A Call for Action to Defend Workers’ Rights

Guest Commentary

Volume CII, No. 2February, 2002

Rev. Jesse Jackson

They say everything has changed since Sept. 11. That is not true. Those who were against workers’ right to organize are still against workers’ right to organize. Those who were against raising minimum wages are still against raising minimum wages. Those who were against comprehensive health care are still against comprehensive health care. Those who want to trade off American jobs for slave labor abroad still choose slave labor over organized labor. And I say, it is our mission, come the year 2002, to send them into retirement.

Across America, we all pay tribute to the heroes of 9/11 – the rescue workers, the police, the firefighters who went into those fiery buildings to save the lives of people that they did not even know. They were called to duty, and they did not hesitate. These were the same union workers, the same public employees, who have been scorned as fat and lazy, overpaid and underworked – now they’re heroes. It reminds us that America is built on the sweat, the genius and the dedication of its working people. Not on speculators, traders and manipulators that fly no flag but the flag of profit.

Now they are using Bin Laden as the excuse to take away basic workers’ rights and civil rights. We must not let them get away with this. We want the right to organize. We want comprehensive health care. We want livable wages now. We must fight back.

Let’s make some sense on this stimulus package. Mr. Bush said of last year’s tax giveaway, “I trust the people.” Trust the people with the tax stimulus money. Cure the economy bottom up, not top down. Mr. Bush wants to repeal the alternative minimum tax, retroactive 15 years. A billion of it would go to IBM, a billion to Ford Motor Company. Ten billion to oil and gas companies. We cannot accept a deal where Ford and GM pay less taxes than the workers in those plants. We must march on that proposition, [for] a fair tax.

Labor, it’s time to go back to Washington with the workers, [to make] a call to public action, not just private lobbying. We must go back to the streets again and make the case for working people. It’s time to take the offensive.

For decades, we’ve witnessed an unrelenting assault on workers and on unions. [Since} Reagan crushed the PATCO union, to tell corporations it was open season on workers, you’ve felt the brunt of union busting, striker replacement, violation of NLRB laws, privatization, shipping jobs abroad. The vast majority of Americans suffered as a result. Let’s march and fight back again! We have nowhere to go but up. Fight back for your jobs.

[In the] New York Times, this past Saturday: “Ashcroft seeking to Free FBI.” Free the FBI – to spy on religious and political organizations in the U.S. Ashcroft [is] using the FBI, the IRS, and leaks to the right-wing media as weapons to destroy [our] leadership so they can fight us in 2002. This is not just about a cave man in Afghanistan – it’s about labor leaders in Ohio, Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama. It’s about us. Our civil liberties are at stake.

Suppose a labor leader raises a question about war policy. Even for [engaging in] debate, you are a suspect. Suppose you give a donation to a peace organization. Then they can trail your money, tap your phone, and then the IRS [comes after you], and the Washington Times, and then Fox. That will keep labor leaders too busy to fight back in the year 2002.

The time they spend trying to disgrace labor leaders, they should have spent looking at Enron. They’re looking in the wrong direction, looking at foreign terror, and not domestic terror. That anthrax didn’t come from a cave in Afghanistan! [Look to] the same people who blew up a building in Oklahoma City, Ruby Ridge, the terror attack in Atlanta, Georgia – those same anti-union forces. We must fight terrorism wherever it manifests itself. Denying the worker the right to organize is a form of economic terror. Workers should have the right to organize to make a livable wage for their families and have job security. That’s our right, as Americans.

Yes, we fight foreign terror, and we must. We fight the war on drugs – but the Northern Alliance are the number one drug dealers in the world. We’ve just given them a sovereign country. There are unintended consequences here that are real.

Now Ashcroft has the FBI, CIA, Homeland Securities, the White House and the fear of Bin Laden, to have the right to attack labor, church and political organizations – that is a very dangerous threat to our democracy. We must not take this lying down. [And] we must defend our leadership.

Brothers and sisters, we must break the silence and we must break the fear. We have some tough choices to make today – tax breaks for the rich, or health care for the many? Elections that end in courts, or election law reform so every vote can count? Invest in prisons – or invest in schools? A race to the bottom in the name of free trade, or workers’ rights and environmental protection and justice? Economic growth that trickles down, or investment in the working people that bubbles up across the society? An America that polices the world, or an America that stands with the global justice movement around the world? Privatization and deregulation the Enron way – or investment in people, holding corporations accountable, and defending public employees?

We have a choice to make today. The good news is that when we come together, we have the power to light up dark places. When we come together, we move beyond matters of race and division to matters of the human family. When they cut out the lights in your plant and take your job to a slave labor market abroad, you can’t use color for a crutch. We all look amazingly similar in the dark. In the dark, the issue is not Black and white, it’s wrong and right. We must fight for the right thing.

Most poor people in America are not Black nor brown; they’re white. They’re female, they’re young – and whether they’re white, Black or brown, hunger matters. Most poor folks are not on welfare; they work every day. They sweep streets, they’re janitors in schools, they cook, they wait tables, they mop the floors; they work every day. No, they’re not lazy – they work every day. They work in hospitals: they mop the floors, they clean up the germs, they cool our scorching fever. They change our diseased bed sheets and empty our slop jars. These workers – whose sons are the first to die in war, whose momma cannot get a decent wage back home – we must fight for them. They have the right to a better life. No, they’re not lazy – they are America at its best. We must stand for them, stand with them, because we are them.

We didn’t get here by email and by faxes and by Las Vegas resolutions. One-on-one lobbying is not labor’s style. Backdoor appeals and emails are not labor’s style. We came here by fighting back for our dignity. So today, my friends, I call us to action. Yes, fight terror abroad – but fight for justice at home. Fight for workers’ rights to organize. We need mass action for mass change and mass protection of workers’ rights.

I hope early in January we will hit the streets, tell Mr. Ashcroft, this land is our land. We didn’t defeat you in Missouri to run roughshod over us in Washington. This land is our land. Mr. Bush, we respect you as president, but at least be humble; after all, you didn’t get the most votes. We beat you before and we’ll beat you again.

Workers, fight back! This land is our land. Stand up! March! Fight back. We deserve decent wages. We deserve our job security. Rise up!

This article is excerpted from the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Dec. 4 speech to the AFL-CIO Convention.