Black unionists assail wage, wealth gaps

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Stressing civil rights and labor rights, delegates eye 2008 elections

CHICAGO — Answering the question, “Are the civil rights and labor movements united?” with a resounding “more than ever,” the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists held its 36th international convention here May 23-28.

More than 1,200 union leaders and rank-and-file members came from 70 U.S. and Canadian cities to participate in the convention, held at the Hyatt Regency Chicago.

The gathering, which delivered a blistering critique of wage and wealth inequality, gave a rousing welcome to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.

William Lucy, president of the CBTU, declared, “The rich and powerful have apparently concluded that millions of people in this country and millions more around the world are permanently expendable.”

“In their hands, war, famine, disease, incarceration and random violence have now become the real weapons of mass destruction, eliminating those who can no longer be absorbed into the economic system or be exploited by its corporate masters,” he said.

Lucy, international secretary-treasurer of the 1.4-million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and a member of the AFL-CIO’s executive council, told the cheering delegates that “this convention more than any poll or political pundit is the true barometer of the mood and priorities of Black workers: get out of Iraq, continue to change the makeup of Congress, kick the Republicans out of the White House and close the obscene wage-wealth gap between rich and poor.”

He warned the convention, however, that despite “the historic defeat of Republicans in Congress and in the Senate in 2006, we cannot rest. Time is running short to close the economic gap between the haves and the have-nots.”

Lucy and others at the convention noted that Black workers have been hardest hit by layoffs and by cuts in the “social safety net.” For Blacks, they noted, the safety net has never been more than paper-thin.

Lucy also laced into the White House foreign policy team. “When you pair George W. Bush with Dead-eye Dick Cheney, the modern day Machiavelli, you have the scariest White House duo since Nixon and Agnew. They have turned the Department of Defense into the Department of Evil.”

Introducing Obama to the convention, Lucy emphasized that to gain labor’s support, all candidates, whatever the office, must support labor’s agenda and especially the strengthening of the right to organize and the Employee Free Choice Act.

“I believe it is significant but not surprising that Senator Obama chose to speak at a convention of 1,200 Black trade unionists during this phase of his campaign,” Lucy said.

“He understands, as he has said, that when workers can join unions, not only do workers prosper, but America prospers.

“Senator Obama knows,” Lucy added, “that Black union activists bring a reservoir of political experience and energy that has benefited past presidential candidates like the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Bill Clinton.”

Obama spoke out strongly for the Employee Free Choice Act, saying “it strengthens union organizing rights and establishes meaningful penalties for employers who violate workers’ rights.” Calling current labor law “outmoded” and “unable to advance workers’ rights,” Obama said, “the National Labor Relations Board too often works for companies, not for labor.”

The delegates gave Obama a standing ovation when he declared, “We need a president who doesn’t choke when he says the word ‘union.’”

Obama spoke out for peace, noting that “$275 million a day could be put into health care and schools if we stop this disgraceful war in Iraq.”

The CBTU delegates spent an entire day planning upcoming political actions. Noting labor’s important role in defeating the extreme right in the 2006 elections, they launched a sophisticated voter registration drive involving the enrollment of 1 million new voters in key districts across the country. Each of those new voters will be responsible for enrolling five additional voters from their shops or communities. If the plan works, 6 million new pro-labor voters will cast ballots in key districts in 2008.

Karen Ackerman, political action director for the AFL-CIO, told the delegates, “Gone are the days when labor can afford to remain neutral in any election.”

In an impressive presentation on the labor movement’s strategy and tactics in the coming elections, Ackerman said the AFL-CIO has targeted key races so labor can focus on particular House and Senate contests in 2008.

She emphasized that labor’s presence in the electoral arena must go beyond 2008.

“Even when we increase our majorities in the House and Senate and when we take back the White House in ’08, we cannot relax,” Ackerman said. She showed, state by state, how labor will target gubernatorial and state legislative races all over the country so that in 2011, when congressional redistricting takes place, the extreme right will not be able to use the process to undermine pro-labor people or to elect right-wingers.

jwojcik @pww.org