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Labor's Legacy

Or, What Has the Movement Done for Workers Lately?

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Thursday, August 30, 2012

The colorful days of the labor union movement may seem merely historic now, but in fact that movement is alive and busy—and international.

You may have noticed that when Mitt Romney visited Poland after a less-than-successful touchdown in England, he won friendly words from Lech Walesa but got the cold shoulder from that country's legendary trade union, Solidarity.

"Regretfully, we were informed by our friends from the American headquarters of (trade union federation) AFL-CIO, which represents more than 12 million employees ... that Mitt Romney supported attacks on trade unions and employees' rights," Solidarity said in a statement.

So those who remember Walesa's old connection with Solidarity would not be confused, the Polish union clarified further: "Solidarity was not involved in organizing Romney's meeting with Walesa and did not invite him to visit Poland."

So what is the international labor movement, whose chief clearinghouse in the U.S. is the AFL-CIO, doing these days besides endorsing candidates (or not)? In general, it's fighting austerity measures that have threatened the welfare of working people internationally since the crash of 2007-2008. More specifically, it is:

*Advocating for the welfare of domestic workers around the world by supporting Convention 189, a "bill of rights" for these workers. In particular, this action aims to safeguard the relatively high number of domestic workers who are immigrants in the countries where they work, and make sure they aren't stuck in a dangerous twilight zone without legal protections and access to social benefits. This year Convention 189 was adopted in Uruguay and the Philippines.

*Attempting to persuade the king of Swaziland to give the grievances of public employees a fair hearing. Public workers such as teachers and nurses are heavily unionized in Swaziland; government forces beat and fired rubber bullets at public employees who struck this summer for a pay increase that was less than one-sixth the amount of the raise Swazi legislators had recently voted themselves. Firings and arrests have marked the government's treatment of these workers.

*Celebrating a legislative victory three weeks ago in India, where agate processing workers in Gujarat state, with support from labor organizations, won a resolution authorizing compensation in cases involving silicosis, a life-threatening occupational lung disease.

Closer to home, Jobs With Justice, a national affiliate of the AFL-CIO, is currently going to bat for workers in warehouses who transfer cargo coming in through California ports and headed for Wal-Mart and other outlets. Workers have complained to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration that they must carry out tasks in unventilated metal containers and sometimes spend up to 30 minutes blocked, with no exits, in truck trailers to which they are transferring merchandise. High temperatures and lack of available clean water add to the unacceptable conditions in these warehouses.

In the Valley, Western Mass. Jobs With Justice fights abuses such as wage theft through misclassification (classifying workers as part-time when actually they are full-time and entitled to full benefits) as well as large-scale benefit cuts and job layoffs by wealthy corporations, unsafe and illegal working conditions, and lack of medical coverage for injured workers.

WMJWJ (on line at wmjwj.org/western-mass-coalition) comprises 60 organizations, including not only Valley locals of labor and professional unions—from the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to the Massachusetts Society of Professors and the National Writers Union, and many more—but the Sisters of St. Joseph, the Hampden County chapter of Citizens Against the Death Penalty, Arise for Social Justice, the Pioneer Valley Project and other groups not easy to categorize.

Workers need not belong to a union, however, to get advice and referrals for assistance from WMJWJ. The group also assists campaigns to stave off auctions of homes in foreclosure, and offers an umbrella to activists concerned with a somewhat broader range of issues than those traditionally associated with labor. And the economic downturn and political polarization about social issues in the runup to the fall elections have sparked more activity at WMJWJ. According to coordinator Jon Weissman, people may be reluctant to stand up for their rights on the job when things are relatively secure, "but in times of crisis and turmoil you often have people say, What the hell, why not stand up? These are the times when things give. The labor movement is boiling with the boil."

One of the latest initiatives to come under the aegis of this versatile, busy organization is the recently formed local Occupy Student Debt group. The Valley's newly coalescing student debt activists, according to founding member Sarah Wentworth, make up "a small group that consists of recent graduates (both employed and unemployed) and longtime residents of Western Mass. who are concerned about the rising cost of education and the increasingly sinking rate of return that graduates are facing."

Wentworth says the group wants to start by giving people faced with disabling debt a place to share their stories, then bring the situation to the attention of a wider public and let ideas for action develop from there. Since the group began meeting, she wrote the Advocate, "I've gotten emails from people saying how they're a first-generation college student and they will graduate with 50K in debt and that they don't know why they went to college in the first place. I heard about someone at a local college who actually tried to return their diploma, claiming it to be 'useless' and that they wanted their money back."

"All are welcome," says Wentworth, to attend the group's next meeting on Saturday, Sept. 8 at 4 p.m. at the Haymarket Café in Northampton. For more information, e-mail swentworth311@gmail.com.

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