From the floor: People’s World interviews workers at the CBTU convention
International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers contingent at the 53rd International Convention of the CBTU, Houston. | Cameron Harrison / People's World

HOUSTON—“The CBTU is uniting not only the Black working class, but the entire working class of all industries and unions together!” exclaimed Dante Harris, the Secretary-Treasurer of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA).

Following the main reports at the 1,200-attendee Coalition Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) 53rd International Convention in Houston, trade union leaders from various sectors of the U.S. economy spoke on the current labor battles they are engaged in. They also spoke about linking up the fight for workers’ rights with the struggle for democracy.

At Delta Airlines, the largest airline in the world and the only major U.S. airline without majority union representation, a coalition of three trade unions—the Teamsters, AFA-CWA, and the Machinists Union—are banding together to take on the company. Their campaign, which launched in 2018, has already organized the airline pilots but is now seeking to organize all 50,000 workers who work at Delta.

Edison Fraser, the Chief of Staff of Air Transport at the Machinists Union, said that they’re “fighting an industry that has the government in their back pockets.” In 2008, Northwest Airlines merged with Delta, and the Machinists lost their union contracts, pensions, and job security. Now, they are mobilizing to secure a strong collective bargaining agreement between their members and the airline giant. The fight for a union contract is ultimately a struggle for democratic rights, workers say.

“We are not anti-Delta. We are anti-union-busting,” Hasan Solomon, the Political Director of the Machinists told People’s World. “We’re organizing workers right now at all the major Delta hubs: Atlanta, Detroit, Boston, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle.”

“When the pilots unionized and got a 25% raise, Delta turned around and gave the flight attendants a 5% raise,” Harris said. “They tried to placate us.” Speaking of the difficulties of organizing the flight attendants, Harris pointed out that Delta “keeps hiring, and we need to keep getting union cards signed” because they operate under the Railway Labor Act, which requires a “50% plus one” card-check for union certification.

“Delta tries to say that they’re the airline of diversity and inclusion, yet they’re telling Black workers that they shouldn’t have a union? Delta says we’re family,” but Harris said, “No, we, the workers, are family.”

Marcus Shepherd, Director of Organizing for the Chicago Federation of Labor, spoke with People’s World on the impact of the new jobs bill, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed by Congress. He spoke about how the building trades are organizing to utilize every penny to uplift their communities. “The building trades are very crucial to building up our country,” he said.

“In Chicago, we can see it now, how our members are updating public transportation, the electrical grids, fixing our bridges and roads—we just need to ensure that our communities, the Black and Latino communities, are benefiting from this bill and are getting involved in the building trades” in order to take advantage of the economic opportunity and apprenticeship programs, he told People’s World.

Ezra Knight, the National Vice President and President of New York SAG-AFTRA, the union that organizes screenwriters, actors, television, and radio workers, spoke on the unity necessary to win their most recent strike in 2023, in which 160,000 workers walked off the job. “We needed the power of numbers, the power of will of our collective overcoming the billionaire conglomerates” who refused to negotiate in good faith, which led to the strike.

Oftentimes, actors spend hundreds of hours working on a shoot or auditioning for a job with no guarantee that they will get the gig. The actors lucky enough to secure a spot on a movie or a show know that “it is only a gig, it ends, and you move on to the next audition,” Knight said. “While these conglomerates make millions in profits, some of your favorite actors are living off unemployment checks” and scrambling to make rent because they work “paycheck to paycheck, audition to audition.”

Knight also pointed to the role that Artificial Intelligence (AI) played in the contract negotiations. With the use of AI technology, a studio could record a performer’s facial expressions, voice, and movements within a day, save that data, compensate the performer for their work that one day, and then utilize it indefinitely without any additional payments required for future usage.

“AI cannot produce our collective culture—we produce society’s culture. The existential future of our jobs was on the line, and we secured that for generations to come” with the latest contract.

Nancy Hagans, the President of the National Nurses Union (NNU), also spoke on the threat of AI in the healthcare field. She said, “AI is a threat, and underneath all the hype is a Wall Street tool to gain massive profits.” However, Hagans said, “The workers should determine how AI is used, and it should ultimately benefit us,” meaning healthcare professionals and patients.

The U.S. healthcare system is driven more by profit and greed than by patient outcomes and worker safety. NNU members are fighting in their locals to ensure that workers and patients are put above corporate profits. During the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses and hospital staff were on the frontlines fighting to keep America alive, yet they had to deal with low staffing, lack of adequate training and medical supplies, faster and more work with less compensation, and the refusal of hospitals to negotiate new contracts.

“These hospital executives say they can’t afford to pay us,” Hagans said, “but they can spend millions on stock buybacks” and massive salaries and bonuses for themselves. “But they’ve never spent a day in the intensive care unit. They don’t know what it’s like to help a crying baby.”

“The nurses’ fight is linked with the fight of the whole working class. We will unite with you and you need to unite with us to build a new economy and a healthcare system” that works for us all. “As workers, we have the knowledge and the solution” to build this new society, she said.

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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.