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Angry workers march, fight back as wages fall, rights threatened

By Saeed Shabazz -Staff Writer- | Last updated: Mar 10, 2011 - 12:36:23 PM

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The Rev. Jesse Jackson, near right center of photo, takes the stage amidst tens of thousands of protesters gathered at the State Capitol in Madison, Wis., Feb. 18. (AP Photo/Wisconsin State Journal, Michael P. King)
NEW YORK ( - William Peterson, 46, the son of a Hartsville, South Carolina, brick mason, has worked at the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx for the past four years.

Now he is in a fight to keep his $24.50 an hour union job. Management wants to lay him and 23 other workers off, saying it is cheaper to outsource their work to a private contractor.

“My father was good at what he did, but he made little money to feed his family,” Mr. Peterson told The Final Call after a rally and march against his Woodlawn Cemetery bosses. “We are taking a stand —fighting for what is ours —because if we don't, workers will be returned to the days of slavery,” he said.

The conversation quickly turned to what was going on in Madison, Wisconsin, where pro-labor activists had started street protests and marches to the state house to protect the right to organize and fair treatment for young, poor and working class Americans. “Seeing people in the struggle, standing up for the rights of all workers to organize, means a lot to us here in New York,” Mr. Peterson said.

“It's time for the labor movement here in the U.S. to grow up; the rank-in-file here in New York and in Wisconsin have been held in check by union leadership for too long,” said Chris Silvera, secretary-treasurer for Teamsters Local 808, the local negotiating the new contract for the Woodlawn workers.

“A movement has emerged; we are seeing it in the streets of Wisconsin—in the actions of public employees—who are standing against the destruction of their right to organize,” Mr. Silvera told The Final Call.

So, from the streets of New York City, to the state house at Raleigh, N.C., to San Francisco, California, Des Moines, Iowa, and the Capital building in Madison, Wisconsin—angry workers were on the march, fed up with wage and pay concessions and angry over efforts to curtail collective action used to improve wages and working conditions.

For a moment, Clarence Thomas, an executive board member of the San Francisco-based International Longshoreman and Warehouse Association, Local 10 and a member of U.S. Labor Against the War waxed historical. He recalled that back in the 1880s, when workers held rallies, marches and strikes, the end result was the eight hour day and end to child labor. A four-day strike in 1934 in San Francisco ushered in ILWU, Local 10, he added.

“What is happening today in the Midwest has been working its way since the days of ‘Reaganomics' when organized labor was attacked—now it is the crisis of capitalism—but it must have been seen as a movement to basically lower the aspirations of America's working class,” Mr. Thomas argued.

“It takes time—and the conditions have to be right—which they are; and we are ready to push the ‘Tea Partyers' into the sea,” Mr. Silvera said. He was referring to the political alliance of conservatives that some analysts say are hiding union-bashing policies behind the threat of fiscal crises and are ready to “eviscerate” the middle-class in America.

“Make no mistake, the next election is the real target of this anti-public sector union movement,” said Dr. Ray Wimbush, of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University in Baltimore

“The real issue for White conservatives is to knock out the unions, which are driven by Black membership, in particular AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees)—you know the janitors, the housekeepers—who contribute heavily to the Democratic Party, from being able to donate to President Barack Obama's second-term run,” he said.

All of this is also part of an effort to destroy any chance of American workers mounting a defense against the conservative onslaught—as the right wing pushes media stories claiming public sector unions pensions are bankrupting states, Dr. Winbush continued.

“It is easy to see that with just seven percent of American workers now in unions, there won't be any real public outcry when scab workers are brought in,” he added.

A well-financed, well-orchestrated, and well-coordinated campaign is being waged by Republicans, the Tea Party and other right-wing ideologues, with the backing of corporate dollars to the tune of $5,000 to $50,000 from businesses such as Wal-Mart, American Express, Coors, Texaco, GlaxoSmithKline, Philip Morris, AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, the Corrections Corporation of America and the Koch Industries.

These practices have remained hidden from public view, but are now exposed for all to see, analysts said. “The genie is out of the bottle,” said Sharon Black of the Bail Out the People—Not the Banks/Baltimore Chapter, who is on the ground in Madison, Wisc.

People are starting to see corporations and politicians have been working together for some time now in effort to take away rights from workers, not just in the public sector, but also the private sector, she said.

The Democrats have been “sending out mixed signals about their concern for the middle-class,” she said.

“I don't understand what middle-class the Democrats are talking about,” said Mr. Thomas. To be middle-class you have to be making between $100,000 a year to $250,000 a year, he said.

“The people that are being trampled on with this right-to-work aren't making $75,000 a year; so the politicians are blowing smoke about wanting to stand up for the middle-class worker.”

“Through what is happening here in Wisconsin a national movement is being structured, some 40 union representatives from both coasts are here,” Ms. Black said. “All of them are focused on stopping Gov. Scott Walker's bill that would dismantle the union rights of 1,000 public sector workers.”

In Virginia, Montana, Ohio, Iowa and several other states, bills have been introduced to incorporate anti-collective bargaining laws into their respective state constitutions.

There is also a movement to end the dues-check off, which the right wing calls “paycheck protection” laws. This legislation passed in Alabama, Utah, Idaho—and is being pushed in Wisconsin as well as Arizona, Kansas, Mississippi and Missouri.

This “budget bill,” as the Wisconsin law is called, would deny public workers collective bargaining rights over anything except wages, according to activists.

Most of these workers, who work in state government and public jobs, are not high paid and privileged as the corporate media has portrayed, they added.

“Walker's actions are a signal to big business minded governors in all states that this is the way to go,” argued Saladin Muhammad, national chairman of the Black Workers for Justice and an executive member of the N.C. Public Service Workers Union-UE Local 150.

On Feb. 22, a coalition of labor activists, the NAACP and other civil rights organizations, and religious leaders rallied in front of the N.C. General Assembly in Raleigh, calling for an end to N.C. law banning public employees from collective bargaining.

The law has been in place since 1959.

The protestors in North Carolina noted that Black workers earn higher wages and receive better workplace protections through bargaining.

According to Mr. Muhammad, the Black worker is the “800 pound gorilla” in the room.

“Across the country, about 30 percent of public sector workers are Black,” Mr. Muhammad said. “It was the civil rights and Black power movements that brought most Blacks into public sector jobs and now there is an attempt to portray the public sector as charity for Black people.”

Black and White workers are being pitted against each other, but this strategy is starting to backfire, he argued.

“In my opinion the term ‘middle-class' is a code word for White people,” said Ms. Black. “The media likes to portray White public sector workers as being better off, compared to the low-wage Blacks,” she said. “But now White workers in places such as Wisconsin are being hit with the same red pen.”

Junious Ricardo Stanton, internet radio host and producer of the Digital Underground and The Cyberspace Sanctuary, told The Final Call class warfare in the U.S. is heating up.

“The goal of the super-rich and their flunkies in government is to accomplish in the U.S. what their totalitarian idols did in Germany and Russia, shut down or co-opt the union movement,” said Mr. Stanton. “This is part of their overarching plan to gut the middle class and usher in a neo-fascist police state in this country.”

Currently some 16 states are weighing laws to trim the power of unions, including New Jersey, Michigan, Idaho, Tennessee, Indiana and Florida.

Brenda Stokely, the eastern regional organizer for the Million Worker March, said no one wants to talk about “the greatest rate of public sector workers has been Black African-descendent women,” who have risen up from the welfare movements into these unions—but the unions tend to want to overlook their role.

“The cosmetic face of union leadership must change in order to fight this public warfare,” Ms. Stokely said. “If a real movement is to be built, workers must realize they need a leadership that is militant.”