Labor movement vows to challenge bigotry, bridge racial divisions

WASHINGTON – With the country facing serious questions of racial justice – and bigoted political rhetoric intended to divide people – the labor movement hopes to foster dialogue and solidarity, leaders of the AFL-CIO and affiliated unions say.

Speaking and answering questions on April 14 at the annual conference of the United Association for Labor Education, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka condemned anti-immigrant statements by Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump and expressed support for Black Lives Matter and other groups challenging the status quo.

He also put racial justice at the top of the national union agenda.

“Race and justice aren’t a side project of the AFL-CIO. They are at the core – the very core – of who we are as a labor movement now and in the future. Because it will define us,” Trumka stated.

And he told one questioner the labor movement is the best vehicle for the national discussion on race “because we can sit down as brothers and sisters and we do not castigate people.” Having the discussion, Trumka added, “is liberating” for unionists, black and white.

Trumka was followed in the forum in D.C. by members of the federation’s Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice, who cited ways unions are taking on racism within their own organizations and in the broader society. Their presentation was one of the first since the commission began hearings around the country a year ago.

“I gotta be honest,” said Trumka. “Race is subject that makes a lot of people – black and white people – uncomfortable and sometimes resentful.”

But, he said, “We can’t just face the easy stuff and ignore the hard things.”

Specifically, the AFL-CIO is challenging its member unions “to expand and deepen this conversation about race,” he said. Three years ago, the federation welcomed several organizations of low-wage workers to its national convention and adopted strong statements calling for congressional passage of comprehensive immigration reform and an end to a system of mass incarceration that unfairly targets low-income people of color.

More recently, the federation sent organizers to Ferguson, Mo., and other sites of killings of African-Americans by law enforcement. And it actively supports Black Lives Matter.

“Anyone who says Black Lives Matter is against anyone is simply wrong,” Trumka told the labor education conference at Gallaudet University. “Black Lives Matter is for all of us, every last one of us.”

Starting last fall, the commission held public meetings in six cities – Cleveland, Oakland, Boston, St. Louis, Minneapolis and Birmingham – involving more than 600 union leaders and members, as well as community representatives.

“We’ve had real and candid conversations with working people. We’ve listened and we’ve learned from each other,” Trumka said.

But the hearings were only the start. The effort to address racism will be a long-term process, he told the group, responding to questions later on.

“We are going to work on the laws, but we’re also going to work internally in the labor movement to make sure we are eliminating all the institutional obstacles we can for people of color and for women…” Trumka said.

And in the months before this year’s presidential election, the federation is posting Internet ads and meeting with union members who are Trump supporters, to challenge the candidate’s racist and anti-worker statements, Trumka said.

The commission members – Bricklayers President James Boland, Teachers Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre, Postal Worker Courtney Jenkins, who is on the fed’s young workers council, and Steven Pitts of the University of California-Berkeley Labor Center — called the hearings life-changing experiences. They said they’re committed to following up the conversation with action.

“We all have to begin with ourselves and our own organizations,” said Boland. “I’m from a union that is 80 percent white male and minorities are underrepresented.”

The Bricklayers are taking a first step by analyzing the composition of their membership and acknowledging there is a problem, he said. Then the union must reach out to unrepresented workers and “redesign the workplace” to make it welcoming to women and people of color, he said.

The Teachers are holding discussions in hundreds of locals across the country, said Johnson, to grapple with the ways that educators can be part of the solution. She and the other panelists agreed that efforts among individual unions must be part of a large movement.

The AFL-CIO and its member unions must commit resources and staff and make the discussion “a central part of what they do,” said Gebre. Otherwise, the effort amounts to nothing more than a public relations stunt, he added. And everyone needs to be part of the conversation, the panelists said.  “It would be nicer if police unions found their way to the table,” commented Boland. “I know there is a lot of fear there.”

The payoff would be huge – because young people would see a labor movement that speaks to their concerns, said Jenkins, who African-American. “Finally, someone is going to support me and what I’m passionate about and what I care about.”

Photo: Richard Trumka.  Linh Do/Flickr (CC)


Barb Kucera
Barb Kucera

Barb Kucera was editor of Workday Minnesota. She served for 6 years as director of the Labor Education Service, which publishes Workday. Kucera has degrees in journalism and industrial relations and a background in communications, including as editor of The Union Advocate. She is an associate member of the Minnesota Newspaper and Communications Guild/CWA Local 37002.