The stories that matter: Workers making things better

WASHINGTON, D.C. – “I remember what she did every weekday in the 1950s, riding the back of that bus in Austin, Texas so she could clean other people’s houses. I remember how he, as a day laborer, suffered the indignity of not being able, with his own labor, to provide for his family.”

She was talking about her mother and father. A group of labor journalists from union and independent magazines and newspapers, including the People’s Weekly World, had the opportunity Nov. 21 to talk with Arlene Holt-Baker, the executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, the first African American elected to that position. She met with labor journalists at a meeting here of the International Labor Communications Association.

Before she would take any questions she insisted on telling us that we and the staffs of the newspapers we worked for were “the un-sung heroes of the labor movement because when the major media tries, as it did during the recent elections, to sensationalize trivia and marginalize what’s important you guys are the message carriers of the labor movement and its allies. You have told the stories that matter.”

Holt-Baker’s own story, it turns out, is one of those.

“Mom never let anything beat us down. She called a family meeting just before Election Day, when John F. Kennedy was running for president because, as usual, she was determined to vote. My shoes had holes in them and the choice was do we buy new shoes or do we pay the poll tax so she could vote. We decided to pay that tax so we could exercise that right,” Holt-Baker said.

“She sent me in with a note saying I would be late for school because on Nov. 22, 1963, she was determined that we would be in Dallas to hear President Kennedy, the man she voted for, talk. It was his last speech.”

Holt-Baker was asked if she could remember any key event that helped spark what became a life-long involvement with and dedication to the trade union movement. “When I was a young girl, we had a friend named Mrs. Burns,” she said. Mrs. Burns and her husband were the only people in the neighborhood with a good working automobile. Mrs. Burns worked at the rail road and her husband at a packing house. They were both union members and I quickly came to understand that their union membership was the reason they could afford that car.”

That early spark of trade union consciousness, the role of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and trade unions in building the historic labor-civil rights alliance, her eventual move to California and the role she played there in building AFSCME, and her promotion to executive assistant to Linda-Chavez-Thompson, former executive vice president of the AFL-CIO were all milestones, she said, that helped prepare her for her job today.

Holt-Baker’s assessment of the 2008 elections: “This has been the most successful political cycle in the history of the labor movement. In the last four days alone, we had a quarter million people out there campaigning. But even more important, and here again the major media didn’t tell the whole story the way you told the story. You were the ones with the correct analysis – with this election the working people of America took the future into their own hands.”

Holt-Baker’s view of what comes next: “The next six to eight months are crucial. The task of the labor movement is nothing less than, together with our allies, securing economic justice for America. This means jobs with income, a re-building of and creation of a green economy that works for everyone, health care for all, education, immigration reform and so much more.

“We won’t be able to create a broadly shared prosperity, however, unless we restore the right of workers to form unions. This means that all of labor, the AFL-CIO, Change-to-Win and the independent unions must remain united and with our allies we must continue the same level of mobilization we had during the elections – and for you guys it means keep on telling this incredible story of workers and their movements.”

jwojcik @pww.org