Saying of the economic and political elite, “When they divide us up, they can beat us. When we stick together, they can't," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka declared workers of all races, classes and genders must unite to reclaim the future.
That means uniting around a common agenda of raising incomes and equality for all, regardless of race, color or sexual orientation, he said. But that unity should not obscure the fact that a difficult and honest discussion on race must continue, Trumka added. Trumka's comments about the need for unity came during a question-and-answer session at the opening of the AFL-CIO's annual Martin Luther King Conference, a 3-day event from Jan. 15-17 in D.C. Other speakers repeated his themes, with variations.
The conference, titled "Change The Rules, Be The Power" revolved around organizing, politics, issues and activism -- including in-the-neighborhoods activism by its 1,000 delegates and openly discussing race.
It did not come to any conclusions on that issue, though at least one speaker urged the federation to openly endorse and back the Black Lives Matter movement, which has pushed the discussion to the forefront of U.S. consciousness. A special AFL-CIO race and justice commission is holding a series of hearings nationwide to get the painful discussion going.
On both race and economics, “No real change ever comes without a crisis,” added federation Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre. “And we are in crisis in this country. Which road we take – the danger or the opportunity – is up to us.”
The MLK conference also covered issues ranging from ending mass incarceration of minorities and immigrants to the looming U.S. Supreme Court ruling that would make every state and local government a right-to-work fiefdom. One speaker noted that ruling would disproportionately harm minorities and women.
Trumka stressed that solidarity reveals there is a lot more that unites workers across racial, gender and class lines than divides them, despite the constant years-long efforts of the political and economic elite to do so.
But the conference's big secondary theme was a need to greatly increase organizing, both by the labor movement and its allies -- faith groups, community groups, women's groups, civil rights groups, environmentalists and others -- to add to ranks and to marshal resources and people to call out and challenge right wingers, both in the 2016 election and beyond.
"The challenge to the labor movement is that we should have 100 times and a thousand times more organizing campaigns than we do now," said Maria Elena Durazo, former L.A.
County Federation of Labor executive director, now a vice president of Unite Here.
"Unless and until we identify and train leaders on how to take on the boss in a lot more workplaces, we'll be over there," Durazo added, gesturing to a far corner of the room during the small-group session at which she spoke.
But while participants agreed on the overall goals, they differed on how to achieve them. Some advocated just tweaking present organizing efforts.
"We don't have to reinvent the wheel," said Rosa Rodriguez, Secretary-Treasurer of Steelworkers Local 1010 in Indiana. "But we have to sit down and see what it is that benefits the workers the best -- and then go into that issue as one."
Others called for specific campaigns to organize African-American, Latino and immigrant workers, citing successful pilot projects in Los Angeles and elsewhere to do so. Still others said the organizing must stress broad economic themes and lay out the case against the rich and their so-far successful manipulation of politics and the economy.
Many speakers, discussing recent events, said there must be more and more open discussion about race and particularly the racism of the entire criminal justice system, including the police, local district attorneys and the courts.
That issue came to the fore after Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown more than a year ago. It has remained on the national agenda due to similar confrontations since then in Chicago, Baltimore, the Twin Cities and elsewhere.
As Trumka said then, and repeated at the conference, "a (union) brother shot a union sister's son." Brown's mother is a United Food and Commercial Workers member.
The depth of the problem goes beyond just police-minority confrontations. One activist described taking 150 union, progressive and philanthropic leaders to interview prisoners at San Quentin, to let them hear and feel the real impact of mass incarceration – often for non-violent offenses – on prisoners, their families and their communities.
And when those prisoners are freed after serving their terms, that speaker added, they can’t get mainstream jobs, including union jobs, because they have to “check the box” that said they were formerly in prison.
Another pointed out unions endorsed the Cleveland District Attorney whose grand jury did not find fault with a police officer's fatal shooting of a 12-year-old African-American boy, "armed" with a plastic toy gun. She said there have been six such shootings in Cleveland, and no indictments. She demanded unions should ask themselves why they're backing that DA.
Politics came in for its share of analysis, too. Rudy Lopez, the new executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice, pointed out in the small-group session that "a lot of the oxygen is going to be sucked up by this year's presidential campaign."
The response to such political questions was two-fold. One dimension was to call out the lies that the economic and political elite use to divide workers from one another, through educating workers and their allies about such tactics. Such divisions "give politicians excuses to go after groups of people" and "helps corporations reap record profits are our expense," said Durazo.
The other was to emphasize issue-driven politics, not politicians and endorsements. And even when workers and their allies endorse politicians, they then must follow up and hold their feet to the fire after the pols are elected, speakers said.
They didn't do so with President Barack Obama (D) after his 2008 win, many admitted. “As my Italian grandfather said, ‘To trust is good. Not to trust is better,’” said Trumka.
"We've got to do this in real struggles and campaigns on issues," said Natalia Patrick Knox of Jobs With Justice. "If we're just seen as shlepping around for Hillary (Clinton) or Bernie (Sanders) or whoever, we'll be categorized.”
Attendees also frequently blasted GOP presidential poll leader Donald Trump for peddling hatred. "Where's the outrage to push him back?" asked Knox. "Trump wants to make America hate again, and take us back to 'separate but equal,’'' before the 1954 Supreme Court ruling against school segregation. Trumka said. Trump's slogan is "Make America great again."
But speakers also criticized Obama for not living up to his own promises, particularly on comprehensive immigration reform.
"To me, it is disrespectful that he (Obama) introduced the Secure Communities" program to round up the undocumented "and that he's deporting more than 1,000 families a day," said immigration activist Ju Hong, who gained national attention for interrupting an Obama immigration speech almost two years ago.
"I got tired of waiting. Enough is enough," he explained. A year after the interrupted speech, Obama unveiled his program to keep the 4-5 million adult parents of young children brought here without documents in the country.
But a court suit delayed that program, which labor strongly backs -- and which individual unions use to help the undocumented prepare to file for protected status. Speakers also pointedly noted the suit is from 26 GOP governors.
Many speakers, including Trumka and AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre, emphasized that in such cases, workers of all races, genders and classes "should have each other's back," as one speaker put it.
Gebre criticized both parties for catering to prejudice, lately against Syrian refugees. Gebre, himself a political refugee who walked across the Sudanese desert from his native Ethiopia 30 years ago to board a ship for the U.S., said "some 'liberal Democrats’ went on the dark side" on that issue, joining the Republicans in trying to ban the Syrians.
Opposing the influx of refugees, inaction on comprehensive immigration reform and mass incarceration -- and the inability of people to get decent jobs when they get out because of that box on an employment form -- hurts workers and unions, speakers pointed out.
Of the refugees, immigrants, African-Americans and Latinos, "These are our future members," Gebre commented.