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The labor movement helps Ferguson heal

By highlighting racial injustice, the AFL-CIO is leading an effort to address tensions in working-class America

November 17, 2014 2:00AM ET

Given organized labor’s mixed record on race, it may seem hard to imagine that unions can play a vital role in bridging racial divides in working-class America. But some labor activists are insisting that they cannot do anything less.

In 2008 the president of the AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka, openly criticized union members who were hesitant to vote for then-candidate Barack Obama because of his race. Trumka has since made addressing racial injustice a priority for the country’s largest labor federation. It is not surprising, then, that he has now waded into the crisis in Ferguson, Missouri, pledging the AFL-CIO’s support to help address the ongoing turmoil sparked by the Aug. 9 shooting of African-American teen Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson.

“Our brother killed our sister’s son,” Trumka said in a speech to a group of union members in St. Louis on Sept. 16, using the sibling nomenclature that union members use to refer to one another. (Both Wilson and Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, are union members.) Acknowledging the powerful tension that Ferguson evokes, Trumka said the United States must address its legacy of violent policing of African-Americans, poverty and racialized economic injustice. Trumka says the fight for safety and just treatment for people of color, who constitute a large proportion of AFL-CIO members, should be a priority on unions’ list of policy demands.

The AFL-CIO is not the only labor group agitating for racial equality. The health care workers’ union 1199 Service Employees International Union (SEIU) United Healthcare Workers East, has taken equally bold stances on high-profile police shootings of unarmed young African-American men in recent years. As journalist Carla Murphy recently reported for Colorlines, SEIU members have been arguing that their organization’s role should not be limited to pushing for pay raises and pension plans and that it should take on broader issues of social injustice.

“Unions want more members in order to be more powerful — but in order to do what?” asked 25-year-old Michelle Crentsil, an African-American union member who advocates on behalf of medical residents and doctors in New York City. “We can be more powerful to get good contracts, and we should. But we need to be more powerful to address police brutality and mass incarceration too.”

Such outspoken stances reflect an increasingly important reality: Few institutions in American life bring together as much diversity under one roof as organized labor, and even fewer have the political heft to influence our public policy discussions. This gives labor leaders and grass-roots union activists a unique platform from which they can speak about how our country’s racial divisions might be overcome.

Working across divisions

At times in their history, labor unions have been leaders in addressing racial and ethnic divisions. Some early immigrant unions, for example, overcame barriers between ethnic groups to build organizations in the garment and steel industries. In one case, at Republic Steel in Chicago in the 1930s, labor activists of European, African and Mexican descent fought together against staggering odds — and a hostile police force — to assert their right to bargain collectively. Several decades later, iconic United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther led his union to support the civil rights movement. He stood beside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during his “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington, and the union pushed to get the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed.

More recently, public sector unions, which boast heavy African-American membership, have promoted a racial justice agenda. And they have been joined by service sector unions in places such as Los Angeles, where UNITE HERE and the SEIU, among others, have drawn leadership from recent immigrant communities. During the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike, its president, Karen Lewis, called out Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to close 49 schools as a racist policy that would disproportionately and negatively affect students of color.

By addressing the real harm that police brutality and hyperincarceration cause in African-American communities, unions can reclaim the civil rights tradition that is part of their heritage.

Unfortunately, not all unions have taken leadership on such issues. Some labor groups have a history of replicating racism in their structures. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, craft unions — organizations of people who practiced particular skilled trades, such as joinery and pipefitting — served as hiring halls for laborers. Some adopted pervasive, often explicit policies of excluding workers of color. This legacy of discrimination continues to present challenges today, even as Latino and African-American workers account for a far greater share of the construction workforce.

Yet immigration reform offers a useful example for how labor’s changing complexion is resulting in policy changes. Up through the 1990s, racial tensions in organized labor arose around the immigration debate, with some union members expressing fear that more open borders would trigger an influx of dark-skinned immigrant workers coming to take their jobs. However, immigrant-driven service sector unions fought this trend within labor, and their consistent advocacy has created a sea change. For example, in 2000 the AFL-CIO finally reversed its historic position, taking a stand in favor of immigrant rights and adopting a resolution calling for citizenship for undocumented workers.

Toward solidarity for all

Today almost all unions support immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers. This shift might be giving Trumka and the SEIU hope that organized labor is poised to be more aggressive on the issue of racial injustice as well. But there are still significant challenges. For instance, some police unions that do not belong to the AFL-CIO may try to counteract Trumka’s efforts to challenge police brutality. But the entrenched power of police unions is what makes Trumka’s speech in St. Louis even more important, according to labor organizer and scholar Douglas Williams. “[Consider] the fact that the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Michael Brown’s murderer, and you see the importance of [Trumka’s] speech,” Williams told Colorlines last month. “When someone with the gravitas of Richard Trumka stands up and gives such an unequivocal endorsement of racial equality and working-class power, it is a signal that the FOP are the people who are out of line.”

Ferguson October, a three-day protest in Missouri against police brutality and mass incarceration, brought out hundreds of union members calling for racial justice. An array of SEIU branches, the Chicago Teachers Union and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists were among those that joined local labor groups in the weekend of sit-ins and rallies.

“This is the perfect opportunity for organized labor to get out the message of equality in the workplace,” Mike Louis, the president of the Missouri AFL-CIO, told The New York Times.

Trumka, Louis and other labor activists are right to insist that unions speak out against the racism that divides us. Today’s labor movement looks different from how it once did. And it thinks differently about issues such as immigration. By addressing the real harm that police brutality and hyperincarceration cause in African-American communities, unions can go even further in reclaiming the civil rights tradition that is part of their heritage — and in healing our country’s racial wounds.

Amy B. Dean is a fellow of the Century Foundation and a principal of ABD Ventures, a consulting firm that works to develop innovative strategies for organizations devoted to social change. She is a co-author, with David Reynolds, of “A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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