Labor returns to Memphis for Martin Luther King Day events

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (PAI)--The labor movement will return to Memphis, Tenn., site of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination as he was supporting striking African-American sanitation workers, for its 40th anniversary commemoration of the great civil rights leader’s birth.

The events, from Jan. 17-21, will include “a day of commemoration and reflection on the Memphis sanitation workers courageous strike, political training to prepare ourselves for the important 2008 elections and community service,” said UNITE HERE Vice President Clayola Brown, president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, and Richard Womack, MLK Labor Committee co-chair, with Brown.

“This was a valiant strike of men who dared to take a stand for dignity and respect on the job,” they said in the call to attend the events in Memphis. “This strike was also Dr. King’s final campaign. In Memphis, the labor movement will come together to remember Dr. King and the sanitation workers strike. We will join with our allies at the observance to advance the agenda for civil and workers’ rights and to carry on Dr. King’s legacy.”

The 40th anniversary commemoration comes as the union movement, particularly the AFL-CIO, continues to wrestle with how to implement the diversity agenda, called Resolution #2, its convention approved in 2005. That conclave set a goal of having union leadership reflect the composition of union membership, in representation of women, people of color and sexual orientation.

Four diversity summits last year drew 700 unionists from 33 unions, plus 20 state feds and 26 central labor councils. They showed the movement is still far from that goal, says a recent report by the federation’s Civil and Human Rights Department.

There was general agreement among attendees that diversity ot only was the right thing to do but also a necessary thing to do if we want to make sure our union movement is strong. But the majority of those attending reported they had not heard about Resolution #2 or the mandates the resolution imposed on their national and international unions or the state and local labor bodies, the report added.

Participants stated that getting information to members at the local and regional levels was the only way to ensure implementation, the report added. The diversity summit participants advocated that all national and international unions should get copies of Resolution #2 to their locals and regional bodies, and put them on websites and in publications.

The diversity summit participants said the union movement actually faced two problems: Recruiting and training more women and minorities for leadership posts, and recruiting and training more young people. They advocated naming mentors, appointing women, minorities and younger unionists to leadership posts to give them experience and more leadership education—as well as electing them to office.

Some unions started to implement those ideas, the report said. In one case, African-American woman Charlotte Flowers formed a slate at her AFGE local in Alabama, with an African-African man as her running mate, to combat closed attitudes of the all-male leadership against women and minorities. They ran for office, and won.

And the Chicago Federation of Labor realized that recruiting women and minorities for union leadership roles has to start even before they join the union—in this case by working to ensure women and minorities get the technical training needed for today’s modernized (and unionized) factories.

CFL Secretary-Treasurer Jorge Ramirez told the group that in coming years, 70 percent of factory workers would retire—giving minorities an opportunity to enter manufacturing. So the CFL formed a partnership with business and the city to create a new technical factory-skills-oriented high school and to establish union-run pre-apprenticeship programs, he added.

Austin Poly Tech was intentionally built in an African-American neighborhood to help students of color get ready for these high-road, highly skilled jobs in the manufacturing sector, Ramirez added.

Despite these and other diversity efforts, the union movement still puts up “challenges and barriers to inclusion,” the report said.

“Participants acknowledged problems continue and that all union members are not included fully in the leadership and life of our unions and union structures,” the report concluded.