African American leaders: Employee free choice is civil rights issue of the century

Civil rights leaders gathered April 8 in Washington D.C. to add their voices to the growing chorus of support for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.

Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and five other African American leaders held a conference call that brought together civil rights and labor leaders and activists from across the country.

“The right of workers to form unions and the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act in order to guarantee that right is unquestionably the civil rights issue of this century,” Henderson declared at the opening of the conference. “The right to organize a union is a civil right of the highest magnitude,” he said.

Henderson noted that African Americans in unions earn 28 percent more than their counterparts not in unions and that Black workers in unions are 16 percent more likely than those not in unions to have health care. He also said that Black union members are 19 percent more likely to have pensions.

Henderson said that, from the earliest days of the civil rights movement, it was recognized that there were “two tickets needed by Blacks who sought entrance into the great American middle class – a voter registration card and a union card.”

Arlene Holt-Baker, who, as executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, is the highest ranking African American in the U.S. labor movement, also attended the conference.

Citing a growing number of stories in the media about one or two senators who have indicated they will not support the bill, she said, “I am here to assure everyone that rumors about the impending death of the Employee Free Choice Act are decidedly premature.”

Holt-Baker said those who have said they would not vote for the bill “weren’t really that firm in the first place and even they are open to changing their minds. We have the support of the leadership of both Houses in Congress; we have the backing of a Congressional majority and the support of President Obama and Vice President Biden. Most important, we have the support of 73 percent of the public.”

She described how, during the current Congressional recess, “hundreds of events and demonstrations in support of the bill are happening in the home districts of our representatives.”

Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau, described how “unions have been one of the very few ways that African Americans have been able to lift themselves out of poverty and they have been a crucial, long-time ally to the civil rights movement.”

Shelton described how Martin Luther King Jr., in 1963, “gave his life in support of struggling sanitation workers because he understood that without a guarantee for the rights of labor there can be no civil rights.”

Melanie Campbell, executive director of the National Coalition for Black Civic participation, focused on the importance of passage of the bill for African American women. “Women in unions, overall, earn $2 more per hour than those not in unions. But African American women earn $5 more per hour than African American women who are not in unions,” she said. She said that, because of the current economic recession/depression African American women “stand to lose every bit of the gains that they have made in the last 50 years if we don’t win passage of the Employee free Choice Act.”

Dr. Steven Pitts, labor policy specialist at the University of California at Berkeley, said that the heart of the economic problem is “the inadequate spending power of working families in general and Black working families, in particular. Too much of the work available to Blacks is low wage work and the Employee Free Choice Act is the one thing that can fix this problem.”

William Lucy, president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and secretary-treasurer of AFSCME warned that “wee financed business interests are trying to drown out the voice of the workers in a campaign of opposition to this bill.”

Lucy urged a major push at the offices of Congressional representatives and that “this must be raised in every Church and social organization from one end of this country to the other.

“It is unacceptable that any Congressperson or senator from a state like Louisiana or Arkansas would either sit on the fence or be opposed. We must make them understand that the Black population in our states needs and wants this bill and will not stand for anything less than the full support of our representatives.”

jwojcik @ pww.org