More than 30 people attended a meeting at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte (UNCC) January 23 to learn about Italie's fight to defend workers' rights. Joining him on the platform was Ahmad Daniels, the former director of minority affairs in Mecklenburg County. Daniels was forced to resign from that post last October, after he wrote a letter to a local paper stating that the fight against racism didn't end on September 11.
Several people traveled to the meeting from Greensboro, over an hour away, including four young people who heard about the meeting at a Palestinian rights protest a week earlier.
Virginia Jordan of the UNCC Campus Greens welcomed people to the event and introduced Italie, noting the importance of defending freedom of speech at the university campus. The Campus Greens cosponsored the program along with the local Committee to Defend Freedom of Speech and the Bill of Rights.
Italie showed a brief video of television coverage of his case, and described how the bosses at Goodwill fired him for comments he made in an election debate as the Socialist Workers candidate for mayor of Miami on October 18. As part of these remarks Italie said he opposed the U.S. rulers' war in Afghanistan, favored workers building their unions, and supported the Cuban Revolution.
In his talk here, Italie pointed to the inhumane treatment of Afghan prisoners at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as an example of the connection between the U.S. rulers' war abroad and the intensified attacks on workers' rights at home. What the U.S. government is organizing at Guantanamo--trying to dehumanize hundreds of people it has captured and organizing an affront to the people of revolutionary Cuba--"is an extension of the assault by the employers and their government against working people at home," Italie said.
In his presentation and in answer to a question, he talked about other people he has met during his tour who are also standing up and fighting employer and government victimizations. He pointed to a press conference he attended recently in Florida for Sami Al-Arian, who is fighting an attempt by the University of South Florida to fire him.
"We have to challenge those who say we can't speak at a time like this," said Ahmad Daniels in his presentation. He reviewed the events that led to county manager Harry Jones demanding that Daniels "resign by noon or you'll be fired at 2 p.m." for writing a letter that Jones claimed was "somewhat inflammatory, divisive." Daniels urged those attending the forum to speak out "against an unjust war and for freedom of speech." He also appealed for funds to support Italie's fight; about $200 was contributed on-the-spot.
Howard McLure of the Carolina Advocates for Legal Reform and Ammar Alyounes, director of the Islamic Center of Charlotte, also addressed the meeting. McLure explained that his organization advocates for representation of low and middle-income people who have been wrongfully terminated. "We need to find ways to combat this situation," McLure said.
Alyounes noted that immediately following September 11 "the Arab and Muslim communities were subjected to all forms of abuse. If you didn't offer an apology [for the attack on the World Trade Center], you were viewed as an accessory." He denounced the Bush administration for freezing the funds of Islamic charities "at the sign of a pen."
Leonard Riley, from International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) Local 1422 in Charleston, South Carolina, was unable to attend but sent a message to the Charlotte meeting (see below).
Leading up to the event at UNCC, supporters of the Committee to Defend Freedom of Speech and the Bill of Rights collected more than 75 signatures on petitions asking the mayor of Miami to pressure Goodwill to reinstate Italie. One-third of those signatures were from members of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) at two Pillowtex plants in nearby Kannapolis.
Discussions with dockworkers
In Charleston, Italie and a supporter set up an information table at the ILA union hall, which is the hiring hall for unionized dockworkers. Many workers stopped to talk with the socialist worker and took fact sheets about his case. Some signed petitions supporting his fight and dropped a few dollars into a collection can.
A number of the dockworkers described the fight they went through to defend the Charleston Five--five ILA members accused of "riot" after police assaulted a union picket line two years ago. They had been picketing Nordana shipping company, which was using the nonunion WSI stevedoring outfit instead of ILA labor. Felony charges against the ILA members were dropped last fall, after a national and international defense campaign. The union local and 27 of its members are still fighting against a lawsuit brought by WSI for supposed damages caused by ILA members defending their union.
David King, who is in the process of joining the Longshoremen's union, readily signed a petition to support Italie. "I used to work for Goodwill and was fired unjustly," King said. He had worked as a driver picking up donations. "Most of the Blacks who worked there were gotten rid of," he added. King also described how, in his view, "Goodwill takes advantage of immigrant labor" to pay rock-bottom wages.
"Most of my co-workers were immigrants," Italie responded. "They take the low wages because it's a job. But once they're in a job, they fight for their rights. While I worked at Goodwill I, along with other co-workers, went to rallies for immigrant rights."
As part of a nationwide tour, Italie is scheduled to speak next in San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver, British Columbia.
To schedule speaking engagements for Michael Italie in your area, please send the proposed dates and events planned to the Committee to Defend Freedom of Speech and the Bill of Rights, P.O. Box 510127, Miami, FL, 33151-0127. Tel: (305) 724-5965 or E-mail: DefendFreeSpeech@yahoo.com
The committee is urgently in need of funds to produce literature, pay for phone calls, and plan travel. Financial contributions, large and small, can be sent to the above address. Please make checks out to the Free Speech Defense Fund.
Naomi Craine is textile worker and a member of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees. Dean Hazlewood contributed to this article.
The following message from Leonard Riley Jr., a member of the executive board of International Longshoremen's Association Local 1422 in Charleston, South Carolina, was sent to the "Defend Freedom of Speech" meeting held January 23 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
I am very sorry and deeply disappointed that I am unable to resolve my work situation so that I could attend this most important forum. I am sure it will be a great success in keeping the efforts alive to combat those forces in our great country that have organized to deprive those persons with different views of their fundamental rights, including but not limited to Freedom of Speech.
These forces seek to suppress the expressions of any person or groups that see the issues differently from the power brokers. While we all may have a different take on what should be the response to the acts of September 11, 2001, it is critically important to remember and emphasize that the Constitution of the United States of America guarantees each of us the right to express how we feel about any issue. These guarantees extend to all modes of communication, speech, writing, picket lines, entertainment, etc.
I am a member of the International Longshoremen's Association, Local 1422, in Charleston, S.C. We are a union that loads and unloads ships that come into the Port of Charleston. We are in all probability the largest union in South Carolina. We are also a predominately Black local. Since 1997 we have been more socially and politically active. We made a conscious decision to advocate for all workers, union or not, and champion the causes that would better the community in which we live.
We became politically active, helping to elect those who said they would fight for social change in our community. We became vocal against divisive symbols such as the Confederate Flag (flying atop the statehouse). We also successfully lobbied for our state to honor Dr. Martin Luther King with a State holiday. Along with the strength of our numbers, we used our money to fight these and many other social ills.
On January 20, 2000, while legally picketing a Nordana ship because of its refusal to use the ILA and breaking a five-year contract, the fiercely antiunion State Government and allies such as the State Chamber of Commerce and the Manufacturers' Alliance coordinated a military attack on our picket line. This resulted in my being arrested along with nine others. Five members were eventually indicted and placed under house arrest for nearly two years. They became known as the Charleston Five. They could not travel nor could they be out of their homes before 7:00 a.m. or after 7:00 p.m. unless they were at work.
Thanks to the support from trade unionists, workers, and freedom lovers and social activists from across America and around the world, enough pressure was put on State Attorney General Charlie Condon and the judicial process that they were forced to drop these trumped-up felonious charges. They woke a sleeping giant.
So I, along with my Brothers and Sisters, fully understand the unjust firing of both brothers Michael Italie and Ahmad Daniels. We fully support the struggle to have these courageous Brothers reinstated to their jobs and to have them fully compensated for time and benefits missed from being out of work. Our Local will follow this case very closely. Where there is a picket line to protest these unjust firings we will be there. We have learnt firsthand that an injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere. An injury to one is an injury to all. Keep up the struggle, we will win because we are right.
This is a most appropriate time for such a forum during a time when our nation celebrates the legacy of Dr. King, who so wisely reminded us that if America is to remain a first-class nation, there can be no second-class citizen. Freedom of speech, as well as all of the rights laid out in the Constitution of the United States of America, belongs to all of its citizens.
The following letter was sent Jan. 28, 2002, to Miami mayor Manny Diaz and to the city commissioners by the Union of Union Representatives Executive Board. It was signed by Kathy Guyton, president; Greg Maron, Western Region vice president, Aly Young, secretary; Kristen Wilke, Central Region vice president; Dave Beal, treasurer; Richard Schwartz, Southern Region vice president; Calvin Jackson, chapter chair; Dawn Quaresima, Eastern Region vice president; and Gilda Turner, district 925 chair.
We are writing to demand that you pressure Goodwill Industries to reinstate fired employee Michael Italie. As you know, Mr. Italie was fired by Goodwill simply because management disagreed with his political viewpoint. His work performance was not an issue, and the political comments for which he was fired were made during mayoral debates and have no relevance to his employment with Goodwill Industries.
Goodwill is a "private" organization, but as a public charity they are exempt from federal taxation and have noncompetitive rights to supply goods to the government. Thus, the legality of this situation is tenuous. However, the real issue here is not whether Mr. Italie's firing is legal, but if it is just. As public officials, you have an obligation to serve the citizens of Miami and to speak out against threats to their civil liberties. Indeed, the specter of censorship should not loom over the heads of Miami's working people. In the wake of the devastating events of September 11, now more than ever we must embody the ideals of freedom and democracy of which we are so proud.
As working men and women living outside of Miami, we are concerned that this gross violation of Mr. Italie's democratic right to free speech, if unchecked, could set a dangerous precedent of trumping individual freedoms in favor of corporate power. We are calling on you to defend the right of free speech and to use your considerable influence to reinstate Mr. Italie.
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