Hands off Medicare and Social Security! – Demand US workers at rally on Capitol Hill

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SENATOR Warren, and the Koch Sisters led the rally to protect Social Security, and Medicare organised by AFSCME members at the ‘Hands Off’ rally on September 18.

Vowing that she and other Democrats ‘will not stand by and let Social Security be cut or allow Medicare to be gutted,’ US Sen. Elizabeth Warren rallied some 300 activists on Capitol Hill last Thursday.

She was joined by the anti-Koch brothers ‘Koch Sisters’ and several other members of Congress who promised to stand strong against tea-party attacks on the social safety net.

‘They are trying to create a crisis so they can cut Social Security and Medicare, but there is no crisis,’ Warren said. There may be a health care crisis in this country, but it’s Medicare – with the improvements brought by the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare – that is fixing our problem. Medicare is lowering health care costs not only for seniors, but for every American.’

The Koch Sisters, in Washington to work with the AFL-CIO on the campaign to support worker-friendly candidates this autumn, said they received lots of support for calling out the billionaire Koch brothers, who support tea-party candidates nationally and at the state and local levels.

‘We’ve got a message for politicians who want to mess with Social Security,’ said Joyce Koch. ‘Don’t even try it!’

Also addressing the boisterous rally was Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), who is running to fill Sen. Tom Harkin’s open Senate seat.

‘I have voted against raising the retirement age several times, and I will never agree to it,’ he said.

‘What we need to do is raise the minimum wage, which will add another $55 billion to the Social Security coffers.’

The rally was sponsored by Americans United for Change, the AFL-CIO and a dozen unions, including AFSCME. Senator Warren was introduced by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

‘We need more leaders like Elizabeth Warren who will stand with us to defend Social Security and Medicare,’ she said. ‘Those are the leaders we will stand with on Election Day.’

Warren said she was happy to recite the numbers on Social Security ‘because the numbers are on our side. We have built a system that will last another 20 years before we have to make any changes. But this is about values, how we live and what we do together,’ she said.

‘Our Social Security system says something about the dignity of human beings, that when you work a lifetime you deserve the dignity of a decent retirement.’

Meanwhile, for the first time ever, the US government announced that it will begin the formal consultations that are used to resolve trade disputes in the area of labour rights enforcement.

The United States Trade Representative (USTR) announced that it will finally move forward to arbitration in the long-running dispute with the government of Guatemala regarding whether or not Guatemala is meeting the labour commitments of the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA or CAFTA).

In announcing the decision, the USTR stated that the goal is to improve conditions that workers face every day.

The AFL-CIO welcomed the announcement by the US government to resume the arbitration process with Guatemala, to ensure that the government of Guatemala will live up to the very basic commitments it made to effectively enforce its own labour laws.

It stated: ‘This decision comes after a string of broken promises and missed deadlines on the part of the Guatemalan government.

‘These broken promises have left workers behind and have contributed to the lack of decent work and security that has driven desperate families to seek refuge for their children in the United States.

‘Six years ago, the AFL-CIO – together with Guatemalan unions – filed a petition concerning widespread and serious labour rights violations in Guatemala – including the numerous murders of trade unionists that were not being addressed or investigated by the government.

‘When DR-CAFTA was signed, both parties promised to enforce their own labour laws and respect international labour standards, so that increased trade and investment would lead to better jobs and economic opportunities.

‘Unfortunately, this has not been the reality for Guatemala’s workers. Since 2007, more than 70 Guatemalan unionists have been murdered for exercising their fundamental rights, while many more have been fired.

‘On Jan. 4, a 19-year-old construction worker named Marlon Dagoberto Vasquez Lopez, a passionate young activist who encouraged other young people to get involved in civic politics, was shot and killed for his activism. A week later, someone fired shots at 11 banana workers outside their union office. One was struck by a bullet but survived.

‘The persistent violence and lack of decent work have also contributed to the current flow of unaccompanied minors arriving at our borders. We must recognise that one root cause of this is the lack of economic opportunity in countries like Guatemala.

‘We can and must do better for workers, so they can prosper from trade and not be forced to send their children far from home.

‘AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, in applauding the decision to move to arbitration, explained:

Right now, government officials, industry spokespeople and advocacy groups from Pacific nations, Europe and the US have been negotiating new rules on proposed international trade agreements – the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) and TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership).

‘We must ensure that these agreements are indeed different from CAFTA – that the mechanisms to protect workers’ rights and the environment are powerful enough to do the job – and in a timely way. These trade deals must create good jobs for workers in the US and in our trading partners.

‘Broad lessons should be learned from this process. In the context of the TPP and TTIP, what happens as a result of this arbitration process sends a clear message to our trading partners that meeting their obligations and enforcing core labour rights are fundamental to our trade and investment relationship.’

‘America and the world need new trade rules, rules that lead to increased economic opportunities and better working conditions for workers and their families. These new rules include stronger labour protections and more effective enforcement. But, as we have long argued, there is so much more.

‘Workers cannot benefit from trade if they are not free to join together and act collectively to improve their wages and working conditions. The United Nations has recognised the rights to organise and bargain collectively as fundamental rights.

It is time for the government of Guatemala to meet its obligations to its working people – and the world – and to defend these fundamental rights, now.’

The dispute started back in April 2008, when six Guatemalan unions and the AFL-CIO filed a complaint with the US Office of Trade raising a number of serious concerns, including trade union violence.

The petition argued that Guatemala failed to enforce its own labour laws and its commitments to respect, promote and realise core workers’ rights.

Since then, the situation has only deteriorated. From 2008 to 2013, there have been 30 documented assassinations of union members, according to the UN Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).

Furthermore, there have been numerous acts of attempted murder, torture, kidnappings, break-ins and death threats. This culture of intimidation and impunity has prompted the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) to name it the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists.

Even so, a compromise was reached in April 2013, when the US and Guatemala agreed on an 18-point enforcement plan to strengthen labour inspections, increase compliance by exporting companies, improve enforcement court orders, among other measures.

The plan was supposed to be completely implemented by April 2014. Guatemala has been granted several extensions up until now to give it ‘one last chance’.

By taking Guatemala to arbitration, the US Office of Trade has acknowledged that very little was done to comply with Guatemala’s obligation to simply enforce its own laws.

‘Today the US government took the correct decision to make it clear that without workers’ rights, Guatemala cannot be inserted into the global economy’, said Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the ITUC.

‘The business community pressed very hard for CAFTA, despite the well-known and serious violations. This move should give the employer community pause and hopefully provoke deep reforms in their supply chains’.

As well as the US, Guatemala has also an association agreement with the European Union.