At NAACPs Motown meet, its all about Black-labor unity

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DETROIT — Meeting in the heart of Motor City, a historic center of autoworkers and the African American working class, the NAACP placed ending racism and inequality and strengthening labor/Black unity high on the agenda of its 98th annual convention.

NAACP Chairman Julian Bond opened the civil rights organization’s convention July 8 with an impassioned rebuke of the Bush agenda.

Speaking to the assembled 3,000 delegates, Bond lashed out at the Supreme Court’s recent decision supporting school segregation, the Bush administration’s purposeful inaction during Hurricane Katrina — what he said some people would characterize as a “modern-day lynching,” and the war in Iraq.

Speaking of the Supreme Court’s ruling against the use of race to remedy segregated schools in Louisville, Ky., and Seattle, Bond said, “The notion that race ought not be considered in remedying racial discrimination is ludicrous. Now the ludicrous has become law.”

Bond said there are “no non-racial remedies for racial discrimination.” In the past, he said, “segregationists mandated the separation of Blacks and whites in all public places; now, neo-segregationists want to end racial remedies in all public places” in addition to placing restrictions on ballot access.

Bond pointed out that the “core issues” the organization works on have remained the same through much of its history: poverty, a biased criminal justice system, denial of voting rights, unequal education, disparities in earning power and job opportunities and lack of health care. He said the NAACP is still fighting to eliminate the racism and prejudices that feed these inequalities and social ills.

Citing the importance of the defeat of far-right candidates in 2006, and pointing to the upcoming 2008 election, Bond said, “What happened on Election Day last November was not an election — it was an intervention.” The people, he said, have begun to “restore government to its true principles.”

A convention highlight was the NAACP Labor Luncheon on July 11. National, state and local labor leadership along with NAACP leaders expressed the unity of interests both organizations have.

Mary Beth Maxwell, president of American Rights at Work, told the luncheon audience that worker rights include both civil rights and human rights. She said there is a crisis in the workplace because every day “workers are fired, intimidated and harassed.”

The legal system that promises to protect workers is in shambles, Maxwell said. She called for the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, a law that would make it easier for workers to organize, adding, “It’s not about if — it’s about when.” She said that unionization of nonunion auto plants would mean that Black workers at the Nissan plant in Mississippi, for example, would be paid the same as white workers.

The importance of the long history and close ties of labor with the NAACP were highlighted by UAW President Ron Gettelfinger, the luncheon’s keynote speaker. Gettelfinger said those ties were built fighting together shoulder-to-shoulder, not watching from the sidelines. He said all 18 members of the union’s international executive board and all retired board members are lifetime members of the NAACP.

Gettelfinger spoke of the important role the NAACP, the UAW and other unions played in trying to defeat Michigan Proposition 2, the anti-affirmative action measure that passed in the 2006 election. Acknowledging it was a setback for Michigan, he said, “We lost the battle this time, but we have not lost the war. We strengthened our coalition and we will be much better prepared for the next battle.”

He spoke about a 1961 speech to labor given by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. where King spoke about the shared vision of the labor movement and the civil rights movement. In the speech, Gettelfinger said, King said the needs of African Americans were identical with labor’s needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, education for children and respect in the community. He quoted King: “Any crisis which lacerates you is one from which we bleed.”

Looking toward next year’s election, Gettelfinger said, “These next months give us an opportunity to forge alliances and strengthen partnerships.” He said the Supreme Court’s June 26 decision to allow segregation only makes the upcoming election more important. “We must elect a president who will not turn his back on the promises and the progress we have made,” he said.

Gettelfinger concluded his remarks making a strong case for universal, single-payer health insurance and said the “broken health care system” is one of the issues that will unite the people of the country.

The luncheon ended with a march to Detroit’s Labor Legacy monument to protest the anti-worker practices of Wal-Mart.

The next day, the convention was addressed by nine candidates for the U.S. presidency, eight Democrats and one Republican.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, one the nation’s oldest and most influential civil rights groups, was founded in 1909. It currently has about 300,000 members.

jrummel @pww.org