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 said Thursday.
Speaking at the annual conference of the United Association for Labor Education, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka condemned anti-immigrant statements by presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump and expressed support for BlackLivesMatter and other groups challenging the status quo.
He was joined by members of the federation’s Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice, who cited ways that 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, Missouri, and other sites of killings of African-Americans by law enforcement, and has been active in supporting BlackLivesMatter.
“Anyone who says BlackLivesMatter is against anyone is simply wrong,” Trumka told the labor education conference at Gallaudet University. “BlackLivesMatter is for all of us, every last one of us.”
Starting last fall, the Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice 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.
The effort to address racism will be a long-term process, he said.
“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.
“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.”
In the months before the 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.
Members of the Labor Commission said the hearings were life-changing experiences and they are committed to following up the conversation with action. Members who addressed the UALE convention were Steven Pitts, associate chair of the University of California-Berkeley Labor Center; James Boland, president of the International Union of Bricklayers & Allied Craft Workers; Lorretta Johnson, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers; Tefere Gebre, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO; and Courtney Jenkins, member of the American Postal Workers Union and the AFL-CIO's Young Workers Advisory Council.
“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 American Federation of Teachers is holding discussions in hundreds of its local unions across the country, Johnson said, 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.
Resources and staff must be committed and the AFL-CIO and its affiliates “must make it a central part of what they do,” said Gebre. Otherwise, the effort amounts to nothing more than a public relations stunt, he said.
Everyone needs to be part of the conversation, the panelists said.
“It would be nicer if police unions found their way to the table,” said 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 is young and African-American.
“Finally, someone is going to support me and what I’m passionate about and what I care about.”