BWFJ & UE150: GRASSROOTS INTERNATIONALISM IN THE FIGHT FOR COLLECTIVE BARGAINING FOR PUBLIC SECTOR WORKERS

In this interview, Angaza Sababu Laughinghouse – BWFJ leader/organizer, President of the N.C. Public Service Workers Union-UE Local 150 and representative on the GGJ coordinating committee – talks about GGJ's contributions to BWFJ's support in UE150’s fight for worker rights in North Carolina  

One of the chief goals of BWFJ has been organizing workers in the public sector  and workers in general in the South, because there are very few basic laws to protect workers' democratic and human rights here in this historically racist, repressive and reactionary region.

Remember this has been a long-time base for Senator Jesse Helms, the Klu Klux Klan, violent supremacist terrorists like Eric Rudolph and tea party factions.  In fact, the Taft-Hartly Act and racist Jim Crow segregation have created the political climate and the long-standing laws that deny the internationally recognized human right to collective bargaining for all city, county and state public service workers. 

This law and other similar laws make it difficult to organize workers in the historic black belt region of the south. There is no meaningful way to seriousy discuss the challenges of developing an effective strategy for moving working people forward in unions, organizations and communities without an understanding and plan of action that addresses the impact of Jim Crow segregation and race and class oppression. This oppressions has helped to divide and weaken the entire Southern working class and there has not been enough convergence of different nationalitiies of workers to win many challenges and fights for fundamental democratic and human rights. 

GGJ -- through its World Social Forum, US Social Form, popular education & other efforts -- helps workers in our BWFJ base with experiences of convergence with grassroots and popular peoples organizations, with our local organizing and its relationship to international political policy and developments, with political analysis & empirical insights and an understanding of the common roots of workers and poor peoples' exploitation.

Within BWFJ and our mass work in various workplaces and communities, we have a lot of different levels of political development of working class people.  GGJ has helped develop this broader vision among a number of our workers and members. 

For example, several of our youth members went on US Social and World Social Forum trips, and were amazed by how sharp the youth were that they met abroad.  What they learned from them and their observations during these experiences has shaped their analysis of the role of multinational corporations in U.S. political and economic policy, as well as  how they do popular education with young workers and students.  This weekend these BWFJ youth members at their “Fruit of Labor World Cultural Cinema” (a youth empowerment project) and others are going to talk about the  role of youth around the world, from Senegal to Greece to Egypt to Puerto Rico.

GGJ's programmatic work has helped several NC Public Service Workers Union-UE Local 150 activists who traveled to Brazil, India, Venezuela & Mexico learn directly from mass people's organizations and revolutionary organizations abroad and at home about how to better engage, organize , politically educate , resist and fight . 

Through GGJ some of these leaders and members are now able to make the connections between what these big multi-national corporations are doing to workers and communities here in the “Right to Work without Human Rights” South, and what these same big corporation capitalists do to workers, their nations and oppressed communities in underdeveloped Third World Countries.  

For example, the huge Shledge Lock Corporation (a run-away shop) operated in Rocky Mount in the eastern Black belt region of NC for many years.  They made metal locks treated with chemicals, but then up and moved to Mexico.  The Company ran away and left behind them  a contaminated superfund site, sick workers and no extended health plan for them.   Also, the Koppers Co., a subsidiary of the Beazer company based in Britain, operating out of Shiloh, N.C.- another working-class black community just 15 minutes out of Raleigh.   The Company made construction products like laminated construction beams for the mega-millions area housing industry and then just dumped their toxic waste
into a pond that contaminated all of the drinking well water of the Black community.  BWFJ organized workers and the community to fight these companies in the 80s and won Superfund Site cleanup and compensation money back to communities. This is the same struggle of many workers, poor and oppressed nationals in the countries we visited abroad.

When my comrade & wife Nathanette ( a UE 150 social justice trade unionist & BWFJ leader) went to the first World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil with GGJ – she was able to share stories (our BWFJ organizing videos) of transnational companies like those polluting in the U.S.  There was a direct connection to communities there facing the same problems.  When she got there, she wondered why people didn't swim or fish in the Porto Alegre River.  She found out from community organizers that the river was being contaminated by US corporations upstream.  In fact, it was  General Electric plants that were up on the mountains discharging waste into the river and killing fish. That's why nobody swam or fished in the river.   

By being able to send BWFJ members on these GGJ delegations to the World Social Forums/U.S. Social Forums, our members began to see a bigger picture of US corporations' exploitation of workers globally eyerywhere and not just here in the South.  This began to show us the connections we had with workers around the world. International solidarity with our sisters and brothers struggles …“Workers of the World Unite!”… became more than an empty rhetorical slogan!

Through GGJ, we connected directly with some of these worker organizations & unions abroad, and learned how to be more of a “revolutionary social justice”  union fighting for social justice on many fronts.  Through GGJ, we were able to send some of our members from the UE Local 150 NC Public Service Workers Union to meet with revolutionary trade unions in both Venezuela and Porto Alegre.  This included leaders of COSATU from South Africa, and leaders of the CUT from Brazil. 

We noticed they weren't like regular U.S. "business” unions with narrow action programs.  We learned that these other unions had a broader political  perspective of social justice touching on all issues including immigration, housing, the environment, police misconduct, and other struggles that are going on with oppressed people and workers around the world. They were struggling for real political power for workers (not just a few token legal reforms) and fundamental change in the state structure.  And that they represented workers not just in the workplace but in the broader working class community and fought the impact that the employers had on their communities.   This helped how our members understood trade unionism in our work and organizing.  It also made us see what was possible in other places in terms of workers power & our collective bargaining fight.  COSATU shared with us that they won a collective bargaining agreement written into the new constitution of South Africa.

In 2004, the UE began working with BWFJ on the ‘International Workers Justice Campaign” with the aim of advancing N.C. public service workers’ “ internationally recognized right to collectively bargaining”.  Much of our resources have gone into this work. With the insight of many people we met through GGJ efforts, workers strengthened our UE- International Worker Justice Campaign organizing and worker/community education in accordance with the United Nations’ Human Rights Charter and  International Labor Organization.

Working class frontline leaders deepened their understanding of the fact that the denial of worker rights was the denial of internationally recognized human rights.  Our grassroots workplace organizing and education campaign to educate workers as well as community at this critical point broadened.  Then in December 2005, we held an International Workers Rights Public Hearing – this was a gathering of more than 600 public service / government workers giving testimony to international jurors/lawyers we invited.  We invited international jurors from around the world, including from Nigeria, India, the Philippines, Germany, South Africa, Holland, Canada, Mexico among others.

As a result of this hearing, we filed a formal “complaint against the Government of the United States alleging that the legislation of the State of North Carolina expressly prohibits the making of any collective agreement between employee organizations of cities, towns, municipalities or the State and any labor or trade union in the public sector, thus violating  UN-ILO reviewed it and delivered a finding in March 2007 against the U.S and the North Carolina’s governor stating that the state was in violation of  our fundamental democratic and the human right to collective bargaining for public sector workers. 

The N.C. State Govenor Mike Easley and later Governor Beverly Perdue  in 2008 responded with Executive Orders granting union recognition, access to unions to go on State property for recruitment, orientations and meetings, “meet & confer with unions” and other reforms. This was an advance and certainly short of the repeal of the Bargaining ban and passage of a Collective Bargaining Bill. However, our struggle must have transitional advances as we move forward with this protracted struggle.

The collective bargaining/ IWJC campaign is an ongoing organizing and education campaign that continues to challenge and shake the present power relationships between workers and the” "Big Rich Corporate and Money Interests”.

At present, our Union UE 150/IWJC  has a Mental Health Hospital Workers “Bill of Rights” organizing/education effort firing up. We currently have a Bill before the N.C. General Assembly and we're fighting like the dickens to keep it alive and moving forward with workplace and community grassroots actions..  We have worker members of UE 150 North Carolina Public Service Union working in 5 mental health hospitals around the state.  We've got a State wide Union petition and letter campaign going with local community meetings targeted for 6 different areas of the state. We're challenging reactionary Tea Party members/supporters who have just finished chopping the State Budget to the bone!.  Right now a significant number of legislators have signed off as co-sponsors,…. a powerful statement in the least unionized of all the United States. And overall, now we have about 53 legislators who support our collective bargaining bill – when we started out in the 90s we only had 3 or 4 supporters.  

In other words, we're advancing in this protracted internationalist struggle during this challenging period of a rising tide of racist anti-worker reaction. This is not a legislative struggle or lobbying effort, it’s a "political struggle for workers power” and transitional reforms to give a greater voice, organization and real power to the working class in their workplace and communities.

We will continue to increase the engagement of all our allies by asking for support/resources to plan, build and mobilize for a Southern Workers Congress to turn the rising tide of anti-unionism and racism In the South. The lack of southern workers organizations and unions has always been the weakest link or “Achilles Heel” for labor and our social justice movement.

We look forward to GGJ its organizations’ active solidarity and engagement in the near future.

Contact: Angaza Sababu Laughinghouse at 919-231-2660 or e-mail  fruitoflaborwcc@netscape.com for more information on how you can help with this important work  

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