“What can be done in my own union to improve our commitment to racial justice?”
That’s just one of the questions defining the scope of the work ahead for union members participating in the work of the local Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice.
The Commission is an initiative of the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, and its People of Color Union Members caucus (POCUM). The project grew out of a 2016 visit here by national AFL-CIO leaders who were on a nationwide listening tour.
A diverse group of local union members are participating in the Commission, which has met several times, including discussions about participants’ own attitudes about race and experiences with racism.
“We’ve had at times difficult conversations, a lot of ‘aha’ moments for people,” commented participant Mary Turner, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association.
“As African-Americans, we know about power and privilege, but for the white folks in the room, it was painful — especially things they never thought about,” said JoAnn Campbell-Sudduth, Education Minnesota retiree.
Campbell-Sudduth is co-chairing the Commission along with Chelsie Glaubitz Gabiou, president of the MRLF.
“Now more than ever, race and racial justice issues are really playing out in our day-to-day lives,” Glaubtiz commented. “The labor movement needs to be an agent of change.”
So far, Glaubitz said, the Commission’s biggest decision is that the Commission isn’t going to be a permanent group or issue a “final report” — “it’s going to be cohorts of leaders.”
A second leadership group will begin meeting in February 2018 and a third leadership group will begin meeting in December 2018.
Each cohort will consist of 15-20 union members who will first meet for a four-day orientation to get to know each other. Then, over the next 18 months, they will meet, discuss, learn new skills and take on specific projects.
The first cohort, Glaubitz said, “is the group that’s kind of figuring it out.”
She added, “ours is lifted up as a model for what other central labor councils are going to do.”
“The MRLF has been a great space for different unions to be able to discuss and plan how to tackle internal equity,” agreed Commission participant Jigme Ugen, executive vice president of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota.
Through the Commission process, he said, “I can see a good pathway for leadership development opportunities for people of color in unions.”
“I’m really excited because we could really lead across this nation,” said one new leader, Commission participant Brenda Johnson, a member of Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Education Support Professionals Local 59.
“This work is rough,” Johnson said. The first step is “courageous conversation.” She added, “in Minnesota, we’re so ‘Minnesota Nice’ it’s hard for us to get to the core of the issue.”
“We don’t understand each other and who we are,” Johnson continued. “When we begin to understand, we learn we are more alike than we are different.”
“We’re sitting in such a turbulent time in the United States,” Johnson said. “How do we lead along the way and how do we support each other in the fight for equity in the USA?”
“We have an opportunity and we need to grab hold of it — and not be afraid,” Johnson said.
“The fact that we’re all coming together to do this endeavor is a huge step forward,” Turner said.
“You can’t win economic justice without winning racial justice,” Ugen commented. “When people of color are struggling at the negotiating table or organizing, its bringing down wages everywhere.”
“That is my interest, solidarity for all,” Campbell-Sudduth said.
Glaubitz reported growing interest in the Commission’s work. “So many people want to participate,” she said. “The list is growing. We want to be able to expand the opportunities.”
To apply to join one of the upcoming cohorts for the MRLF Commission on Racial and Economic Justice, or to nominate someone else, e-mail MRLF President Chelsie Glaubitz Gabiou or phone 612-321-5670.