Coalition of Black Trade Unionists maps strategy for 2024 and beyond
Delegates to the convention of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists in Houston. | Eric Brooks / People's World

HOUSTON—“Staying neutral means staying silent. It means risking the rights of workers and the civil rights of all. It means the continuation of unemployment and poor wages while the powerful continue to get richer.” That’s the warning from Fred Redmond, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO and the highest-ranking Black trade unionist in the country.

Redmond was speaking to over 1,200 Black, Latino/a, Asian, Arab, Indigenous, and white delegates and guests at the 53rd International Convention of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) that filled the Houston Marriott Marquis Hotel convention center on Thursday morning. Founded in 1972, the CBTU has been a driving force for trade union militancy and diversity and has been holding the labor movement accountable since its inception.

The theme of this year’s convention is “Never Back, Always Forward: Hate Cannot Erase Us.” With the 2024 elections looming, setting up a re-run between President Joe Biden and former twice-impeached president and fascist Donald Trump, the convention brought into stark relief the high stakes facing the working class and the trade union movement.

“Whether we like it or not, this election comes down to us: Black people and the labor movement,” Redmond continued. The upcoming election determines “the future of this country and the future of our labor movement.” What’s at stake in the 2024 election, according to Redmond, is the continued ability for the working class to fight for “worker’s rights, voting rights, civil rights, healthcare, water rights, the right to live and have a good-paying union job.”

“We have an opportunity to continue to build towards a Third Reconstruction…or usher in the second Confederacy,” a CBTU Region 7 delegate and member of the UAW told People’s World. “Yes, Joe Biden isn’t the best president we’ve ever had, but let’s not get amnesia about what Trump was about when he was president.”

That this year’s convention was held in Texas, a state that Republicans have turned into a bastion of right-wing and anti-immigrant, anti-labor, and anti-women fervor, is significant. Rick Levy, President of the Texas State AFL-CIO told delegates, “We need to proclaim our message loudly for all of Texas” to hear.

The message: Despite defunding of schools, the criminalization of abortion, the rollbacks of voting rights, and the fascistic assault on immigrants, Texas is also home to the “boldest union fighters who struggle every single day for justice and equality.”

“We gotta be honest about the reaction that is so severe,” said Levy. In Texas, the effort to outlaw diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies in public institutions is “absolute madness,” he said. “Since when does equality make you an enemy of the State?” Levy pointed out how this ultra-right assault is “installed and promoted by corporate America. They are scared of united workers fighting for economic justice. They are scared of democracy.”

Claude Cummings, Jr., who was recently elected to head the Communication Workers of America (CWA), making him the first Black president of that union, emphasized the importance of educating and mobilizing the labor movement in response to Project 2025—the fascist agenda proposed by the far-right Heritage Foundation.

The doomsday plan seeks to undermine and eliminate the hard-won democratic gains of working people throughout the course of the country’s history in favor of white supremacy, company unions, “Christian” nationalism, and a loss of basic democracy. Cummings called on CWA and CBTU to fight to “protect democracy and protect our unions.” He declared in no uncertain terms, “We will defend our unions!”

Fred Redmond, Secretary-Treasurer of AFL-CIO addressing the CBTU Convention in Houston. | Cameron Harrison / People’s World

The president of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA), Evelyn DeJesus, also the first Latina Executive Vice President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), spoke about the unity needed between all working-class people to defend our hard-won rights and fight towards a new, more just society. For DeJesus, the collective power of the working class is the driving force for all of our country’s social progress. “Racial unity is our strength,” she said, “and we need this unity to dismantle all systems of oppression!”

The main report delivered by Rev. Terrence L. Melvin, International President of CBTU, was met with lively cheers from the audience. “We are not here to pacify our oppressors,” he stated. “We are here to uplift our families and our communities!”

“The union movement is on fire!” shouted Melvin. “It is rooted in the new militancy in workers who are saying, ‘We ain’t taking this shit no more!’” Black workers are front and center in the current resurgence of organized labor, and they are increasingly being elected to positions of leadership in the trade union movement. “Black folks are kicking some ass!” Melvin remarked to a round of applause from the delegates.

Turning to the issue of peace, Melvin said, “Our hearts flinch for every child shot in Gaza” just like “our hearts flinch for every police killing in America.” said Melvin. The ceasefire sentiment among convention delegates was expressed in the form of peace and solidarity buttons, ceasefire stickers, keffiyehs, and bracelets in the colors of the Palestinian flag.

It was clear that CBTU, and the delegates of the convention more broadly, were not entirely pleased with the Biden administration’s first four years. They mentioned a dearth of movement on police accountability and reform, the support for the genocide against Palestinians, slow-motion on voting rights legislation, and a lack of political mobilization against the Jan. 6th coup-plotters.

However, “MAGA is democracy’s grave digger” and “Project 2025 is the billionaires’ plan to enshrine white supremacy and turn our country into an apartheid state,” asserted Melvin. “The MAGA cult has democracy on life support and we say, hell nah—we ain’t standing for that!”

“We need to bury MAGA and defend our hard-earned gains. This is a game of inches…not a game of perfection. The stakes are just too high.”

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Cameron Harrison
Cameron Harrison

Cameron Harrison is a Labor Education Coordinator for the People Before Profits Education Fund. Based in Detroit, he was a grocery worker and a proud member of UFCW Local 876, where he was a shop steward. He writes about the labor and people’s movements and is a die-hard Detroit Lions fan.

Eric Brooks
Eric Brooks

Eric Brooks is Co-convener of the African-American Equality Commission, CPUSA. He is organizing for an anti-racist society that puts the needs of working families over those of the rich.