Updates on my visits with workers in Mexico should be coming in a week or so. I the mean time I wanted to sum up my experience at the USSF. I will try to post some more audio and info from some of the sessions I attended at the forum, particular those organized by the UE, AFSCME and Domestic Workers United at a later time. The following is a short summation piece I wrote for the Industrial Worker, newspaper of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). An edited version will be published in next months Industrial Worker, which you can find at...
Labor Participates in a Big Way at the First United States Social Forum:
“What is happening in America to workers today is the result of a thirty year sustained, intentional, strategic, assault on workers, unions, our quality of life and our standard of living. It has been a class war against workers and it is time we engage that class war and fought back… (a standing ovation from the crowd and loud applause).” It might surprise you to hear that these words were spoken by Stewart Acuff, Organizing Director for the AFL-CIO, at the Workers’ Rights in the Global Economy plenary of the first United States Social Forum (USSF). I don’t expect that Acuff’s speech was meant to announce the Federation’s decision to call for the abolition of the wage system, or that it will lead to any plans for a nationwide general strike. But it is symbolic of mainstream labor’s continued and deepening interest in connecting with other social movements and less “traditional” forms of organizing. “Big labor’s” involvement in the social forum process, since the first few World Social Forums in Porto Alegre Brazil , has served as a way for the AFL-CIO and many of the union internationals to mix and mingle with activists from a broad range of social struggles. They same can be said of the relatively impressive support given to the first USSF by organized labor.
The role of labor in the planning and organizing of the forum was apparent at the opening march and rally on June 27th. Though clearly out numbered by anti-war, racial justice and environmental activists, union members were abundant among the thousand or so marchers who made their way through the streets of downtown Atlanta . The original march route was meant to take participants past a number of sites in the city at which workers are engaged in struggles with their employers or local government. According the AFSCME Local 1644 Deputy Director Nancy Lenk, march organizers were forced to compromise with police on a much less confrontational route due to the opposition of much of Atlanta ’s business community. A destination in the original plan was Grady Hospital , were the green shirted members of Local 1644 had planned to express their opposition to a recent decision by the Chamber of Commerce that Grady, a public hospital, be privatized. The march passed near Grady hospital, and the AFSCME contingent encouraged rally participants to join them in chants of “We are the key to saving Grady” and “the community has got the key to saving Grady”.
Struggles of public sector workers were a major theme of labor focused workshops at the conference. A number of panels featured public employees from North Carolina, one of only two states (Virginia being the other) where collectively bargaining for public sector workers is explicitly outlawed. The UE (United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America) Local 150 recently partnered with unions in Canada and Mexico to encourage an investigation of the situation in North Carolina by the ILO (International Labour Organization). In April the ILO declared the North Carolina ban on public sector collective bargaining a violation of international labor standards and called for repeal of North Carolina General Statute § 95-98, the basis of the ban.
Traditionally, social forum planners and participants will engage in a number of public protests to provide some level of direct action to the content of the forum. In the case of the USSF, a number of these actions focused on union or labor campaigns. UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers) organized a picket outside of a nearby Publix grocery store to demand the removal of Smithfield products from store shelves. Supporters of trade unionists in Colombia took part in an action at Coca-Cola headquarters. And the National Day Laborer Organizing Network held a rally protesting the position of Republican Senator Johnny Isakson who is advocating for legislation in the U.S. Congress, which would bar local governments from requiring Home Depots and other big box retailers to provide shelters for day laborers.
The most impressive labor related workshops and planning sessions at the USSF were organized by “non-traditional” worker’s organizations. Within the space provide by the forum, domestic workers and farm laborers meet together with their fellow workers from around the country. The domestic workers, through their private meetings at the USSF, agreed to form a national coalition of domestic worker organizations. Domestic worker organizing has been developing in major urban centers around the country in recent years. Largely independently - immigrant social service agencies and organizing centers such as Casa of Maryland and Andolan, a South Asian workers center in New York , started to become aware of hundreds of thousands of domestic workers who were facing extreme situations of exploitation and often, verbal, physical and sexual abuse. Isolated by their place of employment and often by their status as immigrants, domestics have largely been ignored by the mainstream labor movement. Labor law in the United States, due in part to racist compromises made in the years of the Roosevelt administration, does not extend to domestics (or to farm workers) – denying them such flawed but important rights as the right to collectively bargain. The domestics who came to Atlanta for the USSF to meet and learn from each others efforts to organize were certainly not content to remain unheard or unnoticed. It was quite impossible to miss the domestics whether because of their boisterous renditions of their anthem, the “Domestic Workers Calypso”, or because of their exuberant, enthusiastic responses to the speakers in the workshops and plenary sessions.
At the worker’s rights plenary, just before Acuff spoke, Ai-Jen Poo of Domestic Workers United in New York, explained…”We hope to build our labor movement, to a place where, when we call for a strike as domestic workers it will be for domestic workers rights and for global justice, legalization for undocumented workers, and an end to the war in Iraq…(standing ovation and enthusiastic applause)…or maybe, maybe it will be a strike of all informal sector workers or better yet a strike of all workers, union and non-union, the entire working-class…(another standing ovation and widely enthusiastic applause).” Following such powerful language, how could anyone in the labor movement call for less than open class warfare.