The Working People’s Day of Action was held coast-to-coast on Feb. 24, with actions in dozens of U.S. cities calling out thousands of workers. The day was initiated by the workers’ rights organization, Jobs with Justice.
The protests were timed to defy the reactionary Janus vs. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 31 case due to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 26. The case threatens the right of public sector unions to collect fees from non-members to cover the negotiating and grievance costs of representing them.
A ruling against AFSCME Council 31, representing workers in Illinois, would be a vicious attack on all public sector unions in the U.S. The outcome could affect more than 5 million government workers in 24 states and the District of Columbia.
The Janus attack is part of an ongoing attempt by billionaire owners to break public sector unions, which now have the majority of U.S. union members. These unions fight for increasing the minimum wage, improved workplace safety, better health care benefits, protection of retirement funds and many other issues.
Public sector unions hold a strong bottom line for better benefits for all workers. Women are 57 percent of public sector union members. (National Women’s Law Center, 2012) One in 5 African Americans work in a public sector job. (New York Times, May 24, 2015)
The Feb. 24 date also commemorates a turning point in the historic 1968 Memphis, Tenn., sanitation strike by Black and other nationally oppressed workers to be represented by a union, which began Feb. 22. That’s when over 1,300 African-American men, represented by AFSCME Local 1733, walked out on strike. The men were then making 65 cents an hour under life-threatening work conditions.
On Feb. 24, Black leaders and ministers formed a citywide organization to support the strike, but the city obtained a court injunction to keep the union from picketing. Black ministers called out their congregations to march, beginning daily on Feb. 26. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who first visited Memphis to show solidarity with the workers and the community on March 18, was assassinated there on April 4. AFSCME signed a contract ending the strike on April 16.
Gregory Floyd of Teamsters Local 37 in New York City said in an interview with the Feb. 23 Chief-Leader: “Workers’ rights and civil rights are one, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew this and ultimately died in the fight for equality and dignity in the workplace. The fight must continue. The Janus case is a grave reminder of this.”
Coast-to-coast coordinated actions
Workers turned out in cities across the country Feb. 24 to say “No right to work for less laws.”
The biggest demonstration was the continuing strike of public school teachers in West Virginia. Teachers in all 55 counties walked out Feb. 22-23 in an historic action to fight against poverty-level wages and accelerating health care costs. (See coverage at workers.org.)
Workers World Party members in Buffalo, N.Y., and Washington, D.C., raised the West Virginia teachers’ struggle in those cities. Union members from the Civil Service Employees Association, Communications Workers, AFSCME and other unions were there, as well as community supporters.
In Chicago, about 3,000 people from a broad array of unions rallied in Daley Plaza, while in New York City more thousands gathered in Foley Square in front of the Federal Building. It was a day, as one speaker put it, to tell “the Agent Orange head in the White House” that workers were preparing to resist.
There was an air of excitement in the crowd. People were taking group photos to remember the day by, along with T-shirts, caps, buttons, placards and other paraphernalia from their unions. Workers showed an interest in socialist literature, with hundreds of copies of this paper distributed, along with thousands of related leaflets. At least one unionist took a Workers World placard with “No right to work for less” and put it up in a tent where union material was distributed.
Estella Vazquez, executive vice president of 1199SEIU, told cheering union sisters and brother: “Our future is not really in danger because labor is standing up, labor is organizing, labor is uniting and labor is resisting. We are ready to resist and we will win.” She ended her speech with the slogan from the Chilean resistance: “Workers united will never be defeated.”
When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo spoke, his electoral platitudes were greeted with boos. The speakers with the most critical and sharpest talks were received warmly, like Baxter Leach, long-time AFSCME member and a sanitation worker who participated in the historic 1968 Memphis strike.
Several thousand union activists and community members rallied in Philadelphia. Many elected officials and labor leaders, including AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, addressed the rally. One of the high points came when a feeder march of several hundred workers from various SEIU locals joined the rally at Thomas Paine Plaza. Their lead banner read in part, “No Court Case Will Hold Us Back.”
Workers gave an overwhelmingly positive response to leaflets raising the connection between growing U.S. war threats, including against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and the increased attacks here on unions and on working and poor people generally. Many in the crowd remarked that the record Pentagon budget should be used to fund people’s needs.
Over 1,000 people in Columbus, Ohio, ignored the driving rain and marched to the center of state government. The vast majority were from the Ohio Education Association. Teachers and students demanded safe schools as well as fighting against newly introduced “Right to work for less” laws in the state legislature. There was much enthusiastic discussion among participants about the statewide teachers’ strike in neighboring West Virginia.
In Madison, Wis., Workers World Party stood in solidarity with public sector unions against austerity, with the slogan, “Stop the attacks on unions and build people’s power!” Wisconsin was ground zero for workers’ struggles in 2015, when anti-labor Gov. Scott Walker and the right-wing legislature rammed through a “Right to work for less” law.
Workers fought back with tremendous community support. By the hundreds of thousands, they occupied the state Capitol building here during February and March. The 2015 “Right to work for less” attack in Wisconsin continued the bosses’ 2011 campaign that has virtually eliminated collective bargaining for public sector workers and imposed wage cuts on state workers.
The Janus vs. AFSCME case is one part of an organized, coordinated campaign of class war funded by capitalist billionaires. In Wisconsin, the attack has been bankrolled by the Bradley Foundation, the Koch brothers and other bosses. In other states, big business, Wall Street and Pentagon interests lead the assault.
Contributing to this report were Ben Carroll, Ellie Dorritie, G. Dunkel, Sam Olson, Susan Schnur and Jeff Sorel.
Photos: Ellie Dorritie in Buffalo, N.Y.; G. Dunkel in New York City; Joseph Piette in Philadelphia; Jeff Sorel in Chicago; Matt Estey in Columbus, Ohio; Sam Olson in Madison.