For Black unionists, labor reforms, like those in education, law enforcement and politics, are more rhetoric than reality. They must understand that reform emanates from privileged conversations and closed door decisions by leaders who do not look like them. And given Blacks’ continuing low priority status in unions, it’s safe to conclude organized labor’s high-level decisions routinely do not take Black workers’ needs and concerns into proper consideration.
Debate over the future of the AFL-CIO began in earnest about 15 years ago. Back then, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) started to focus on how to reverse the unions’ downward slide. Then, as now, Blacks were phantom participants in high-level decision-making or developing strategic alternatives to the status quo. (However, unified, Blacks in organized labor could, and should, be a significant force in determining the future of organized labor, thereby strengthening themselves and their unions.
Several years ago, Bill Fletcher, president of TransAfrica Forum, campaigned to raise awareness in the U.S. about issues facing the nations and peoples of Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. This offered insightful perspectives on what he called organized labor’s “train wreck.”
Fletcher cited SEIU’s (then) main suggested proposals: mergers of national/international unions so that there’s less competition and better use of resources while focusing unions on organizing workers in their core areas. He maintained that the greater challenges facing organized labor included: globalization; the manner in which the U.S. government had shifted more and more to the right and become increasingly hostile to workers; how unions should organize critical regions like the U.S. south and southwest; how to ally with African Americans and Latinos in these(and now) other regions, in order to be successful; how to engage in political action in such a way that working people can advance agendas that represent their interests and not simply those of unions or political parties; the continued relevance of fighting racism and sexism; how to work with and build mutual support with workers in other countries and the critical importance of joining with others to fight for real democracy.
Fletcher contended labor’s fight often focused on arcane issues such as whether the AFL-CIO should give larger or smaller rebates to unions that are allegedly organizing and whether the AFL-CIO Executive Council should grow or shrink. This ignored more profound problems such as the way unions in the U.S. see themselves, their lack of a mission and strategy and blindness to the real features of the barbaric society unfolding before their eyes.
He also felt the culture of the U.S. union movement generally precludes honest debate: Individual or groups who raise unpopular opinions critical of leadership often find themselves isolated or undermined. Fletcher found it amazing that some unions were threatening to leave the AFL-CIO and others threatening to drive others out of the body with so little discussion–the latter applied disproportionately to Blacks. Usually, no attempt was made by either side to bring the debate to the members.
According to Fletcher, while the debate needed to take place, it should have been reframed in its entirety. He insisted it needed to be about a compelling vision for the future of workers in the US. and the rest of the world and include strategies that work in the face of dramatic changes in the economy and address how to stop using working people as cannon fodder in unjust imperialistic assertion of power. Fletcher concluded, “I keep wondering whether it is too much to ask of our leaders to think about the needs of working people rather than focusing on the alleged profundity of their rhetoric and the seductiveness of their own publicity.” (Like many other prominent Blacks, however, he did not emphasize the critical need for Blacks, in and outside of organized labor, to unite –a pre-requisite for effectively working with other groups.)
The split among and between labor unions actually affords Blacks and Latinos the opportunity together to craft reforms that unapologetically benefit their respective groups while also contributing to a stronger union movement. Did they avail themselves of the opportunity?
The Los Angeles Black Workers Center, (BWC) has strengthened its base and is now playing a key role in protecting and expanding the future of Black workers in several areas, including construction. It is also partnering with community and organized labor groups like the Black Community, Clergy and Labor Alliance (BCCLA) and SEIU Security Workers West (SWW).
However, Black external labor groups like the A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI), Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) and AFRAM (SEIU African American Caucus) once provided invaluable support to Black workers and must again become the force they once were. Collectively, they represent critically needed pressure in support of BWC, Black unionists and Black workers generally.
(Improving Black-Latino relations is no longer even a rhetorical priority for organized labor. But strengthening relations between the two groups would reduce tensions in schools, curb gang violence and expand equitable employment opportunities, especially for Black workers.)
Justice for Black workers is still far from a reality and eliminating racial and ethnic injustice within its own ranks must become part of labor unions’ end game. However, in order to achieve justice, Black workers must have the courage to take a stand, stick together, and work with their allies and the Black community on mutually beneficial goals and objectives.
Larry Aubry: e-mail [email protected]