OUTSIDERS BUT PART OF THE PROBLEM
Labor unions are an inedible thread in the fabric of American society. It is not hard to imagine what this country would be like without the worker incentives and safeguards provided by organized labor. Currently in Los Angeles, major construction projects like the Expo and Crenshaw Metro rail Lines accentuate the challenge of balancing labor, community and funders'(largely federal and local government) interests. Project Labor Agreements (PLA) are part of most of these projects.
Unfortunately, its progress and accomplishments, notwithstanding, organized labor is problematic when it comes to Black workers. The latter have never been properly represented in labor’s decision-making process and their interests are hardly ever found in union contracts. However, both Black unionists and Black leaders fail to meet their share of responsibility for Black unionists’ continuing subservient status, more on this later.
In recent years, organized labor’s implosion is reflected in the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) break with the AFL-CIO which has had little discernible value for Black unionists. The debate began several years ago with Black workers, then as now, distant spectators. Ironically, Blacks have the highest representation, are labor’s most loyal members, and continue to support policies and practices often inimical to their own best interests.
Labor union mergers, fewer resources, and organizing workers may not be the top challenges. Globalization, reversing the country’s shift to the right under George W. Bush that increased hostility towards organized labor are even more important. (Some of President Obama’s domestic policies have not helped to improve the situation.) And collaboration, internal as well as external, is necessary for achieving greater worker empowerment. To date, the AFL-CIO, SEIU, nor any other union, has had a sustained focus on the particular needs and concerns of their Black members.
The split in labor unions offered Blacks a unique opportunity to work with Latinos and others for reforms that unapologetically benefit workers of color. But neither Black nor Latinos were poised to take advantage of that opportunity.
In Los Angeles, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Maria Elena Durazo has shown some interest in equity for Black workers. However, it is doubtful she calls the shots all the time; the still powerful white, “old boys” faction undoubtedly holds sway when its interests are threatened.
Now, a look at Black leadership and community responsibility and accountability:
Black labor groups such as the A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI), Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), and Black caucuses within some unions have not coalesced to provide the external pressure also needed to increase equity for Black unionists. Collectively, their inability to provide such pressure reinforces the barriers to Black workers’ progress.
The last annual APRI Education Conference this writer attended illustrates a serious problem. APRI’s decision-making is top-down; rank-and-file members have no voice in selecting national board members-they select themselves. And, the annual Education Conference is not a convention and does not provide an opportunity for members to challenge the organization’s rules and procedures. However, at the 2008 conference, members launched an effort to amend the by-laws to enable rank-and-file members to participate in selecting national board members. (I do not know if that attempt at reform was successful.)
The need for greater focus on self-interest and empowerment by APRI, CBTU, and similar groups applies to Black leadership in general as well: All sorely need ethical, self-defined standards and greater accountability.
A few years ago, former AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer, Martin Ludlow, and local SEIU President Janet Humphries were accused of fraud and illegal use of funds. Their cases underscore the importance of moral and ethical leadership standards. Charges against the two were sustained but many felt their punishment was too severe: Their rationale, “white people commit similar violations with virtually impunity.” Of course, this is more rationalization than rationale.
Around the same time, allegations of misuse of union funds by Tyrone Freeman, CEO of the then second largest union in California, caused him to step down. Subsequently, investigations by SEIU’s national office, the U.S. Labor Department and the House of Representations Education and Labor Committee resulted in Freeman’s removal. The allegations of unethical behavior were sustained, ending Freeman’s career as a labor leader.
The lesson from these examples is clear: It is imperative that Black leadership adopt and maintain high ethical and moral standards, especially given the ultra-conservative trend across America. Blacks can no longer afford to support self-serving, unethical leaders and more stringent accountability is imperative.
New direction requires new thinking and new behavior as well as on-going collaboration within and outside of the Black community. Blacks are not sufficiently at organized labor’s decision-making tables. Therefore, our collective interests will be better served if we all assume greater responsibility for helping to see that they get there.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org