Labor Rights Are Civil Rights

“Those of us in the civil rights community know that the Employee Free Choice Act is more than a labor bill,” Henderson told colleagues. “Labor rights are civil rights.”

If the bill is painted as just a management-vs-unions issue, it loses, he warned.

“This is a simple fix to a loophole in labor law,” added Arlene Holt-Baker, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President and the highest-ranking African-American in the union federation. “It would let workers express their choice in an environment without intimidation” by bosses and their anti-union campaigns, she added.

“For African-Americans, we must make this a priority,” added Bill Lucy, AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer and head of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. A weakened union movement, which has been a key player in civil rights causes, diminishes the chance that African-Americans can achieve their other political goals, he pointed out.


I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that the real progressive measure of the Obama administration’s fist stage is their commitment to the Employee Free Choice Act. There’s lots to be said about the first sixty or seventy days, good and bad, but the EFCA is the first attempt to change the game from the ground up.

I was listening to Cornell West yesterday on the Tavis Smiley show and he made a relevant comparison to Lincoln. Lincoln, like Obama, was a skilled but pragmatic politician. He became the Great Emancipator partly due to constant pressure from the left wing, that is, the abolitionists.

Obama is pragmatic and equally in need of lefty pressure. The public has to demand change– a single payer health care system, for example– or it’s not going to happen. That won’t happen unless we have the tools. Or, what amounts to the same thing, to take away impediments to their power.

The EFCA does both. In effect, it’s a kind of gamble. If employers are no longer able to punish union organizers, and if organizing is simpler, will people take the opportunity? The opinion polls as well as the unions all strongly suggest they will. That would mean a real shift in the way power works in the United States.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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