Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

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Social Forum Focuses on Workers’ Issues

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

Image: James ParksWorkers’ issues were the focus of  five days of  marches, rallies and workshops at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit, which ended over the weekend. Grassroots activists and progressives from across the country came together to build new alliances, create new strategies and put new energy into the movement to turn around the American economy.

Writing in Workday Minnesota, Howard Kling quotes a UAW leader who says the forum was an opportunity for labor to build relationships with other movements and encourage a “strong, fight-back attitude toward the intense corporate agenda that is blocking change on health care, labor rights, fair trade policies and a host of issues that we believe in.”

Throughout the forum, union members were hard at work making sure working peoples’ voices were heard. In a brainstorming session at the start of the forum, the hundreds of union members attending the five-day event listed the changes most needed to improve conditions for workers in the United States. The list included passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, immigration reform, a public blacklist of employers who mistreat workers, enforcement of existing labor laws, a federal jobs bill and the criminalizing of labor law violations.

On the first full day of the forum, newly elected UAW President Bob King joined Metropolitan Detroit AFL-CIO President Saundra Williams; Al Garrett, president of AFSCME District Council 25; and Armando Robles, UE Local 1110 president, in leading a march and rally through the streets of Detroit. Chanting “Full and Fair Employment Now!” and “Money for Jobs, Not for Banks!” participants demanded Congress address the pressing jobs emergency.

One of the forum highlights was a joint meeting of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) to develop strategies to better protect the rights of some of the nation’s most vulnerable workers.

Domestic workers often are afraid to join unions for fear of losing their jobs. There is little job security and some have no employer-provided health care, and most toil in isolation, said Ai-Jen Poo, director of NDWA.

They are completely vulnerable to the whims of their employers. Some have good employers but some work in homes where they earn 50 cents an hour and work around the clock.

At the global and local levels, officials are beginning to recognize the need to protect domestic workers. Earlier this month, the New York State Senate passed the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, guaranteeing better working conditions for domestic workers. In California, a Bill of Rights resolution for domestic employees has been introduced in the state legislature.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) this month took a giant step forward in the fight to create workplace justice for the millions of housekeepers, nannies and other domestic workers around the world. At its International Labor Conference the ILO began the process to establish a first-ever international standard (“convention”) to protect the rights of domestic workers.

Nadia Marin-Molina with the NDLON said the most common problem for day laborers is wage theft.

The employer will say, “We’ll pay you tomorrow,” and then the employer never  shows up. Sometimes we have to go to court to get their money.

NDLON and Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) are working to stop wage theft among mostly immigrant low-wage workers. The nation’s economy suffers when millions of workers are denied their just pay, IWJ Executive Director Kim Bobo said in a workshop on faith and labor. It is also a moral issue, she added, since every major faith group has some variation of the commandment that “Thou shalt not steal.”

On June 25, faith activists at the forum led a protest against JPMorgan Chase & Co., calling on the Wall Street financial institution to declare a moratorium on foreclosures in Michigan and sever its ties with R.J. Reynolds. The tobacco giant refuses to meet with the Farm Labor Organization Committee (FLOC) to discuss the slave-labor working conditions of contract growers in North Carolina.

Throughout the week, workers and union staff took the lead in discussions on building communities by rebuilding U.S. manufacturing and on the fights for justice for domestic workers, Immokalee farm workers, immigrant workers and sweatshop workers. Activists talked about strategies for gaining full employment in a new economy, changing our trade policies and creating safe workplaces.

The forum followed the Great Labor Arts Exchange, which was held in Detroit, the first time in three decades that it was produced on the road.

This article was first published by AFL-CIO Now Blog.

About the Author: James Parks had his first encounter with unions at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. He is a journalist by trade, and worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. He has also been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections. Author photo by Joe Kekeris.

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