(PAI) – To win the struggle against its enemies both on the political right and global capitalism, the U.S. labor movement must be transformed, energized and “authentically inclusive,” declares a new 35-page report by the Black Labor Collaborative (BLC), a group of influential African-American labor leaders who represent the 2.1 million black trade unionists.
The report, sponsored by the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), is “timely and unique, blunt but hopefully progressive yet tempered by the grotesque grip on wealth and power by global elites,” its introduction says. It’s also the first time representatives of black trade unionists issued a comprehensive, progressive critique of organized labor and an agenda to help frame discussions about the direction it must take to succeed in a changing world.
The report’s timeliness is heightened by the fact that it was released as the AFL- CIO’s Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice was meeting. A Future For Workers: A Contribution From Black Labor also comes out at a time when America is wracked with an explosion of protests and activism in Black communities and among low-wage workers.
And its relevance is enhanced by the fact that the unemployment rate for African- American workers is twice that of whites and higher than the rate for Hispanics. That decades-long high joblessness has left the African-American community mired in the recession, the report says. Both facts make union organizing efforts more crucial than ever, it states.
“This is not about a ‘black agenda’, says CBTU President Rev. Terrence Melvin, a BLC convener and New York State AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer. “This paper seeks to advance a broader discussion that is so badly needed.” He noted,”a frank and open conversation where diverse voices are heard can produce changes that will strengthen our movement and benefit all workers.”
The report says “Black workers have been, for the working class as a whole, the canary in the mine,” as “what befalls the Black worker inevitably confronts the bulk of the working class.” The role of race in the tumble of the American labor movement and the centrality of racial justice in any revival of organized labor is a recurrent theme.
The CBTU report maintains that labor’s Achilles’ heel has been its failure to respond to attacks on Black workers and its inability “to recognize that the Black working class is, indeed, a component of the larger working class and not some marginal category.”
For example, while the economic pie is shrinking for all workers, “entrenched disparities-worse for Black women-have caused Black workers to focus on jobs and low-wages as the cause of the ills plaguing their communities.” Meanwhile, whites fare a bit better and often see a “rising economic tide” that “even if late” eventually lifts their boats.
The only weapon against the crisis of inequality is an agenda focused on power rather than grievances as the labor movement develops a progressive approach to shaping an agenda that would emerge later through discussions among workers, their unions and their communities about the needs of working people, it says.
But to do that, labor itself must change, the report says. CBTU wants unions to ensure their leaders and staff “reflect demographics of the membership and the workers targeted in an organizing campaign, inject organizers into community organizing campaigns” and “endorse political candidates with a 90-100percent labor voting record.”
And it includes an emphasis on organizing low-wage and service workers – since those sectors are disproportionately female, people of color or both – and in the South and in right-to-work states.
In other categories that include jobs and economic development, criminal justice, the environment, wealth distribution, education and tolerance and equity, the report lists critical agenda items to be attacked if the labor movement in America is to succeed. And there must be “a genuine national dialogue on race and racism,” it states.
Its list of issues ranges from full employment to implementing a Robin Hood Tax to taking immediate steps to cut fossil fuel emissions to a halt to environmental racism. It also advocates increased accountability and diversity of police and prosecutors to communities.
And the report calls for guarantees for free, quality education from kindergarten through college, supporting enactment of just immigration policies that keep families united and protecting the rights of the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender community.
It also says labor should lead attacks on predatory lending, and advocate “more government-supported financing for home buyers.”
Federal data shows mortgage foreclosures during and after the Great Recession disproportionately hit African-Americans. CBTU demands that banks and other lenders should compensate those victims.
And it urges labor to keep campaigning for living wage ordinances, with the right to unionize, especially in occupations dominated by women and minorities, such as health care, caretaking, fast food, retail and child care.
CBTU’s report is the most recent in a long line of attempts to tackle issues raised throughout the history of the labor movement as it attempts to grapple with it’s Achilles’ heel – racial economic, social and political disparities. Over the years many have recognized, as the report does, that “a transformed, energized labor movement must be authentically inclusive, something that workers see as their instrument for justice and equality.”
Clearly, the report adds, the struggle continues.
Zita Allen was the longtime (recently retired) communications director for AFSCME District Council 37 in New York.