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2011 American Rights at Work Awards Celebration

America’s workers and middle class have a voice, and that voice will be heard.

That was the emphatic message of our 7th Annual American Rights at Work Awards Celebration, held June 20, 2011, at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. Reflecting the diversity of the worker’s rights movement, that message was delivered in a variety of ways, from the soulful to the cerebral. As Kimberly Freeman Brown, executive director of American Rights at Work, put it, "Our aim is to show the Wisconsin teacher and the Washington machinist that they are not alone."

SOULcial Justice kicked off the celebration, which honors the recipients of the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Awards. The troupe had the audience of over 400 on their feet, and thanks to the joyful performance by the dancers, the tone was set for a night of passion and purpose.

The Awards Celebration opened with a stark juxtaposition of the difference between socially irresponsible and responsible businesses. Bo McCurry, an employee of a Philips plant in Sparta, Tenn., shared with the audience a heart-rending account from the front lines of the war on America’s workers. McCurry’s plant was repeatedly honored as productive and effective, yet Philips is closing the plant and is outsourcing those jobs to Mexico. In contrast, Oregon’s United Streetcar was held up as an example for other businesses to emulate. Thanks to a labor-management partnership with the IBEW and the Ironworkers, United Streetcar has revived a clean-energy industry in the United States. Receiving the award on behalf of the company, United Streetcar President Chandra Brown told the audience that she was representing not just the company on stage, but “the welders, the machinists, the electricians, and all the men and women building these machines.”

Sandy Carpenter, an organizer for UFCW, presented actor and activist James Cromwell with his award. Carpenter, a former Walmart associate who was fired for defending the rights of her coworkers, praised Cromwell’s dedication to workers’ rights, including his work in calling attention to Walmart’s abuses. A lifetime supporter of fair employment practices, Cromwell has stood in picket lines with grocery store workers, served on the boards of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and appeared in commercials promoting Brave New Films’ scathing Walmart documentary. Cromwell delivered a stirring and thoughtful speech that had the audience inspired and energized.

The final honorees of the evening were the organizations and individuals who founded American Rights at Work. David Bonior, our chair, recalled the purpose that motivated the founders back in 2003: to change the dialogue and let it be known that the fight for workers’ rights impacts everyone. Accepting the award on behalf of the founders was Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America. Cohen was joined on stage by his fellow founders and workers from across the country, including newly organized employees at Piedmont Airlines. In a rousing speech, Cohen reinforced the lesson of the evening: we know what happens when workers’ rights are denied, and we know there is an alternative.

Watch a slideshow of photos from the evening!

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