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As the new executive vice president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizers (AFL-CIO), Arlene Holt-Baker was welcomed by the Los Angeles Sentinel and the leaders of the Los Angeles community last week at a brief luncheon at the Sentinel offices.
Clergymen, political figures such as Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally, and others came together to congratulate Baker, now the highest ranking and one of the most powerful African-Americans in the labor movement.
It was earlier this month that 56-year-old Texas native was recommended to replace the previous vice president, Linda Chavez Thompson who stepped down before her term ended.
Baker spoke with the Sentinel before the luncheon started and talked about how she got started in the labor movement thirty years ago when she moved to California and joined with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
“What excited me and energized me about that union is that it is the union that Martin Luther King was supporting when he was assassinated in Memphis,” Baker said, referring to the Memphis sanitation workers who fought to be recognized as equal human beings.
Along with the union’s commitment to social and economic justice, she said she felt “fortunate and blessed” to work for a union with the historical connection to a movement she wanted to be a part of.
She also took time to briefly speak on the state of unions today. Currently the AFL-CIO has 10 million members, 20 percent of them African-American, but in today’s climate, unions have less power due to a variety of reasons.
While membership is down and manufacturing jobs are decreasing rapidly, Baker alleges that a change in society has also been key, with corporations doing more to prevent workers from unionizing.
In years past, she said, “people cared about sharing profits with workers. We are in a situation now where it’s profit over people,”
The main goal of hers now is to pass the Employee Free Choice Act which would do three things: enact more penalties against employers who intimidate employees that want to unionize, bring in a neutral third party to help settlements over first contract agreements, and certify the union as the exclusive representative of all employees regardless of an election if the majority agrees to it.
After the interview, she rejoined the luncheon and was welcomed to the sounds of applause and congratulations.