From exclusion to power
Workers, community converge at Southern Human Rights conference
Published Dec 22, 2010 11:47 PM
Under the theme “From Exclusion to Power,” hundreds of workers and
community members gathered in Birmingham, Ala., from Dec. 10 to 12 for the
eighth Bi-Annual Southern Human Rights Organizers Conference.
WW photo: Dante Strobino
March on opening day of Southern Human Rights Organizers
Conference, in Birmingham, Ala. Carrying lead banner are
Daniel Castellanos; Pamela Brown, Community Voices Heard;
and Araceli Herrera Castillo (left to right).
Jaribu Hill, conference founder and executive director of the Mississippi
Workers Center for Human Rights, opened up with a call for human rights and
social justice activists from across the country “to retool and rethink,
plan and build. In these critical times of unjust wars and economic decline, it
is urgent that we forge unity based on common struggles and
The gathering opened with a press conference — on International Human
Rights Day — that highlighted the work of the Excluded Workers Congress
and announced a new report that examines the plight of workers barred from
labor protections and the right to organize.
The report said that in 1983, 20.1 percent of the U.S. workforce was unionized,
whereas in 2009 that proportion was only 12.3 percent. In so-called
right-to-work states, union density now averages 6 percent.
Included in the press conference were the congress’s nine sectors,
including domestic workers, farmworkers, taxi drivers, restaurant workers, day
laborers, guest workers, workers from right-to-work states, workfare workers
and formerly incarcerated workers.
“I came from Peru to work in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina,”
stated Daniel Castellanos, founder of the Alliance of Guest Workers for
Dignity, “but my boss told me that I couldn’t organize. But we
decided to organize anyway.”
Organizations active in the congress include Domestic Workers United, the
National Domestic Worker Alliance, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, All of
Us or None, Community Voices Heard, the Southwest Workers Union, Black Workers
for Justice, Alabama Day Laborers and Jobs with Justice. Their members
addressed workplace conditions and their fights for recognition, dignity and
Araceli Herrera Castillo, a 20-year domestic worker from San Antonio, Texas,
and SWU and NDWA member, said that they are demanding that the International
Labor Organization pass a convention on domestic workers’ rights in June
2011 at their 100th labor congress. “We are demanding our basic rights to
be implemented here, like the basic right to organize,” stated
Activists marched down Birmingham sidewalks to support domestic worker
organizing. They chanted, “Free, Free Domestic Workers! End, End
Slavery!” and “!Mujeres marchando, el mundo van cambiando!”
They went to the bus terminal, a hub from which domestic workers go “over
the mountain” to the suburbs to clean homes and take care of wealthy
The Excluded Workers Congress first convened at the U.S. Social Forum in June.
Many of its partner organizations gathered for its official founding in
September at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The congress is fighting these workers’ exclusion from the National Labor
Relations Act, which excludes farmworkers and domestic workers; from the Fair
Labor Standards Act, which bars many workers from minimum wage and overtime
laws; from the Occupational Safety and Health Act, Civil Rights Act Title VII
anti-discrimination protections; and from state labor laws related to the
The congress has made gains: Rep. George Miller has agreed to introduce the
POWER (Protect Our Workers Against Exploitation and Retaliation) Act in the
House of Representatives, and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said she would
meet with excluded workers. The act was introduced in the Senate in April by
Sen. Robert Menendez, among others.
Its supporters say that the law would strengthen workers’ and
immigrants’ rights, that it would provide legal protection for workplace
organizing, and from immigration enforcement and deportation. It would give
workers a way to hold employers accountable. Activists assert that millions of
undocumented workers could access their legal rights and would be protected if
employers call Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
SHROC provided opportunities for other issues and movements to converge.
Workshops and strategy sessions focused on the national fightback to defend
education and to end the school-to-prison pipeline. Others discussed expanding
the fight for human rights to include environmental justice and health
An international panel spoke on U.S. imperialism’s impact around the
world. On the Haitian people’s fight for human and democratic rights,
Wadner Pierre stated, “You cannot have an election in Haiti without
including Fanmi Lavalas,” criticizing the U.S. role there. Fanmi Lavalas,
which was banned from participating in Haiti’s recent election, is the
party of democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was
ousted in a U.S.-led coup in 2004.
Emria Woods, from Liberia, discussed the negative global role of the U.S. in
the fight for human rights. She addressed the struggle in Africa against the
U.S. African Command (Africom) and stressed that the U.S. goal there is to
secure oil markets. “The fact that 25 percent of U.S. oil now comes from
Africa was the leading cause for the establishment of Africom,” stated
Woods. Other panelists were Jorge Guerrero Veloz, from the Red Afrovenezolana,
and Charo Mina Rojas, from the Black Communities’ Process in
Organizers left Birmingham strengthened by the unity at the conference and the
fightbacks going on across the South, vowing to move ahead. Organize the South!
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