08/31/2017

Labor rights are human rights

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Social justice has become a driving force in politics and the progressive movement, and the AFT has been among its leading voices, deeply immersed in demonstrations, policymaking, education and actions that are forcefully demanding a fairer, more just world for all people.

That's because, at its core, the labor movement is a movement of social justice. The work it does to promote good jobs and working conditions for every worker, regardless of race, creed, gender or family history, is essentially about fairness in the workplace and, by extension, in our communities.

Is it fair to pay a woman 17 percent less than a man? Is it fair to pay a black woman even less? Can we stand by while public services like clean water, law enforcement, decent healthcare and high-quality public schools are available to some people but not to others? Of course not. And so, as the union works to ensure reasonable wages, good benefits and fair treatment at work, it also works with social justice allies to fight for universal healthcare, LGBTQ rights, eradication of racism, and equal opportunities for everyone to get a good education, safe housing and a living wage.

AFT members march, rally and demonstrate for women's rights, racial justice, religious freedom, immigration rights, marriage equality, the minimum wage and more. Leaders and staff produce reports like "Reclaiming the Promise of Racial Equity in Education, Economics and Our Criminal Justice System," which quantifies discrimination and recommends concrete ways to fight racism; "Creating a Positive Work Environment for LGBT Faculty: What Higher Education Unions Can Do"; and "Union Role in Diversifying the Educator Workforce," with policy advice on how to increase the number of teachers of color in public schools.

The AFT is a strong voice in public policy debates at conferences and in the media on myriad issues in the social justice realm. Our Innovation Fund has supported many programs designed to promote equity, including community schools, where disadvantaged students and their families get tutoring, healthcare and supplemental food, so students are ready to learn. And our conferences—including one dedicated to civil, human and women's rights this October—as well as our publications and online resources—like the information-packed immigration page on the AFT website and our blog for member voicesserve to educate members and the general public on many aspects of social justice and how to preserve it.

This kind of commitment to social justice has been part of the AFT's DNA from the start. We were co-founded by female teachers in Chicago and New York at a time when women were not considered leaders in the public realm. During the civil rights movement, we dropped affiliates who refused to admit black people to their locals—despite losing many members as a result. Members taught at Freedom Schools when black students in the Jim Crow South were prohibited from attending all-white schools.

Our past is peppered with influential leaders of all kinds, from Mary Church Terrell, who led the first AFT higher education affiliate, at Howard University, and was the first president of the National Association of Colored Women and one of the founders of the NAACP, to the Rev. William Barber, a close ally and frequent speaker at AFT events, and a powerful voice in today's Black Lives Matter movement. 

Labor rights—a fair wage and decent working conditions— are perhaps the most material expression of social justice: the recognition that every person, regardless of race, creed, gender or family history, deserves the same opportunity to earn a decent living and live a reasonably comfortable life. The AFT, along with our labor brothers and sisters, will continue to work toward that goal.

[Virginia Myers]