Cornell University

April 19 2013

Union Days 2013

Labor leaders discuss corporate accountability, organizations seek next generation

Sherry Wright, American Federation of State, County and Municipal EmployeesSherry Wright knows what she needs when recruiting union organizers for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

"Have they figured out a way to connect with workers on campus or support people in the community? Have they helped make a project happen? I look for what we call 'a social justice track record.'"

At the Social Justice Career Fair during ILR's Union Days last week, she and recruiters from 18 organizations found a number of students with that background. Some are members of the Cornell Organization for Labor Action.

Known as COLA, it is one of the nation’s most active student labor organizations; ILR students typically lead the Cornell group.

Students from across Cornell and members of the public participated in Union Days, three days of events themed "Workers Uprising! Holding Corporations Accountable."

Caleen Carter-Patton '10, Service Employees International Union Fight for a Fair EconomyA panel discussion featured Caleen Carter-Patton '10, an organizer with Service Employees International Union Fight for a Fair Economy, and two retail employees from Chicago and Texas who are grassroots advocates for improved working conditions. They were Kenyanna Brown, a member of the Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago and Colby Harris, a member of Organization United for Respect at Walmart.

Patrick O'Neill, executive vice president and organizing director of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, as the Alice B. Grant Labor Leader in Residence during Union Days, met with classes taught by ILR faculty members Tove Hammer, Risa Lieberwitz, Michael Gold, Chris Riddell and Lowell Turner.

He began the Union Days keynote address by thanking the 130 audience members for their activism – "it's important for workers to know somebody has their back."

Colby Harris, Organization United for Respect at WalmartWorkers at Walmart and elsewhere seek respect from their employers, he said. "That's what they want, every day, on the job."

Worker actions focusing attention on Walmart around the Thanksgiving shopping kickoff have international significance, he said. Walmart is the largest employer in the world, operating in 27 countries with 2.2 million workers and $500 billion in annual revenue.

In the United States, Walmart associates have held more than 1,200 actions in the past six months and are connecting with one another through social media activity, O'Neill said.

Incremental changes for better working conditions are occurring, but there are not enough changes, O'Neill said. Strikes and an "Occupy Bentonville" action at Walmart's Arkansas headquarters are planned for 2013, he said. "It's pretty exciting."

"If we can change Walmart, we can change America," said O'Neill, who began his union career on the kill floor of an Iowa slaughterhouse, then rose through the ranks of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

It is the largest private sector union in North America, representing retail employees, nurses, child care providers, sanitation workers and others. It supports grassroots Walmart organizing campaigns that have developed in the past year.