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UMWA President Cecil Roberts editorial published in the July 8, 2005 Charleston Gazette, Division Within

date: 
July 8, 2005

WORKING FAMILIES NEED LABOR UNITY NOW MORE THAN EVER

By Cecil E. Roberts, President, United Mine Workers of America

Working families in America are under attack-not from some foreign foe, but from within our own country. Giant American corporations continue to send manufacturing jobs overseas by the millions, and now they're starting in on the service sector as well, sending customer service call centers to India and Pakistan and high-tech programming jobs to Thailand and elsewhere in Asia.

Big business is aided and abetted by our government, which continues to force one-sided trade deals down the throats of working families. The most recent, the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) would be the death knell for hundreds of thousands of additional American jobs.

At the same time, the current political leadership in Washington continues to place roadblocks in the way of working people who want to form unions, allowing companies to run roughshod over the rights of workers and only reluctantly enforcing the laws that are supposed to protect workers' freedom to form unions, if they enforce them at all.

For America's working families, these are times that require strength of character and unity of purpose from within America's labor movement. Fighting back against these attacks and winning means our labor movement must be open to change while remaining democratic and inclusive. We must be prepared to stand united in the defense of working families to be effective.

Unfortunately, that's not what's happening within the labor movement today, and all working people are the worse for it.

The leaders of some international unions have challenged the direction of America's labor movement and our umbrella organization, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). That is their right, and indeed such challenges can and often do lead to a fresh, effective approach that helps working families.

Their challenge has been heard, and acted upon. The AFL-CIO Executive Council, which I am privileged to sit on, has approved a bold new set of proposals that will address not just the concerns of these union leaders, but for all unions and all working people as well-whether they're currently union members or not.

But instead of welcoming these proposals as a good step toward a more effective AFL-CIO, these few union leaders have rejected them out of hand. Some have even said if they don't get their way they'll pull their unions out of the AFL-CIO and set up their own organization-meaning one of the last truly powerful forces for positive change for working families left in our nation will be split in two, weakened by our own hand.

The big corporations and their anti-worker right-wing allies are rubbing their hands with glee. This is a gift that has fallen into their lap, an unanticipated but highly sought end-game to their 60-year campaign to crush the organized power of working people.

Now is not the time for some union leaders to adopt a "play by my rules or I'll take my ball and go home" approach to fighting for working families. We're faced with far too many threats to take such a short-sighted view. I sincerely hope that as the AFL-CIO gathers in convention later this month in Chicago, we will be able to come together and emerge as a still-unified, even stronger organization re-dedicated to winning the fight for better and safer jobs, better health care and better retirement security for all Americans.

Some have suggested that the current situation is similar to the events of 1935, when my predecessor, John L. Lewis, left the AFL because of its refusal to organize industrial workers. But there is no comparison. This is not 1935, there is no New Deal helping working families, Franklin Roosevelt is not the President of the United States, the pro-organizing Wagner Act does not exist anymore, and there are not tens of thousands of workers engaging in sitdown strikes and other job actions in workplaces throughout America.

Lewis dispatched UMWA organizers and spent UMWA money to organize the auto industry, the steel industry, the rubber industry and many others in the 1930's and 1940's because he recognized that all working people need to be able to speak with one strong voice when it comes to fighting for their rights.

Today, we need that unified voice that Lewis envisioned just as much as-if not more than-we did in 1935. I remain true to his vision, as does the United Mine Workers of America. We invite all other unions-whichever side of this unnecessary divide they're on-to join us as we continue the fight to make America a better place for all working families.

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