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COLUMN LEFT : Friendly Fire on the Home Front : The President’s gutted rights bill uses race to camouflage an assault on workers.

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An open letter to President Bush:

With the stunning victory of our troops in the Persian Gulf, you have the support of a grateful people, and the opportunity and obligation to use this moment to keep America strong, to make America better.

How disheartening then that your first domestic initiative is a plan to gut the 1991 civil-rights bill with divisive proposals, crafted by large corporations to strike at the most vulnerable working Americans.

You stood with the troops as commander in chief while they were risking their lives for the country. Now, as they prepare to return home to the nation’s grateful embrace, you are unleashing friendly fire on those same soldiers and their relatives. For it is the soldiers, the sons and daughters of working people, their families and friends, who are most wounded by the weakening of civil-rights protections for workers.

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I urge you to reconsider the bill that was introduced in your name. America was victorious in the Gulf in part because of the unified support offered the troops. Why now shatter that unity by returning to a divisive, race-based, anti-worker politics?

Today you are a political Goliath with few willing to stand in your way. But an authentic community of conscience will fight for the civil-rights bill of 1991. We, like little David, have a small sling, but a large principle and strong hearts. Our prospects may seem dim, but our cause is just. We will not bow. We will continue to fight to protect workers from employer discrimination and mistreatment.

You unleashed these Scud proposals to terrorize white workers about blacks and Latinos, but the most poisonous effects fall on working women. You would limit the right of women to gain damages for sexual discrimination. Why? Surely we believe as a community that discrimination by race, sex or religion is equally offensive and has no place in our democracy.

Today more women work than ever before. They work for the same reason men do--to provide for their children, to build a better tomorrow for themselves and their families. At work, they face many forms of entrenched discrimination.

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They are relegated to “women’s jobs.” They suffer sexual harassment, They come up against “glass ceilings.” They receive 70% of the wages that a man gets, but pay no less for bread, for milk, for rent. Too often, they work a double shift, on the job all day and then overtime at home, caring for children, fixing the meals, cleaning the house at night. Why deny them equal protection under the law?

Your bill uses race to camouflage a corporate assault on workers. Under your proposal, companies could require workers to sign away their right to sue against discrimination, forcing the most vulnerable to choose between their need for work and their right to dignity. Corporations can defend discrimination on the ground that it “significantly serves” a legitimate business purpose. So a corporation can refuse to hire a Japanese-American because it thinks its customers resent the Japanese. A corporation bidding in Kuwait may dismiss its Jewish employees to please the contractor.

You know that the claim that the civil-rights bill of 1991 would set quotas is simply not true. Racial, sexual and religious discrimination at home must be fought with the same passion mobilized against aggression abroad. In the Gulf, you laid down goals, set targets, demanded timetables and damages in defending the rights of Kuwait. The civil-rights bill of 1991 calls not for quotas, but for goals, timetables and damages in protecting the rights of workers at home.

Recently, you said that so many blacks are in the military because it is an equal-opportunity employer. The military is also an affirmative-action recruiter. Equal opportunity and affirmative action should apply to civilian life as well, to corporate America, to your appointments.

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For too long, we have had a two-track system. The sacrifice of African-Americans in battle advanced civil rights in the military faster than in society. President Truman signed a civil-rights bill for the military in 1948. Congress did not pass a civil-rights bill for civilians until 1964. You should end this two-track system. If Americans who have been historically locked out gain equal rights in civilian life as they have in military life, America will be better for it.

I have prayed with Vietnam veterans who sleep on the grates in the park outside your window. This must not happen to Persian Gulf veterans. We cannot love the troops when they leave to die for us and abandon them when they return to live with us. Please use your new popularity to support and strengthen the civil-rights bill of 1991. The passion for a new world cannot be limited to the desert.


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