Michael Italie made these comments during an interview here August 19. The Socialist Workers Party candidate for mayor of Miami in the 2001 elections, Italie was fired by his employer last October after appearing in a televised debate with other mayoral candidates. During the program Italie spoke out against the U.S. war in Afghanistan, in defense of the Cuban Revolution, and in support of union organizing efforts.
Goodwill chief executive officer Dennis Pastrana later acknowledged that Italie had been fired because of his political statements, telling the Miami Herald October 30 that "we cannot have anyone who is attempting to subvert America."
"The right of a worker to hold and advocate views contrary to the policies of the U.S. government won a considerable hearing in Miami and around the country," explained Italie, who spent several months speaking in numerous cities at forums, to campus groups, and to workers and farmers about his fight.
The ACLU-sponsored forum held here on July 18 at Books and Books, a popular shopping outlet, was attended by 75 people. "The program was chaired by Florida International University (FIU) professor Max Castro. I spoke along with Nova University Law Professor Mike Masinter, and Fred Frost from the South Florida Labor Council," said Italie.
"In my presentation I explained that my firing was part of the so-called ‘war on terrorism’ waged by the U.S. government in Afghanistan, as part of expanding imperialist domination of the region. The corollary to this at home was an attack on workers’ rights, like singling out Arab immigrants to be rounded up and jailed without charges."
Attacks on workers’ rights
The attacks on workers’ rights did not begin with September 11, continued Italie. The Bush administration intensified the attacks begun under the previous administration of William Clinton. This included arrests of immigrants without charges, the doubling of the prison population during the Democratic administration, and the openly pro-death penalty character of the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.
"Now the Bush administration has arrested even some U.S. citizens and is trying to deny them access to a lawyer and other due process," Italie said. "In this city alone the INS is holding over 200 Haitian refugees who are seeking asylum. In a blatant case of discrimination, the INS openly says it is keeping these refugees in maximum security prison in order to discourage other Haitians from coming to this country," Italie stated.
"The fight against my firing was a part of the resistance of working people to these attacks on workers’ rights," he emphasized.
I asked Italie about the significance of the ACLU sponsoring the forum. "The forum was very important from that point of view," said Italie. "The ACLU declined to take up the case last fall and Greater Miami ACLU president Lida Rodriguez-Taseff was quoted in the Miami Herald on October 31 as saying, ‘Employees don’t have a First Amendment right to express their political views if they work for private employers. Employers have a First Amendment right to associate with people who have political opinions they approve of.’
"Many in the ACLU disagreed with this official position," said Italie, "and their sponsorship of the forum was a significant example of this. I think the ACLU made a big mistake in not taking up the fight against my firing. Though the courts have ruled consistently against workers who have been fired for expressing political ideas, I don’t agree that the Constitution gives employers a green light to fire people for speaking out publicly. In this instance a worker running for office was denied employment, which is designed to have a chilling effect on other workers who may want to run for office who oppose one or another aspect of U.S. government policy.
"I believe the fact that the ACLU did not take on this clear violation of freedom of speech was a blow to workers’ rights."
Debate at public forum
This issue was at the center of the debate at the forum, Italie said.
Panel speaker Masinter from Nova University Law School, while expressing concern over what he described as the injustice of my firing, told the crowd that he was concerned that the right to association be maintained and that this extends to private employers like Goodwill. Otherwise, he said, organizations like the ACLU could be forced to hire Nazis if the right to association was violated. Masinter said that workers needed the protection of unions to make sure their rights aren’t trampled on.
"Rodriguez-Taseff spoke from the floor," said Italie. She too expressed regret about the ACLU not taking up the fight, but stated that if they did they would be subject to employers winning damages against the ACLU for filing frivolous lawsuits.
Others in the audience strongly disagreed with this approach, continued Italie. John Due, legal counsel for the NAACP here, told the crowd that the problem was that more people didn’t take up this fight when it began last year. Due said the ACLU and others should have rallied to the fight because a clear violation of rights had taken place.
ACLU Board member Walter Williams said the ACLU shied away from taking up the fight of $5.15-an-hour workers.
In concluding the interview Italie summarized what was accomplished during the struggle against Goodwill.
"My fight has scored an important victory in making Goodwill pay a political price for my firing," he said. "My national tour helped to deepen the understanding of the importance of defending workers’ rights and brought together workers and young people fighting the imperialist war drive and the deepening economic crisis.
"In October I will be joining the staff of the Militant newspaper," Italie reported enthusiastically.
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