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Jobs with Justice:
Fighting For Our Future

Stewart Acuff
Washington D.C.

Stewart Acuff is AFL-CIO Organizing Director.

In June, I attended a hearing at the community center in the tiny town of Versailles, Kentucky. At this hearing, state legislators, a local leader of the NAACP, a retired University of Kentucky professor, and more than 100 leaders and activists heard from 10 workers as they told their stories about efforts by Quebecor World, the world’s largest industrial printer, to block their struggle to freely form a union.

Many of these workers talked about why they wanted to form a union in the first place: to win important job safety protections, affordable health care, and a say in their working conditions. One-by-one, they proceeded to talk about all the tactics that the company used to prevent workers from having a free and fair choice, like harassing union supporters, holding mandatory one-sided meetings with supervisors against their union, and creating a hostile environment geared towards intimidating workers from exercising their free choice.

This gathering, also known as a Workers’ Rights Board, is one of countless public meetings that are occurring around the country. They allow the public to hear and amplify the struggles of any worker wherever and whenever injustice occurs and take their campaign away from behind the closed doors of their worksite.

The Workers’ Rights Board is one of the most effective tactics developed by an organization called Jobs With Justice (JWJ). A Board is formed when community leaders and clergy come together to hear from workers whose rights have been violated, to pronounce moral judgments on those violations, to find real ways to support and assist those workers, to offer real solutions, and to pressure the employers.

Jobs With Justice was founded in 1987 with a mission to improve working people's standard of living, to fight for job security, and to protect the freedom of workers to form unions. In their short seventeen years, they have become an indispensable part of the progressive community and an actor towards the common goal of creating a more vibrant and growing labor movement in the United States.

Local JWJ coalitions bring together labor, worker activists, people of faith, community organizations, progressive politicians, and other natural allies into local community and workers’ fights, and they have become essential to a labor movement that refuses to be an island unto itself, but instead works with a broader movement in a continuing struggle for social and economic justice.

JWJ is both a product of and contributor to the fundamental changes that took place in the American labor movement in the mid to late 1980’s when Ronald Reagan fired the striking Air Traffic Controllers in 1981, signaling the end of our right to strike and instigating the assault on labor and workers’ rights that continue to this day. Following this event, the political atmosphere rapidly changed for workers’ unions – the right to strike and the freedom to form unions to win affordable health care, higher wages, and a voice on the job were eviscerated.

Following this incident, a legal industry sprung up to counsel and assist employers to twist, mutilate and violate the National Labor Relations Act. From then on, employers provoked strikes so they could permanently replace striking workers and rid themselves of collective bargaining. Employers routinely took advantage of the various weaknesses of the National Labor Relations Act to harass, intimidate and even illegally fire workers trying to form a union.

For example, the number of workers awarded back pay because they were illegally discharged or discriminated against for union activity skyrocketed from fewer than 1,000 per year in the 1950s to 20,000 per year by the late 1990s, according to Human Rights Watch, an internationally respected human rights group. This represents a 1600% increase over fifty years ago, even as the number of workers involved in NLRB elections (presumably, the pool of people to be victimized) has dropped from 500,000 per year to 74,000 in 2003.

In fact, in 25% of private sector organizing campaigns, a worker is illegally fired for trying to form a union, according to Cornell University's Kate Bronfenbrenner. Furthermore, in 97% of private-sector campaigns where workers form a union, employers fight against their workers’ efforts.

Jobs with Justice have been at the forefront at exposing this anti-worker industry through community pressure, and they protect workers who are trying to form a union. On December 10, 2003, International Human Rights Day, they were instrumental in mobilizing more than 35,000 workers and their allies in 38 states and 97 cities all across the nation, calling for a restoration of the freedom to form unions.

JWJ also actively supports new federal bi-partisan legislation that seeks to fundamentally reform labor law. Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Representative George Miller of California introduced the Employee Free Choice Act last November. This legislation would protect workers from many of the grueling obstacles that they currently face when they try to form a union. More specifically, it allows employees to freely choose whether to form unions by signing cards authorizing union representation, provides mediation and arbitration for first contract disputes, and establishes stronger penalties for violation of employee rights when workers seek to form a union and during first contract negotiations. Already, 240 Members of Congress have signed up as co-sponsors.

This is no small matter, given that according to Rogers and Freeman in their book What Workers Want, there now exists an enormous and growing democratic deficit in the American workplace: 42 million private-sector employees would like to have a union at their workplace but are unlikely to get it under the current National Labor Relations Board process.

Long before this recent legislation and before institutional labor admitted it, JWJ realized that workers in America had lost the right to organize, the freedom to form unions and to bargain collectively. So for seventeen years, Jobs With Justice has been on the frontlines of workers’ efforts and struggles to form or maintain their unions and to bargain with hostile employers. JWJ was one of the first to attempt to obtain support from communities to support workers organizing, to pressure employers to not fight workers trying to form unions, and to offer those workers support from the broader movement for social and economic justice. That pressure on employers and support for workers had come in the form of plant gate rallies, community delegation visits, corporate headquarters takeovers, politician accountability sessions, pay-ins, sit-ins, and march-ins.

In addition to leading the fight to restore this fundamental human right to America’s workers, one of Jobs With Justice’s most important roles is to be an essential link to and advocate inside labor for the broader movement for global justice against the worldwide corporate-fuelled economic race to the bottom. Two examples illustrate this important involvement: in November of 1999, at the World Trade Organization demonstrations in Seattle, we discovered the potential power of the global justice movement by bringing together a cross-section of national unions, non-governmental organizations, environmental groups, civil, women, and human rights organizations, and other activists. Secondly, following this historic action, in April of 2000 in Washington, D. C., JWJ joined with the Steelworkers to lead the AFL-CIO and other national unions in the massive demonstration against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. They continue to lead the way in the global justice movement ever since.

Both at home and abroad, JWJ confronts global corporate greed and ensures that the American labor movement stays in this critical struggle for worldwide workers’ rights and stands against a global system of exploitation, oppression, and economic brutality that threatens our jobs, our way of life and, indeed, our humanity.

Most recently, the labor movement and Jobs With Justice joined the struggle last November in Miami at the FTAA demonstration. Jobs With Justice helped turn out thousands of activists. And together, Jobs With Justice staff and activists and an AFL-CIO team of organizers did our best to protect 20,000 peaceful, decent folks trying to speak out against international economic violence from the real, physical violence of hundreds of police officers anxious for a fight.

In Miami and elsewhere, Jobs With Justice uses its coalition-building skills and extensive experience to bring together the labor movement and its natural allies into the global justice movement, such as 50 Years Is Enough and United Students Against Sweatshops, among others.

JWJ understands one thing about coalitions that institutional labor needs to remember: that long-term coalitions require reciprocity. Jobs With Justice is where labor and community leaders come together as partners, and local JWJ struggles involve not only union workers, but also include community and workers’ struggles outside the labor movement. These struggles have many faces: to save healthcare and prescription drugs for the poor in Atlanta, to organizing worker centers for immigrants in New York, that the struggle for immigrant rights in this country is essential to winning back rights for U. S. born workers, to win the most basic rights for day laborers in Chicago, and many, many others.

Jobs with Justice’s work is a product of critical analysis about changing the climate for working people in America: 1) that the government and the corporations were determined to cripple workers’ freedom to form unions and destroy workers’ rights, 2) that labor must have a strategy of active, militant resistance and must develop the capacity to mobilize that resistance, 3) that workers and activists will fight for justice if given the opportunity and vehicle, and 4) that the labor movement is too weak to do it alone.

That analysis has since fueled JWJ’s global justice work and also its struggle for justice and workers’ rights here in the United States.

JWJ knows that the ultimate power of labor lies within workers in motion, mobilized to fight for justice, and that mobilizing workers requires organizations where workers have a concrete investment, where not only are their voices heard but welcomed and listened to. Workers' voices must not simply be 'heard' - they must be welcomed and regarded with importance. Jobs with Justice serves to always remind us of that important fact.

The stakes have never been greater for working people in this country, and Jobs with Justice is an indispensable force towards bringing like-minded individuals and groups together as we build to create an environment that fosters organizing, community action, and global economic justice.

Published in In Motion Magazine - August 26, 2004