These remarks, given at the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists convention in St. Louis, May 22, are reprinted from the AFL-CIO web site, www.aflcio.org. Arlene Holt Baker is AFL-CIO executive vice president.
In the last eight months, I have addressed thousands of labor activists and community activists. And while all these audiences have been filled with folks who share my values for social and economic justice, it is this audience that embodies so much of the opportunity I was given to become what I am in this labor movement. CBTU and its leaders have been mentors, teachers, advisers, good sisters and brothers, and you are among the labor leaders that I most love and respect.
You know that gospel song that says, “If it had not been for the Lord on my side, where would I be?” Well, when I look back over my life, I ask myself — like a lot of us in this hall must ask ourselves — where would we be as African-American labor leaders and activists if there had not been a Bill Lucy and a CBTU on our side, where would we be? Where would we be?
It is in this audience that you see leaders and activists who really get it — and know that our labor movement is a stronger and better labor movement when we are a united labor movement.
I was thinking the other day about the last two times that I addressed the CBTU convention, and I remember it was in Orlando, Florida, in 2001 when I addressed you as assistant to the president of the AFL-CIO and talked about the need to ensure that in future elections every vote be protected and counted.
Then I spoke before you again in 2004 in Atlanta, as president of Voices for Working Families, where we again talked about the need not only to register voters, educate voters, and get out the vote — but the need to protect the vote.
Here we are again. I stand before you with a different title, but the message is the same. It is through the vote in 2008 that we once again will have a chance to reclaim our nation.
To take back what was stolen from us in Florida in 2000.
To restore our confidence that we truly live in a nation of laws.
To recapture our pride in our leaders and our esteem in the world.
To recover our aspirations as a nation to embody the hopes of humanity, the hopes of those who work hard every day in every corner of our planet.
Brothers and sisters, history weighs heavily on us this year. We meet midway between two terrible anniversaries. April 4th was the 40th anniversary of the passing of our beloved Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And next month will be the 40th anniversary of the murder of Robert Kennedy at the end of a long Democratic primary battle.
As we’ve celebrated Dr. King’s life and work and as we begin to remember the contributions of Bobby Kennedy we’re reminded that people working together can bring about great change, that we can literally change the course of history. We know it because we’ve done it. And now I see people coming together again all across our country.
Something very special is going on in America. We’ve seen it in the upsurge of voter registration during the Democratic primaries, we’ve seen it in impressive voter turnouts in state after state.
We are also seeing it in the unprecedented numbers of those turning out for candidates’ rallies. Those 75,000 people who turned out for Obama in Oregon were signaling that this is so much bigger than just one candidate, it’s about a universal yearning for something better.
Big, bold, beautiful change
But people are not just angry and frustrated and upset at the direction of our country. They’ve moved on past that into a determination like we haven’t seen since the days of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy. There’s a movement going on out there, sisters and brothers. We can feel it and we see it everywhere we go. Folks are determined to keep on pushing. There is a determination to take back the reins of power and turn our country around.
And we’re not talking about a left turn or a right turn, brothers and sisters, we are talking about a U-turn.
I was fortunate to be in Memphis last month and I was once again strengthened by the images of the brave sanitation workers Dr. King marched with and their slogan, “I Am A Man.” If those workers could stand up to injustice and for their right to have a union despite beatings, being called “boy” and worse — death threats and starvation — then we as a labor movement and as a people cannot fail to stand up and fight to reclaim our country.
Forty years ago, after Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy were taken from us, our politics entered into a terrible downward spiral of division and frustration. We never were able to finish the work they began, so the great issues of that time — an unjust foreign war, a country grappling with the poisonous legacies of racism and sexism, poverty, health care, housing — they are the issues of today.
It is as if our nation’s political life has been frozen in place.
But something is happening now, brothers and sisters, you can feel the change coming. Americans want change in who resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, change up on Capitol Hill, change in the U.S. Supreme Court — big, bold, beautiful change.
As a woman, and an African-American, I am so proud we at last have such a magnificent choice and a chance for change before us.
I am also proud that labor has helped change the debate over the direction of our country. Americans want to talk about the issues — they know the economy isn’t working.
Now we are poised to go beyond debate and make those changes.
But, of course, there will be those who will once again try to make this election about the slogans and code words designed to divide us, not the great challenges that we must come together as a nation to address.
In 1961, Dr. Martin Luther King spoke to the AFL-CIO’s 4th Annual Convention about the very issues that face us today. The title of that speech was, “When the Negro wins, labor wins.”
He said, and I quote, “A duality of interest of labor and the Negroes makes any crisis which lacerates you a crisis from which we bleed. As we stand on the threshold of the second half of the twentieth century, a crisis confronts us both.
“Those who in the second half of the nineteenth century could not tolerate organized labor have had a rebirth of power and seek to regain the despotism of that era while retaining the wealth and privileges of the twentieth century.
“Whether it be the ultra-right wing in the form of Birch societies or the alliance which former President Eisenhower denounced, the alliance between big military and big industry, or the coalition of southern Dixiecrats and northern reactionaries, whatever the form, these menaces now threaten everything decent and fair in American life. Their target is labor, liberals and the Negro people.”
Here we are 46 years later and Dr. King’s remarks to the AFL-CIO then are just as relevant today. The big difference is that the list of those most disdained by the ultra-conservative right wing has only expanded. It no longer includes just labor and the Negro and liberals — it now includes new immigrants of all races, gays and lesbians, and the working poor, who are disproportionately single mothers and people of color.
It is precisely those on this list that we in the labor movement have aligned ourselves with in a coalition that will make possible the realization of the dream we all share for the economic and social justice Dr. King lived and died for.
Those of us in this hall know all too well what the results of bad public policy and misguided principles that put profits over people are doing to weaken the voices of workers and our unions and what the devastating effects are on our communities.
Let’s look at what is happening to black and brown youth, particularly our young men — our fathers, sons and nephews.
According to Craig Watkins, a University of Texas researcher interviewed for the Washington Post’s groundbreaking 2006 series titled “Being a Black Man:”
“When you look at American popular culture, the percentage of African-American men graduating from college has nearly quadrupled since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and yet more African-American men earn their high school equivalency diplomas in prison each year than graduate from college. Thirteen percent of the African-American adult male population has lost the right to vote because of felony disenfranchisement laws. This is the new poll tax and the new Jim Crow.
“The same forces that advocate growing the industrial prison complex, in more instances than not, reject progressive public policies that would provide these young African-American men an opportunity for quality public education at an early age, such as pre-kindergarten, smaller classrooms and increased teacher pay that would attract more individuals into the field of education who are interested in saving all of our at-risk youth.”
We cannot let them divide us
But while we have made alliances to reclaim our dreams, this election season has been divisive. No matter whom we nominate for president, those who cannot tolerate us will try to perpetuate those divisions.
Brothers and sisters, we cannot let them divide us, because America surely is not ready for a third Bush term, and that’s just what John McCain is promising us. John McCain is George Bush and we must not let him turn that around.
We have had eight years of disastrous leadership. But in a way, George W. Bush is nothing but the logical conclusion of the ideas that have dominated our country since Ronald Reagan put a happy face on the very politics of privilege Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy warned us against.
After a generation of stagnant wages and tax breaks for the rich, we are in the midst of an economic crisis, a foreign policy crisis and an energy crisis that are in fact all tied together and cannot be ignored any longer.
We have a health care crisis — 47 million uninsured, 9 million of them children. Here we are the richest country in the world — we can find $12 billion a month to spend on a war in Iraq that was waged on a lie about weapons of mass destruction but we leave millions of our own citizens to fight a war against asthma, cancer, HIV-AIDS and diabetes without the weapon of health care coverage.
Right here in Missouri, the Iraq war has cost Missourians over $8 billion and George Bush wants to spend $2 billion more. Right here in Missouri, that money could have been used to provide 745,000 children with health care or hire an additional 40,974 elementary school teachers. In St. Louis alone, 33,190 additional children could have been provided health care.
We have a pension crisis — only 20 percent of the private-sector workforce is in a real pension plan — down from 50 percent in 1980.
We have an energy and environmental crisis and an infrastructure crisis. The price of gas goes up, bridges go down, and every day we move closer to ecological disaster.
This morning as we gather here under this roof, there are millions of Americans about to lose the roof from over their heads because of a system of deregulation that allowed our financial institutions to prey on millions of our most vulnerable, who simply wanted a piece of the American Dream, a home. And guess who these people are? They are disproportionately people of color and single women. For example, in Baltimore, Maryland, more than half of the foreclosures in one Baltimore neighborhood have been homes owned by women.
Just this week, the United States Senate got legislation moving that will provide some emergency funding to homeowners threatened with foreclosures, but we know it will not help enough people, when foreclosures are expected to reach two million — and Bush may not even sign the bill.
What a shame. We can move over a weekend to bail out Wall Street, but we have to debate and debate when it comes to giving a helping hand to Main Street. Because of this unregulated system, we are all suffering — as we see our own neighbors walk away from their homes, “For Sale” signs on every corner—– and if we are fortunate enough to own a home, see home equity decline. Wrong-headed policies, sisters and brothers.
Seen this bad movie before?
These last couple of weeks, we have watched the horror in Burma and now in China. And we have watched President Bush talk about a government that won’t respond, that leaves its ethnic minorities to clean up their own dead, that can’t get water to people suffering in tropical heat.
Someone said to me, now does that sound familiar to you? Have we seen this bad movie before? Yes, we have, and the producer, director and star of our horror movie is the ideological agenda and the administration of George W. Bush.
Working people in the United States may not have suffered like the Burmese or the Chinese. But when we called at 3 p.m. or 3 a.m., our calls went unanswered, no matter how urgent. For years, we have been calling in a panic as we have seen 3,518,000 industrial jobs, good $20-an-hour jobs — gone. African Americans are calling, Mr. President, because in manufacturing, we fell from 23.9 percent in 1979 to 9.8 percent last year. Pick up the phone, Mr. President.
We know that our economy is in tough shape. We also know that even in the best of times, many African American communities are forced to tolerate levels of unemployment unseen in most white communities.
Economic downturns like the one we are experiencing take African Americans from a bad situation to a worse one. Right now unemployment among the population as a whole is 5 percent. Among African Americans it is 8.6 percent.
Over two percent of the black workers are long-term unemployed. For other groups it is less than one percent.
Yet George Bush opposes extending federal unemployment insurance to the millions who will exhaust their state benefits before finding a job. Pick up the phone Mr. President.
Two million foreclosures, and, literally, the federal government phone lines to provide help were down.
Our great city of New Orleans left a shell of itself — three years later, its schools still empty and abandoned.
4,000 Americans dead in Iraq, and more suicides among returning troops, and Dick Cheney says, “So?”
But the president sure answered the phone when the super-rich who benefit from his tax policies and Bear Stearns called.
Brothers and sisters, I don’t know who will answer the phone on January 20th when we call the White House — it may be the first African American, or perhaps the first woman — but we have to make sure it isn’t the man George Bush says can best continue down the path he has laid. He doesn’t answer the phone.
John McCain has voted with George Bush 89 percent of the time — last year it was 95 percent.
So for the AFL-CIO, we are already busy defining John McCain for our members — by launching our “McCainRevealed” website giving all the details of his awful voting record. And by sending demonstrators to speak the truth to power every time McCain attends another fancy fundraiser.
We’re letting the whole world know that John McCain voted against the minimum wage and that he wants to privatize Social Security, turn it into a giant 401K. We’re letting everyone know that McCain shows no interest in providing health care for 47 million uninsured — or bringing down crippling health care costs for the rest of us. He wants the market forces to take care of the problem.
We’re letting them know that he supports trade policies that send American jobs offshore — and don’t provide labor and environmental protections. And we are certainly letting them know that John McCain opposes the rights of workers to freely form and join unions to build a better future and that he voted against the Employee Free Choice Act.
But this election cannot be only about John McCain’s failings. It must be about working people’s vision — our vision of a new direction for our country. A vision that includes universal health care, the elimination of poverty, good jobs, and the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.
Can’t take right to vote for granted
In the months to come, as we embark on this historic journey, we will once again need the help of CBTU. We have learned painfully that in this third century of our republic, we cannot take our right to vote for granted. We have to defend it.
There are people in our political system who think that voting is a privilege reserved for those like themselves, that it should be fenced in with tests and taxes, that it is fair and right to confuse and intimidate people into not voting.
I read last week their latest idea is that you have to show a birth certificate to vote. This is again what Dr. King was talking about all those years ago. How very sad for our country that the list of the disenfranchisers now begins with the Chief Justice of the United States of America.
But when I look out at all of you, I’m looking at an army of people prepared to have the backs of those that will most likely be impacted by the other side’s voter suppression tactics. The AFL-CIO, along with our other partners, needs you to help us protect the right of all Americans to vote. So I encourage you to please get involved in the AFL-CIO’s Voter Protection Project. If you’re interested, talk to Petee Talley.
We must emerge from this election with every vote being counted because we know if every vote is counted in this election, we will have a stronger congressional majority and a president who will stand up for working families.
But we have to look past the election and on to January and beyond, because our hopes and dreams are tempered with experience.
Because we know, as A. Philip Randolph taught us, and I quote:
“At the banquet table of nature, there are no reserved seats. You get what you can take, and you keep what you can hold. If you can’t take anything, you won’t get anything, and if you can’t hold anything, you won’t keep anything. And you can’t take anything without organization.”
To change our country, workers must organize for power. And we need more than organization — my hope is that we truly blossom into a much stronger movement. There is a difference between an organization and a movement. In an organization, you make the calls to turn people out to a meeting. In a movement, you make the calls to find a bigger hall than the one you had booked.
We are one movement, and we have to start acting like one
That’s the kind of movement and the kind of organization we are looking for. Yet today, although we have made some progress toward unity, our organizations are divided. But the AFL-CIO is convinced we are one movement, and we will have to start acting like one.
We will need all our strength as a movement to make sure we get the change our members will vote for, and not just the same mush of Wall Street policies with excuses and flattery.
If we can be divided and bought off for small change, we will be settling for crumbs — when what working Americans need, what African Americans need, is a full meal. And if that happens, this moment that is so full of promise will turn out to be just another spin of the revolving door of Washington.
The great test of whether we can make real change for working Americans will be passing the Employee Free Choice Act. It is about taking away fear — the fear of coming together to form a union. There can be no movement when there is fear. So the next Congress must pass — and the next president must not just sign but fight for — the Employee Free Choice Act. Stand up and fight.
And even before that fight comes to Congress again next year, we have a chance to demonstrate we can stand together for workers’ freedom to organize on June 21st in Atlantic City where casino dealers are struggling to organize with the UAW to support their families while they witness millions and millions of dollars being transferred before their eyes from the pocketbooks of the poor and the working class to the safe deposit boxes of the rich casino owners.
We have fliers with the details of June 21st and we ask you to take them home with you, copy them, and get them out to your friends, your family, your co-workers — like a giant chain letter for justice. Pass it on.
CBTU, brothers and sisters, we have to seize this historic opportunity and not let it go, not let it slip away.
We are here between these two grim anniversaries. And as each day passes, I think more and more of Bobby Kennedy, a young man who at another time when people were being tested, found it within himself to take into the mainstream of American politics the unifying moral vision of Dr. King.
My friends, a debt is due. It is due to us — to our country. It is a debt soaked in Dr. King’s blood and in Bobby’s blood — a debt in hanging chads and flooded homes and young men and women lost in faraway deserts.
Like any debt, it is a promise, a promise of “health care for all” that was never made good, a promise of dignity at work betrayed, the promise of an end to poverty forgotten.
Let me bring these remarks to a conclusion by listening to Bobby Kennedy: “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”
CBTU, the debt has come due. It is time to collect. We are going to collect. CBTU, you and I and the working people of this country, we are going to spark a movement of those who are ready to make their voices heard in shaping the new America we must build together – and we are going collect our debt this November.