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Week In Review, March 22, 2004

Kansas City Gathering Looks At Worker Rights At Home, International Labor Solidarity

Three groups with ties to the labor movement—the Cross Border Network for Justice and Solidarity, Kansas City Labor Against the War, Kansas City Labor Party—called a conference, Worker Rights At Home and Abroad March 19-20 in Kansas City. While attendance numbers were modest—about 35 attended one or more sessions—virtually all who came were impressed with the quality of presentations and discussion and left with their activist batteries recharged.

The first panel, Worker Rights Here At Home, was kicked off by Ed Bruno, Labor Party New England Organizer, and former Director of Organization for the United Electrical, Radio & Machine workers (UE).

Bruno was one of the authors of the Labor Party position paper, Toward A New Labor Law . The paper argues that, beginning with the National Labor Relations Act, the current body of labor law wrongly grounds labor law in the commerce clause of the Constitution. This flaw has allowed the courts to constantly narrow and limit our rights as workers to the point where our human rights are now subordinated to the property rights of our employers. And in a world of global corporations, that amounts to involuntary servitude.

Campaign For Labor Rights
The Labor Party's Campaign for Worker Rights, flowing from that paper, brings the Bill of Rights to the workplace. The rights to organize, bargain, strike, and act in solidarity with one another are inalienable rights grounded in the First and Thirteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. These rights are widely recognized as human rights by numerous international conventions. Without these basic rights, working people are deprived of the capacity to defend and promote their interests in the face of overwhelming corporate and government power.

Two Case Studies
Kelley Dull, President, American Federation of Government Employees Council 171, spoke about the efforts of Department of Defense officials to unilaterally rewrite personnel policies to eliminate AFGE's rights to any kind of collective bargaining or grievance procedure.

Stuart Elliott, webmaster of Kansas Workbeat, web site of the Wichita/Hutchinson Labor Federation of Central Kansas, addressed the challenges facing postal workers.

Where American Bosses ‘Offshore’
Saturday morning the conference turned to the issue of worker rights in those countries where American corporations—and now even government agencies—send work once performed by American workers.

Judy Ancel, director of the Institute for Labor Studies, and president of the Cross Border Network, led an interactive session dealing with labor rights in Mexico. The main focus was on the struggle of Duro Bag—a contract supplier for Hallmark—workers to form a legitimate, independent union. Through role playing, the audience gained a new perspective on what Mexican workers are up against.

Stuart Elliott returned to speak about the rapid growth of Chinese industry, fueled primarily by exports to the USA. Elliott dealt with the new problems of “migratory” or “transitional” workers denied even the meager rights and benefits traditionally guaranteed state enterprise employees.

The Fight For Worker Rights In Occupied Iraq
This session was opened by Ed Bruno who is also a leader of
US Labor Against the War. Since the beginning of the occupation support for Iraqi worker rights has been the central campaign of USLAW. Bruno had been scheduled to be part of a second USLAW delegation to visit Iraq but this trip has been put on hold because of the recent targeting of U.S. civilians.

An important part of the solidarity campaign is raising material support for new, independent Iraqi trade unions. Both unions and individuals are urged to send donations to the USLAW Iraqi Solidarity Fund.

Bruno introduced a special guest speaker, Amjad Al-Jawhary. Amjad Al-Jawhary was born in Baghdad in 1966. He earned a bachelor's degree in biology at Mosul University in 1989. Because of his political views, and organizing among sewing workers, he was blacklisted by the regime and was unable to find employment in any state enterprise. With his family, he fled to Turkey in 1995 and was active among Iraqi refugees there. Since 1996 he has lived in Toronto, Canada where he has spoken widely on Iraqi issues and has been active in the anti-sanctions and anti-war movements.

Speaking on behalf of the the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq, and the Union of the Unemployed of Iraq (UUI), he reviewed the history of the Iraqi labor movement until it was outlawed by Saddam Hussein. Today the occupation authority continues to enforce those laws.

As Amjad later in the day told the Kansas City Star “The people paying the price for this war are the workers — over there and over here,” said Al-Jawhary, who now lives in Canada. “We don't need war and you don't need war. There's been enough killing on both sides.”

World Still Says No To War
When the conference adjourned most participants lined up behind the banners of KC Labor Against the War, and the KC Labor Party, and marched a few blocks to a World Says No To War rally. Amjad was the wrap-up speaker for that event addressing several hundred antiwar activists.

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Conference Introduction
by Bill Onasch

Welcome to the Worker Rights At Home and Abroad conference. We expect that the scheduled presentations, and your participation in discussing their content, will make for a very informative and inspiring event. We hope we will come out of this gathering with not only a better understanding of our world but also some ideas on how to change it.

And change is urgently needed. The American labor movement faces our greatest crisis in living memory. While we live in the richest country in history, while we have set—and continue to set—monumental records of productivity, we face grave attacks on our living standards, job security, working conditions, and our environment.

A generation ago one in three American workers were organized in unions. Our wages, benefits, and working conditions were the envy of the world.

Today, in the private sector, one in twelve workers belong to unions. When you factor in social benefits such as health care and pensions, the American working class has fallen far behind the workers of most major European countries, Japan, and Canada.

Public sector unions have experienced some growth over this same time span. But many are in mortal danger as cynical "security" measures, privatization, and unilateral changes in bargaining procedures are spearheaded from Washington, and widely imitated on state and local levels as well.

When organized workers take action to defend themselves against employer attacks they can quickly learn that many of their most effective tactics are ruled to be illegal.

When unorganized workers try to unionize they too learn a painful lesson about the state of worker rights in this country. There is a cottage industry of firms that do nothing else than help employers defeat union organizing drives. They mix worthless promises with credible threats. They saturate workers with company propaganda and fire key union supporters.

The statistics are devastating. Of those workplaces where union authorization cards are circulated only one in four succeed in getting to the stage of a National Labor Relations Board election. Unions lose about half of those elections. And, even when they succeed in jumping through all the hoops and win union recognition, only half manage to actually get a union contract within a year.

Our first panel this evening will look at the state of worker rights here at home—and what we can do to get some. I’ll introduce those panelists in a moment.

Of course the main reason for the decline in union membership is the historic restructuring of the U.S. economy and its integration into a global economy. With the partial exception of the auto industry the traditional bastions of unions in manufacturing—steel, coal, rubber, electrical, textile, shoes—are gone for good.

Some of this is due to technological change, or runaway operations within the United States. But much of it is the result of what has become known as "offshoring.’ This process began on a major scale with the establishment of the maquiladoras on the Mexican border twenty years ago. It picked up steam with the adoption of NAFTA. The China trade agreement opened up the flood gates.

Recently this trend has gone beyond blue collar manufacturing. A couple of years ago we saw the beginning of outsourcing "back office" jobs, such as call centers, to places such as Ireland and India—countries with a plentiful supply of well educated English speakers prepared to work for a lot less than even the miserable wages paid for those jobs here.

But it’s not going to stop there either. Now we see programmer and engineer positions being sent to India, and even China. Virtually no trade or profession is secure in the face of globalization. The employers are determined to ultimately force the entire world working class to compete among ourselves, to make the best offer for the privilege of having a job.

It is not accidental that the initial beach heads in this global assault were established in countries with few worker rights. Mexico and China both have a heritage of sweetheart unions beholden to one party regimes.

But, despite repression, we are seeing struggles by workers in China, Mexico, and elsewhere to establish genuine, independent trade unions. And we can be proud of the fact that many in the labor movement, and many students and people of faith in this country, have responded to this challenge of globalization not with xenophobia and racism, as the bosses encourage, but with a perspective of solidarity. There is a growing number who realize solidarity is not charity. When we help workers in other lands we help protect our way of life as well.

Our second panel, tomorrow morning, will deal with this important topic. Judy Ancel, director of the Institute for Labor Studies, is also president of the Cross Border Network for Justice and Solidarity. She has been active for more than a decade in working to promote solidarity with Mexican workers. Stuart Elliott will be dealing with the issues of China.

There is a reason why this weekend was selected to hold our conference. It is, of course, the first anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. The military invasion and occupation has been accompanied by a U.S. corporate invasion of Iraq as well. The labor movement remains divided on the question of the military action but there should be no doubt where we should stand on the corporate side.

Halliburton, and its subsidiary Brown & Root, have gotten a lot of attention for swindling U.S. tax payers with their service contracts in Iraq. Less well known is the fact that Dick Cheney’s outfit has a record of providing strike-breaking services to the oil industry in the United States.

The American viceroy in Iraq has used our GIs to arrest trade union leaders, to vandalize union halls, and to disperse demonstrations of Iraqi workers who believed they were now "liberated." The occupation authority has tried to enforce the same labor codes that Saddam Hussein used to destroy legitimate trade unions. They want to insure a union free Iraq to be exploited by U.S. corporations.

We think the interests of American workers are best served by supporting the efforts of Iraqi workers to organize—not the greedy rip-offs by the Halliburtons, Bechtels, World Coms, and other bosses we battle everyday here at home.

We are very proud to have for our final session tomorrow a spokesman for the Federation of Worker Councils and Trade Unions of Iraq, brother Amjad Al-Jawhary. He will be introduced by Ed Bruno who will tell us about the efforts of US Labor Against the War to build solidarity with Iraqi workers.

After adjournment tomorrow Kansas City Labor Against the War will be assembling a contingent to march from here over to the Fountain at 47th & Main to join a rally in progress. The theme of that event is calling on our government to bring our GIs home from Iraq. Brother Amjad will also be speaking there. You are all welcome to participate.