‘Time to Revitalize’ Southern Labor

‘Time to Revitalize’ Southern Labor

By Paul McLennan and Vicki Trifiro

Vol. 10, No. 3, 1988, pp. 15-16

For William Winpisinger, the message to corporate America from the 5,000 workers gathered in an Atlanta parking lot on April 30 wee to remind corporate America that “workers are mad as hell.”

Winpisinger, president of the International Association of Machinists, wee master of ceremonies of a spirited “Jobs with Justice” rally that coincided with the conclusion of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s “Martin Luther King Memorial March for Jobs with Justice,” which had set out from Memphis on April 4 and traveled through Mississippi and Alabama before ending in Atlanta.

Airline workers and janitors, taxi drivers and electrical workers, homeless workers and community organizers–all rubbed shoulders and lifted their voices in labor songs led by folksingers Peter, Paul and Mary. SCLC’s Dr. Joseph Lowery spoke, as did Texas agriculture commissioner Jim Hightower, Bernice King (daughter of Martin Luther King Jr.), and Maxine Green of the National Tenants Association. Testimony about today’s economic climate was given by workers and homeless people.

Calling attention to the conditions of workers in the 1980s and fighting current attacks on workers’ rights is the mission of the Jobs for Justice national campaign. The coalition demands the following:

  • the right to a decent standard of living rather than wage cuts and the elimination of jobs with decent wages;
  • the right to job security rather than growing insecurity in an economy that ses [sic] two million jobs permanently lost to plant and facilities closures every year; and,
  • the right to organize a union and bargain collectively, which underpins all other worker rights.

Jobs with Justice wee launched July 29, 1987, in Miami when more than 11,000 workers attended the biggest labor rally in Florida history. In an emotion-filled moment, the Miami Beach Convention Center rocked with chants of “Jobs with Justice!” The thousands present recited and signed the Jobs with Justice pledge: “During the next year, ‘I’ll be there’ at least five times for someone else’s fight as well as my own. If enough of us are there, well start winning.”

In conjunction with the Miami rally, the House Education and Labor Committee conducted a rare field hearing to get first-hand statements about worker abuse. Workers, union representatives and community leaders testified about the devastating effects on working people of deregulation of the airline and communications industry and subcontracting of public sector jobs.

In November 1987, 8,000 rallied in Nashville in support of paper, mine and electronic workers as well as in support of tenants’ rights. James Motlatsi, president of the National Union of Mineworkers of South Africa, drew cheers from the Tennesee [sic] crowd when he labeled as “destructive engagement” the Reagan administration’s refusal to impose economic sanctions on South Africa. A month later, 3,000 marched in Texas in support of a union contract fight for food service and nursing home workers.

“The strength of the Jobs with Justice campaign has been its ability to mobilize union members to fight in the battles of other workers–workers maybe not in their own union, and maybe in no union at all–and to build coalitions not only among the labor movement but between the labor movement and its natural allies in the broader community–the churches, the civil rights and women’s groups, the tenants’ unions and the farmers, and all the organizations who understand that the defense of workers’ rights is essential to their own fight for social justice,” said Howard Samuel, president of the Industrial Union Department.

In more than twenty U.S. cities, the Jobs with Justice movement is taking root, building these bridges between labor and its natural allies. In the South, the time has come again to revitalize such a movement.

Southern Labor Institute director Ken Johnson believes that “in the deep South, the interests, concerns, and wellbeing of working men and women have been kept silent and invisible by political and economic leadership which promotes an environment of cheap land, low taxes and low wages. Jobs with Justice represents a gigantic step for those

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who understand that the South and indeed the nation’s wellbeing is best measured by how workers themselves benefit from economic activity. Increasing worker participation in policy making and in the workplace is vital to economic growth.”

Awareness grows that social justice and economic justice cannot exist independently of one another. Jobs with Justice seeks to tear down walls between groups who have common interests but who may not have worked together before. In Atlanta, for example, this movement is taking shape in support of the Service Employees International Union’s Justice for Janitors campaign and with the Teamsters’ help for the homeless.

“Community-wide problems call for community-wide solutions,” said Linda Riggins of SEIU Local 679.

Paul McLennan is president of the Southern Labor Press Association Vicki Trifiro is campaign director for the Public Assistance Coalition.