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Gagging Workers is Un-American

photo: Katie Tegtmeyer via Flickr

As the world watched the people of Egypt take to the streets in an effort to exercise their rights and have their voices heard, here at home in the USA, plans are being put into place to silence workers, lower their wages, cut their benefits and increase the likelihood that they will suffer injuries and fatalities at work.  It is happening at a breakneck pace and too little attention is being paid.

In Columbus, Indianapolis, Madison, Tallahassee and other state capitols, newly elected politicians are working tirelessly to pay back their debt to the corporate CEO’s who funded their campaigns by destroying the power of working men and women to have a real voice on the job.  The net result of this activity will be lower standards of living for all working people, while corporate interests gain more control and a greater ability to increase profits while privatizing public services and shipping jobs overseas.

All Americans will suffer if we fail to stop these unconscionable policies from being put in place. In Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida and in other states across the country, legislators are moving rapidly to pass new laws to cut education, health care and public safety programs while imposing new rules to gag workers and make it more difficult for them to organize for better wages, benefits and working conditions.  . . .

In Florida, Governor Rick Scott has plans to double the amount of money he pays to his personal office staff while at the same time slashing benefits for the unemployed, cutting aid to schools and forcing veterans to pay more for the medical treatment they need and deserve.

In Ohio, Governor John Kasich has added $1 million to expand his personal security detail, while moving quickly to cut public services, and eliminate the ability of state and local public employees to collectively bargain. He’s cutting services even though the recovery in Ohio is producing more than $50 million in additional state revenues than originally anticipated by the state’s budget office. Kasich is not focusing on job creation or providing Ohio with the services its people need. Instead, he’s using his powers as governor to punish and gag his political opponents.

In Wisconsin, the state legislature is fast-tracking a law to eliminate the ability of nurses, teachers, EMTs and correction officers to recommend and negotiate new policies to protect patients, educate students or guarantee safety in the states’ prisons.  This is nothing short of a Public Employees Gag Law, forcing the men and women who provide vital public services in the state to suffer and serve in silence.  Nothing could be more un-American.

In Indiana, pending legislation threatens public employees with criminal penalties if they engage in collective bargaining with their employer.  Collective bargaining by public employees would be declared “illegal” and “any form of agreement” with an employee organization would be “illegal, unlawful, unenforceable, void and of no effect.” Public employees who violated the new law could be prosecuted for committing a Class A misdemeanor and would be in jeopardy of losing all of their accrued benefits.  This is nothing less than union busting at its most transparent, designed to deny workers a voice in the workplace.

Newly elected right wing legislators in Wisconsin and Ohio are moving to add their states to the list of states with so-called Right to Work laws, which really do nothing but guarantee that every worker will take home less in their paycheck and have no voice on the job.  This is political payback, which does nothing to promote job growth or help the middle class.  While protecting the special benefits and tax breaks that benefit their corporate backers, the politicians are engaged in a reckless race to the bottom, where only the rich will have access to adequate health care, job security and a retirement.

In so-called Right to Work states, all workers — union and non-union members alike —earn $5,000 less a year than workers in states where workers have the right to organize and join unions.  In states where workers have a voice on the job, the U.S. Department of Labor has shown that workplace fatalities are lower.  That makes sense, because it’s only when workers can point out dangerous workplace problems and offer solutions to them that risks can be adequately addressed.

More than half a century ago, President John F. Kennedy said America faced a critical choice:  A choice between “public interest and private comfort – between national greatness and national decline.” That choice must be made again.  It’s what we do collectively to realize our common dreams that makes our country like no other.

As far away as Egypt, working men and women dream about the same rights we take for granted.  Now, however, those rights are under attack here at home.  All of us need to make our voices heard in the coming days.  We need to make it clear to the politicians that their own perks and salaries should be cut before they take a cleaver to the wages, benefits and rights of working men and women.

They need to spend less time punishing workers and more time working with them to solve the problems that face us all.

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Gerald McEntee

Gerald McEntee

Gerald W. McEntee is the International President of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), one of the most aggressive and politically active organizing unions in the AFL-CIO. Since 2006, 145,000 women and men have changed their lives by forming a union with AFSCME. McEntee was first elected AFSCME President in 1981 and was re-elected in July 2008 to another four-year term.

As a Vice President of the AFL-CIO and chair of the Political Education Committee, McEntee is a key leader of the labor movement and its political efforts. Under McEntee’s leadership, the federation created its highly successful and much imitated voter education and mobilization program, which increased the number of union household voters to a record 26 percent of the electorate in 2006.

McEntee has long been a leader in the fight to reform the nation’s health care system. He chairs the AFL-CIO’s Health Care Committee and is a co-chair of Health Care for America NOW!, a national grassroots coalition that has launched a $40 million campaign to guarantee quality, affordable health care for all Americans.

McEntee is a co-founder and chairman of the board of the Economic Policy Institute, the preeminent voice for working Americans on the economy. He led the successful fight to stop President Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security, was an outspoken proponent for increasing the federal minimum wage, and is one of the nation’s leading advocates for America’s vital public services.

For his efforts to improve the lives of working families, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights presented McEntee with its prestigious Hubert H. Humphrey Award in 2004.

Before assuming the presidency of AFSCME, McEntee began his distinguished career as a labor leader in Pennsylvania in 1958. He led the drive to unionize more than 75,000 Pennsylvania public service employees, which at that time was the largest union mobilization in history. He was elected Executive Director at the founding convention of AFSCME Council 13 in Pennsylvania in 1973 and an International Vice President of AFSCME in 1974.

McEntee holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from LaSalle University in Philadelphia. A native of Philadelphia, McEntee and his wife Barbara live in Washington, DC.