WIN Letter

Winter 2010

Worker Justice Is Global Justice

With the recent devastation in Haiti, unions have mobilized their members to provide rescue and relief. Labor blog Working In These Times reports that the International Association of Fire Fighters sent rescue teams with high-tech scanners and that National Nurses United sent more than 1,500 volunteer nurses. Unfortunately, the U.S. government has sent about 10,000 troops in what TIME called a “compassionate invasion.”

Soon after the earthquake, the Center for Constitutional Rights’ legal director Bill Quigley wrote that the number-one thing the United States could do for Haiti was to allow all Haitians in the United States to work. The main source of income for poor people in Haiti, as in many countries, is remittance. Legalizing immigrant workers is the best foreign aid package the U.S. government can provide. Happily, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has issued Haitians already in the country temporary protected status for the next 18 months. But that is hardly enough.

As long as there is an undocumented work force, there is an entire population of workers with no access to the rights of citizens and green-card holders. Many undocumented workers will not risk deportation by filing a wage and hour claim. In another recent disaster, when New Orleans needed rebuilding, undocumented day laborers were on the scene. They became victims of wage theft when contractors refused to pay them for their work.

There’s been a lot said lately, especially by detractors, about labor unions’ weakness in the face of an increasingly corporatized United States. Corporations seem to have overpowered not just workers but government as well, propping up both the Republican and Democratic Parties.

Although membership in labor unions has shrunk since its peak in the mid-1950s, there has been a slight increase in the last couple of years, possibly in reaction to mass layoffs brought on by the most recent recession. With President Barack Obama’s appointment of Representative Hilda Solis as labor secretary, many are hopeful that the U.S. labor movement will regain momentum and bargaining power.

The Employee Free Choice Act, currently under consideration in Congress, would strengthen unions considerably by making it easier for employees to organize their workplaces. If it passed, all that would be required for workers to form a union would be a majority of employees signing cards authorizing its formation. Now, an employer can require employees to hold an election in addition to a card-check.

However, there is more to the struggle than just the labor unions. There is a workers’ movement on the rise, a network of grassroots organizations and collectives creating the circumstances for worker justice around the world. Our short list of “Experiments with Truth” illustrates the power of the people, from schoolchildren to college students, from miners to government employees.

We’re thrilled to be able to bring you so many positive examples of this workers’ movement in this issue, from factory takeovers to green-collar job training and alternative job fairs. Student groups have become active in labor justice, winning victories against sweatshops in Honduras and agricultural slavery in Florida. To put all these movements into perspective is a historical piece on the labor movement in the West beginning with ancient Egypt.

Although the United States hasn’t seen another factory occupation like the one staged by Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago last year, it stands as a model to be replicated and a symbol of hope. Together, these workers show how nonviolent action and on-the-ground organizing—with or without union support—is paving the way for social justice in a time of record unemployment and hardship.