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A Call to Arms for Civil Rights Activists

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Today I issued a call to arms to the civil rights activists of the United Steelworkers union.

This was no summons to warfare, though.

To the contrary, I challenged USW civil rights committee members to shield the downtrodden in society, to aid those felled by the current economic crisis, to serve as their brothers' and sisters' keepers, not just for labor union companions, but for all fellow community members.

This is a call to arms because it will involve heavy lifting, I warned the USW committees at their 15th International Civil and Human Rights Conference in Pittsburgh, Pa.

We'll get a feel for it this week as 85 of us lug books and movies to be donated to Pittsburgh's Children's Hospital, unpack boxes of food and stock shelves at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank in Duquesne, and distribute recyclable bags containing fruit to residents of Pittsburgh Housing Authority's 10 senior citizen communities.

This economic downturn mangled the budgets of our food pantries, churches, schools, charities, even our local governments. The Great Recession has left them under-resourced and under-staffed. And that is hurting our children, our elderly parents, our fragile relatives and our communities' health.

We hear their plea. It is our communities calling us to arms. And we will reach out in response to them.

That does not diminish our civil rights committees' traditional duties. These are crucial and will continue. They will investigate civil rights complaints and explain the value of diversity.

These functions simply can't be set aside. That is what happened in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department during the long, dark Bush years. A Government Accountability Office audit of the division's activity showed a significant drop in litigation in several major anti-discrimination and voting rights areas during the Bush years. The Bush department pursued fewer cases when compared to enforcement during the Clinton years, according to the report released early in December.

This, of course, was deliberate by the Bush administration, which did not believe in enforcing civil rights law. We will not allow our new duties in the community to distract us from vigilantly pursuing civil rights complaints filed with our committees. Instead, we will assume this new function as an additional role.

It is a role that is basic to unions, which have always struggled to improve conditions for their members and their families.

At this moment, it's vital that labor union civil rights activists everywhere - not just at the USW -- take inspiration from the Dr. Martin Luther King Day of Service and intercede for the sake of their communities so hobbled by the effects of Wall Street recklessness.

Families are suffering under the highest unemployment in a quarter century. For every single job opening available, 6.3 unemployed job seekers are desperate to take it. Those who lose out are forfeiting their homes. Every month, banks file another 330,000 new foreclosure notices and seize another 75,000 homes.

Those lucky enough to have jobs have been pinched by pay and benefit cuts, furloughs and shortened hours. The average work week is 33.2, nearly 7 hours short of 40, costing many workers nearly a whole day's wages. The Center for Economic and Policy Research calculates that workers haven't endured the worst of it yet. In its report, "The $1 Trillion Wage Deficit," the Center estimates that unemployment will cost workers more next year than this in lost income.

Families that can't make mortgage payments also can't meet tax obligations. Then local governments and school districts are caught short. Low tax revenues meant $30 billion in budget shortfalls for states this year, and as a result, they will will send even less money to aid cities and schools next year. Families without income don't eat out or frequent local shops, so those decline. Contributions to local religious organizations and charities slack off, so at the very moment when their services are most needed, they're least able to respond. The connections among people and groups so fundamental to community begin to dissipate and deteriorate.

So I propose that union civil rights activists volunteer to do whatever they can to fill those gaps in community service. Like workers across this country, our civil rights activists have suffered layoffs and furloughs and work week reductions. So stepping forward as cash cows is unrealistic. But we can step up as volunteers, in our church groups, community organizations and schools. Our hands can help hold it together during these trying times.

We can link arms to help our communities. That is my call to arms.