-CIO is hosting the first ever Global Organizing Summit on Dec 10 and 11 with all the structures of the global labor movement.
For too long we have been divided—divided by racism, ideology, militarism, sexism, gender orientation, nationalism. It is past time to break down every barrier between workers, to knock down anything that comes between us.
And we run bigger and bigger organizing campaigns. Against Verizon for ignoring and fighting the rights of its 50,000 workers, for hundreds of thousands of health care and child care workers across the nation, and for tens of thousands of auto workers and hospital workers and steel workers
And we know we cannot do this alone. We all need one another.
If you are for collective action, using our social nature to win for workers…
If you are for human dignity and are against soulless corporate power…
If you yearn to work for more freedom and more justice…
If you are against this immoral war and occupation in Iraq…
We are on your side and you are on ours.
My brothers and sisters, we can win this fight. But the stakes could not be higher. This fight is as old as our human species. Every generation has had to fight. This is the fight to advance human dignity, to defeat oligarchy, and now to overcome corporate autocracy and domination. For compassion and love, against greed and avarice. The history of humanity has been written by people like us. We are writing our chapter right now—here in Atlanta, together.
One movement, one people, one struggle.
Another world is possible.
Another United States is necessary.
Let us make it so!