The People’s Weekly World interviewed William (Bill) Lucy, president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, at its 34th annual convention in Phoenix, May 29. Martin Frazier, contributing editor, conducted the interview.
Lucy is secretary-treasurer of the 1.3-million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the founding president of CBTU, formed in 1972. Lucy has guided CBTU’s expansion in the last decade, from 27 chapters in 1991 to more than 50 chapters, including a chapter in Ontario, Canada. He is a member of the AFL-CIO Executive Council.
Lucy was a founder of the Free South Africa Movement, which spearheaded the anti-apartheid campaign in the U.S. in the mid-1980s. He later led the AFL-CIO delegation that monitored the first democratic elections ever held in South Africa.
In November 1994, he became the first African American elected president of Public Services International, the largest international union federation.
In 1968, Lucy worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the historic Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. He was associate director of AFSCME’s Department of Legislative and Community Affairs when he was sent to Memphis.
“We didn’t have job descriptions — we did whatever had to be done,” he told the World in a 2003 interview. “We had to raise $2,000 a week just to provide for the basic needs of the strikers and their families. The situation would change and we would change. Sometimes it felt like we were flying blind. Workers don’t strike for the fun of it. They strike when they’ve exhausted all of the opportunities to resolve a particular grievance.”
In the tumultuous aftermath of King’s assassination, Lucy helped maintain the labor/civil rights/community coalition that sealed the workers’ victory.
Lucy was born in Memphis, Tenn. He attended the University of California at Berkeley and is a civil engineer.
Q: What are your views on unity in the labor movement, CBTU expansion and AFL-CIO restructuring proposals?
A: It is clear that [African American] interests are not advanced by a weakened labor movement. This is not a philosophical thing. Workers who have the opportunity to be in a collective bargaining unit earn 25 percent or 30 percent more than nonunion workers doing the same jobs. Security in the context of pension or retirement programs is much better for unionized jobs than nonunion jobs. So we see the weakening of the trade union movement as a direct assault on our interests.
We can’t sit on the sidelines while a handful of people make decisions about an institution that has been the most beneficial to us, all of our lives. And even though there are inequities within it we don’t have to wonder whether you get better wages with a union contract than you do without.
Q: What is the CBTU going to do to ensure that the interests of Black workers are guaranteed in the midst of these restructuring proposals?
A: We are going to certainly make the fight that there should be no change in the structure of the governing mechanism of the AFL-CIO, because if you change it to the point were there is no presence of people of color, then you can’t have our concerns as part of the policy making process. Many of us will be delegates at the AFL-CIO convention and will make that argument. We will make it within our own organizations. We will have a national meeting in Chicago two days before the opening of the AFL-CIO convention where delegates from around the country and people who believe in what we believe in will come and give their view on what the actual final reform program ought to look like. I think between now and the actual AFL-CIO convention we are going to go to many cities to discuss this. Our next meeting is set for the 18th of June in Los Angeles to be followed by a meeting on the 25th of June in the city of Detroit, and we are going to have a full community discussion on the implications of a weakened AFL-CIO.
Q: Where do we go from here?
A: Well, a lot of the policy considerations and deliberations [at the CBTU convention] relates to our ability to make them relevant and understood on the local level — in the neighborhoods and cities and communities. We are going to try and do this with other allies and allied organizations so that the Black community agenda, the Black labor agenda, reflects the overall problems but can focus on them at the local community level.
So when we get back, we are going to sit down and think through how to do this. As was adopted in one of the resolutions, let’s have a meeting that would allow all of the elements of our community the opportunity to act on issues that are of concern to them. So we talk about going to Gary, Indiana, which is a recommitment of the Gary movement of old to try to formulate once again the kind of Black social agenda, political, economic agenda that is applicable to all groups of our society but comes out of the Black condition. We are now going to take that agenda and have a broad discussion in communities across the country so that people can see the value of political participation and relate it to something that happens in their daily lives.
Q: During CBTU’s convention deliberations there were strong sentiments around the theme of taking the CBTU spirit of fightback on the road. What’s that all about?
A: We had two really focused town hall meetings attempting to deal with two key questions [affecting our communities]: a town hall meeting related to Black-Brown relationships (Brown, related to Native Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans) to see that the issues affecting them go across the spectrum, that ultimately it is going to require political coalitions to deal with many of these issues — political coalitions on the local level, all the way up to the national level. In the second workshop we dealt with the impact of trade so that people can see the relationship between trade deficit with the Pacific Rim, China in particular, and the cost in domestic jobs. Look at the Wal-Mart model, where Wal-Mart is China’s largest partner. We’ve got to find answers to the question of exchange of good-paying jobs in the U.S. economy for cheap products coming into the U.S. This is something communities need to evaluate in terms of implications to the economic base.
Q: There were also a lot of concerns regarding violence in the Black community and what role CBTU can play.
A: We have learned that if you give people a job, that if you create opportunities for economic development, you would see a lot of social problems either diminish or disappear. We had, during the Clinton administration, an economy that was much more targeted to the creation of jobs in key areas. We saw the overall unemployment rate reduce itself to 4.7 percent. We saw crime statistically decline for five consecutive years. So we find a direct relationship between the things we advocate on the policy level and the reduction in social problems, related to lack of opportunities, lack of development, lack of access to jobs, lack of education, so during those eight years we had the sons and daughters of working people going to higher education in numbers greater than anytime in the history of our country. That has been reversed. In the African American community, 700,000 have slid into poverty in just over four years. We are trying to get people to see that these things are directly related.
Q: Immigrant workers are some of the most exploited workers in the country, they face multiple discriminations and they do the most dangerous jobs. What is the CBTU’s approach to this problem?
A: We have an ongoing responsibility to keep the issue of low paid, exploited workers on the front burner of debate. Workers, whether they are from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, are really trying to find a better life, trying to find better opportunities, and they are not in competition with other people struggling for the same thing. We should set a policy that makes all workers entitled to a living wage. We need policies at every level of government that expect a worker to have the same decent things. We should not divide between documented and undocumented workers because we know this is a migration process, not necessarily an immigration problem. Workers across the globe are going to whatever areas they think they can find a job that can support themselves and their families. Migration is a global problem and we need a global approach to it. A living wage is a reasonable question that we should demand.
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Resolutions from CBTU convention
CBTU adopted a number of resolutions, ranging from opposing Social Security privatization to setting up local anti-Wal-Mart committees, to calling for workshops at all levels of the labor movement that will “show the particular relationship between racism, capitalism and imperialism.”
In a unanimously passed resolution on reorganizing the AFL-CIO, the CBTU resolved to submit a proposal for “an immediate campaign to organize workers in the South and the Southwest where there are large sections of unorganized and exploited workers of color.”
Below are excerpts from CBTU’s resolutions, on the Iraq war, youth violence and honoring Mexican American labor leader Cesar Chavez with a national holiday:
Bring our troops home now
Whereas: the premises advanced by President George W. Bush for the war against Iraq are unproven; and whereas more than 1,600 American soldiers have been killed since the war began and the official number of wounded is about 12,000 — though unofficial compilations gauge the counts of wounded at three times that number; and whereas, based on reputable sources, the dollar cost of the war is around $168,600,000,000; and that the already incurred war costs would pay for almost 2,950,000 public school teachers, 101,000,000 uninsured children, 22,500,000 Head Start slots, 8,180,000 four-year college scholarships at public universities, or provide seven years of funding for the current global fund against world hunger;
Therefore be it resolved: that the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists adamantly reaffirms its support for the troops and their families in the Iraq theatre and the Iraq people in their struggles to survive and thrive;
Be it further resolved: that the CBTU renounces the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war and calls on the administration to bring our troops home now from Iraq.
Youth and gang violence
Whereas our youth deserve to live in a safe environment free from acts of intimidation and threats of violence from among their peers;
Whereas our youth need to be taught how to resolve conflicts without violence;
Whereas our communities can no longer depend on government entities to provide resources to assist in this effort, because of funding cuts and administrative lack of concern;
Therefore be it resolved: that the chapters of the CBTU work in coalition with educational, community and religious groups to provide the needed training to assist youth in developing skills needed to resolve conflicts and minimize the threats of intimidation and violence.
Cesar Chavez national holiday
CBTU calls on the AFL-CIO to support the national Cesar E. Chavez holiday effort at its July 25-30, 2005, convention by: Adopting a resolution that calls on President Bush and Congress to establish an official public, paid federal holiday and national day of service, learning and action in honor of Cesar E. Chavez on his birthday, March 31; and
By joining Cesar E. Chavez National Holiday as an active partner alongside of Latino, labor, civil rights, interfaith, and other leaders, elected officials, celebrities and organizations.