07/19/2011 12:19 pm ET | Updated Sep 18, 2011

Standing Up for Economic Rights Is a Human Right

One week before we celebrated Fourth of July to commemorate our freedom and independence, I traveled to Cairo, Egypt, to meet with teachers union leaders from Arab Spring countries, who are struggling to win their own revolutions for freedom and independence. As I listened to the stories of these brave men and women, who are putting their lives at great risk to win political and economic freedom for their fellow citizens, I was reminded of the work done by my predecessors, Al Shanker and Sandy Feldman, when they supported President Reagan's efforts to help bring freedom to emerging countries in Eastern Europe. They worked closely with Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel and many others, and they strongly believed that political and economic freedom was a human right and a pillar of democracy, and that all citizens of the world aspired to it.

As we traded ideas in Cairo, and I lent my support and commitment to their cause, we all acknowledged how difficult their journey toward freedom would be. In most of the Arab Spring countries, the minimum wage for workers is less than $1 a day, and you can be jailed and tortured for organizing workers seeking higher wages, safer workplaces and a greater voice in how they are treated. Dissent is not allowed. Efforts to establish economic rights and voice are stamped out. Hopes and dreams of the people are deferred and denied.

But the spark of freedom lies deep in their souls, and nowhere is that more evident than in Cairo's Tahrir Square, which I visited with my fellow teachers union leaders. We stood on the ground where the revolution in Egypt was waged and the hope for a new beginning was won. We could feel the optimism of the people in the square as they looked ahead to writing a new constitution and holding free and fair elections. And we could sense the solemn spirit of the martyrs who lost their lives in pursuit of economic dignity and freedom. Several Egyptians I met in the square and around Cairo during our four-day stay asked if I was American. When I proudly acknowledged that I was, they said: "Welcome to the new Egypt." In that simple exchange, they expressed the national pride in what they had accomplished and their hope for a better future.

The struggle for economic voice and dignity being waged in Egypt and the other Arab Spring countries contrasts with what is occurring in several states here in our own country. As Arab citizens take to the streets, at great risk, to secure economic rights and democratic voice in their respective countries, several extremist governors and advocates are stripping American workers of their economic rights and voice by working to eliminate or weaken collective bargaining and voter protections. Govs. Walker, Snyder and Kasich used the budget crisis as an excuse to take away the economic voice of workers -- even though workers did not cause the budget crisis. Rather than listen to the voters in their respective states, who are strongly opposed to cutting public education for children and stripping teachers, nurses and firefighters of their rights, these governors and their advocates rammed through bills that crush the rights of workers who demand to have a voice in the workplace.

There was an opportunity to have a legitimate debate on how all of us -- public employees, the very wealthy and taxpayers who receive vital public services -- could share responsibly through shared sacrifice to meet the challenges of the budget. Instead, these governors chose to abuse their power and eliminate the very economic rights and democratic voice that Egyptian workers and others in Arab Spring countries are fighting to secure.

This irony was not lost on me during the Fourth of July weekend, and I suspect it was not lost on the many others who watched the heroic efforts of those in Tahrir Square and compared it with the governors' actions in Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan -- despite the huge outpouring of protests taking place in these states. Thankfully, we live in a country that allows voters to check abuse of power. Gov. Walker's actions were so unpopular that voters in Wisconsin signed petitions to recall several state legislators and force them to stand for election to defend why they stripped workers of their rights. And in Ohio, more than 1.3 million voters signed petitions to allow a statewide vote on whether to reject the anti-worker bill that passed in the state Legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Kasich.

Standing up and fighting for the economic rights and democratic voice of workers is a human right that is universal to all citizens of the world. I hope my brothers and sisters from the Arab Spring countries will be watching.