It is appropriate that Chicago, where the fight for the 8-hour day began so dramatically at Haymarket Square 120 years ago, is the site of this year’s Coalition of Black Trade Unionists convention.
Chicago is also the city where Black meatpackers, who had been systematically excluded from white unions, unionized under the CIO in the 1930s, and signed up many thousands of members. The all-white craft unions were floundering under attack from the bosses. The Black workers together with many Poles, Mexicans and Lithuanians founded the United Packinghouse Workers Union, electing many African Americans to leadership. They began unified, multiracial collective bargaining for the first time. This was of enormous benefit to the entire working class.
The Packinghouse union was among the first to respond to the lynching of Emmett Till. The union not only helped to buy groceries for the family but also organized an anti-lynching speaking tour for Emmett’s mother, Mamie. The Till fightback ignited the modern civil rights movement. This movement ushered in democratic rights that benefit all working-class people.
It also led to the 1983 election of Charles Hayes, former Packinghouse (United Food and Commercial Workers) union vice president, to Congress. Hayes filled the seat vacated by Harold Washington when he was elected Chicago’s first Black mayor.
Washington’s election drew on many from the civil rights and labor movements, along with younger Mexican American and progressive white activists, and overwhelming support in the African America community, fed-up with the racist and “business as usual” politics of the Daley machine.
This year, the labor, civil rights and immigrant rights movements joined hands in Chicago’s city elections, and as a result helped elect, among others, five new African American women, four of them from union backgrounds, now sit on the City Council. A living wage for Wal-Mart and other Big Box retail workers was a key issue.
The united struggle of labor and the African American people has propelled all working families and communities forward.
Today the CBTU gathers in Chicago with the announced goal of dismantling the corporate and Bush agenda. CBTU is an essential component in reversing this agenda and forging a new civil rights revolution.