2,000 in Portland march for right to join a union

Americans like to think of their country as “the land of the free and home of the brave.” But in the American workplace, it takes bravery for a worker to speak up for freedom.

That’s because the freedom to assemble — guaranteed under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — stops at the workplace door. Notwithstanding the procedural niceties of the National Labor Relations Act, the right of American workers to join unions is trumped by the right of American employers to bribe and browbeat.

Many workers who have spent a long time in a union workplace may not realize how hard it is for non-union workers to unionize. And they may not consider that the more non-union workers there are, the harder it is for union workers to win contract improvements, or even keep what they’ve got.

But for union officialdom, winning back the right of workers to join a union has become a crusade.

This year, to raise the profile of the cause, the national AFL-CIO, supported by the Change To Win labor federation, worked with allies to put together a week of demonstrations. In the week ending Dec. 10, International Human Rights Day, tens of thousands of people took part in events in 110 U.S. cities. Workers also demonstrated in Northern Ireland, and Cambodia, and in Hong Kong, where the World Trade Organization was about to meet.

In Portland, a crowd of over 2,000 marched downtown for close to two hours. Incredibly, the peaceful march got no coverage from the local media, including the state’s largest daily newspaper, the Oregonian. That despite the fact that the march passed right by the newspaper’s front door.

“Had unionists gone wild in the streets, setting fires and breaking windows, the press might have paid attention,” one union member said.

“I find it amazing,” said Shelly Immel, vice president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 88. “They can have a meeting with 100 business people and they’ll cover it. But we get thousands of working people marching and there’s not a peep. We’re part of the community, too.”

The Portland event began outside the offices of U.S. Senator Gordon Smith. Police escorts cleared the streets before marchers, who made several stops on the way to the Federal Building.

One such stop was in front of the office of the National Labor Relations Board, which is supposed to enforce laws that give workers the right to organize.

“The labor laws in America are hopelessly broken,” Stewart Acuff, head of organizing for the national AFL-CIO, told marchers. “Workers have lost any effective right to organize or bargain collectively … and that has got to change.”

“The right to organize and bargain collectively is a fundamental internationally-recognized human right,” Acuff said. “It’s referenced three times in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. And yet here in America, 20,000 are fired every year, just for trying to form a union. Something’s desperately wrong with that.”

“Every 23 minutes a worker in America is fired for trying to form a union. It is so bad that Human Rights Watch has said the United States of America is in violation of internationally accepted human rights standards — for failing to protect the right of our own people to do something for our kids, to do something go for their future, for their quality of life and form a union.”

Farther along the march, a small group broke away to take over the lobby of the Benson Condominium Tower sales office for several minutes. There was one arrest outside the office, when a picketer refused to move quickly enough out of the way as police rushed to the building entrance. The Benson Tower was targeted because several pro-union workers have been fired at the construction site. The project has angered building trades unions by using non-union workers from Canada to build.

In the last 10 years, winning greater legal protection for the right to unionize has evolved into a constant political priority for unions. Increasingly, unions are insisting that any politician who wants a union endorsement has to support a more muscular right to unionize.

As a result, a bill in Congress that would do that — the Employee Free Choice Act — today has 41 co-sponsors in the U.S. Senate and 205 in the U.S. House. In Oregon, all members of Congress are co-sponsors except Republicans Gordon Smith and Greg Walden. All of Washington’s congressional Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors.

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