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Organized Labor and Civil Rights

April 28, 1991

Perhaps Audrey Freedman ("Where Did American Labor Go Wrong?" Los Angeles Times Interview, by Sara Fritz, April 21) has spent so much of her life in such deep thought about labor unions that she cannot tell fact from fiction any more. More likely, as an employee of the Conference Board, she's merely fulfilling her professional obligation to spread lies and distortions about the union movement.

Whatever the reason, there is barely a word of truth or comprehension in her conversation with Fritz.

For instance, Freedman alleges that unions have betrayed American workers by focusing only on "higher wages" and ignoring progressive social causes.

What is her evidence of this?

First, she claims that the labor movement "fought" the fair employment practices section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in the job market, the workplace and the union hall.

As AFL-CIO President George Meany's executive assistant, I and Andy Biemiller, the federation's director of legislation, went to the Oval Office in 1963 to hear President John F. Kennedy plead for the AFL-CIO to drop our insistence on a strong fair-employment practices provision in the Civil Rights Act. Our firm instruction from Meany was to hold fast to our position, and we did.

If we had wavered, that language would have been eliminated. And, to this day, the AFL-CIO is roundly vilified by the pro-employer lobby for its progressive stance on civil-rights issues--a stance that Freedman claims has never existed. We continue to play a leading role in the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the coalition mainly responsible for defense and advocacy of the civil rights of all Americans.

Furthermore, Freedman asserts that unions "stood on the sidelines" during the effort to pass the Occupational Safety and Health Act. But as her business colleagues correctly pointed out in their initial campaign to defeat the act and their subsequent efforts to weaken it, the bill itself was virtually written by AFL-CIO staffers and was a major priority of the trade union movement.

Anyone involved in the efforts to pass other significant environmental legislation--such as the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act--knows that the labor movement was an active partner in the coalition that lobbied for these measures. Freedman shows her arrogance when she makes the statement that the minimum-wage janitors who clean her building at night have no interest in making higher wages. That's precisely the argument that was used to defend slavery in the era preceding emancipation.

The fact is that $4.25 an hour with no health benefits doesn't cut it for someone trying to support a family, and the AFL-CIO makes no apologies for helping the lowest-paid workers agitate for a living wage. If Freedman thinks her cleaning people are doing just fine on minimum wage, then perhaps she ought to try living on it herself. In fact, the minimum wage wouldn't even exist had the trade union movement not prevailed over the wishes of her employers.

In any event, the labor movement is not, as she suggests, failing to address the other needs of the low-wage immigrant work force. Readers of The Times need look no further than the AFL-CIO's Labor Immigrant Assistance Project, established more than four years ago in cooperation with the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor to help immigrant workers understand their rights under the new immigration laws and assist them with documentation requirements, English and civics lessons, job training and placement. In 1989, the AFL-CIO created the California Immigrant Workers Association (CIWA), which provides a wide range of social services to non-union immigrants, including legal help to fight workplace and landlord abuses. CIWA also helps these workers (who, by the way, do not pay dues to AFL-CIO unions) use their collective purchasing power to obtain discounts on essential goods and services.

Are we to expect, from her comments criticizing alleged union failures on these issues, that Freedman and the members of the Conference Board are now ready to join with labor in strengthening the Civil Rights Act, improving OSHA and assisting low-paid immigrant workers?

Don't bet on it. More likely, employers will continue to use hired guns like Freedman to brand unions as racist and ineffective while doing everything they can--within and without the law--to deny workers their fundamental right to associate and organize into unions of their own choosing.

We in the trade union movement have come to accept that in a free society there will always be people like Freedman spreading the lie that workers don't need or want unions anymore. Her kind have been with us for a hundred years, and their predictions of our decline and fall have always proved wrong.

LANE KIRKLAND

President, AFL-CIO, Washington

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