Monday, December 13, 2010

"The South is the Hope"

Dateline: Birmingham, Alabama, December 10-12, 2010
Southern Human Rights Organizers' Conference
by Clare Hanrahan

"In this region where chattel slavery was born, where the auction block was used as a method of enforcing slavery in the south ...this conference is dedicated to those who gave their lives in this place ...dripping with the blood of our people." Attorney Jaribu Hill, of the Mississippi Workers Center for Human Rights, and founder of the first Southern Human Rights Organizers' Conference, set the tone for the 8th bi-annual conference, "From Exclusion to Power" with her opening remarks. The conference was filled with straight talk about hard issues facing people of color and poor persons throughout the southern U.S. and neighbors south of the borders. It was a powerful assembly marked by strong voices that erupted in song and high-spirited oration in the style of Southern freedom fighters. Calls to analyze, organize and unite in action came from every speaker.

Erica Smiley introduces panel of Excluded Workers
North Carolina native Erica Smiley, Southern Regional Field Organizer with  National Jobs with Justice released  the Unity For Dignity report issued by the Excluded Workers Congress, "Expanding the right to organize to win human rights at work."

"We are all excluded workers.  That’s not a slogan, that’s for real. No matter what work you do," according to Ajamu Dillahunt, of Black Workers for Justice who traveled to Birmingham on a bus with 35 others from Durham, North Carolina.

"When excluded workers rise, they rise to lead the social movement," said Daniel Castellanos-Contreras a former guest worker from Peru and founder of the national  Alliance for Guest Workers for Dignity. He said he came to New Orleans to rebuild the city after Hurricane Katrina.  "I had to pay $5,000 to come here to work with a temporary visa," he explained. "We are tied to one employer. We are a captive work force. ... You wake up in the morning and you know that you are not free. That you are enslaved. We have to unite and break the chains that tie all of us."

James Adams is a formerly incarcerated worker and organizer for All of Us or None, a Charlotte, NC based national organizing initiative of prisoners, former prisoners and felons.  "A major obstacle in my life is my criminal background," he said. After serving time in torturous conditions, we were met at the gate with prejudice and discrimination that made our re-entry into society difficult and in some cases impossible. Many of us recognize that our prison sentence never ends as long as the discrimination against us continues. "We’re organizing because we’re not taking just what you will give us….we have reached the point now that we demand to be treated right. "

Leonel Perez, a farm worker and member of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers talked of the ongoing campaign for dialog with Florida tomato growers.  "Many female farm workers suffer because of sexual harassment, which is the norm in the agricultural sector," he said. When workers engaged in the first strike to ask for dialog with growers, the growers responded,  "a tractor doesn't tell a farmer how to run his farm." We were considered to be "no more than tools,"  Perez said. "We're asking the supermarket chains to step up to pay another penny per pound. We're pressuring Publix, the largest supermarket in Southeast. If buyers were to pay just one penny more, it would mean a living wage for farm workers.

Pamela Brown traveled from New York City to tell about the conditions of women on Workfare. Brown once held a well-paying job on Wall Street, she said. Now she organizes with other women on welfare with the organization Community Voices Heard.  "Fannie Lou Hamer was a mentor of mine," she said, tears welling in her eyes. "Because I embody the spirit of Fannie Lou Hamer I could not do a lot of things Wall street wanted me to do...I'm from 'Up South', as my mother used to call NYC. ...Workfare is required of everyone who applies for public assistance.  I was ashamed of myself, because we all figure its not going to happen to us.  We are mandated by law to work three days a week. I make 61 cents an hour. We're not allowed to turn down any workfare assignment, which is usually maintenance.  It limits our ability to obtain a living wage.  Those women in Community Voices Heard kept me up through a lot of dark days. Its the greatest organization I have been involved with," she said. 

"I'm here to tell you about the slavery we experience every day," said Joyce Araceli Herrera, an organizer for Domestic Workers in Action with the Southwest Workers Union . She came from Mexico to San Antonio, Texas, where she has been a domestic worker for 20 years.   "Who are domestic workers?  We are women who face a lot of exploitation on the job, low wages, domestic violence, many are single mothers...we care for childen, the sick, for the elderly, for pets, we cook, we iron, we clean.  We're connected to a long legacy of slavery. Like farm workers, domestic workers are excluded from organizing," she said. "I believe domestic workers should be at front of the labor movement because domestic workers experience modern day slavery today."

Daniel Castellanos-Contreras and Pamela Brown hold the banner in Birmingham
More than 100 conference attenders took to the streets of Birmingham to mark the beginning of a Global Campaign for Decent Work and Rights for Domestic Workers, "So that we are finally recognized as workers and that our work is respected and we are treated with dignity and the respect that we deserve, Herrera said. The march stopped first at the Greyhound bus station to honor the legacy of freedom riders who faced racist attacks at the Birmingham station, and then to the Central Bus Station, where today's domestic workers board the bus to work. 

Friday afternoon Issue Roundtables included "School to Prison Pipeline" and "Breaking the Silence: Ending Gender Inequalities Impacting Women of Color in the Movement." A Plenary on the "State of the Global Struggle for Human Rights," included the voices of activists and organizers from the Global South, uniting the struggles of Latino people with the people of color in the U.S.A.

Stay tuned for more reports on this exciting conference.

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