DETROIT - Forty years ago the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) "woke up" the trade union movement to the importance of struggles for justice and peace, and this year's convention shows they aren't stopping yet.
Calling the recently passed Arizona anti-immigrant law a "most dreadful piece of legislation" and likening it to apartheid South Africa's passbook program, CBTU President Bill Lucy told the 700 delegates and guests at the organization's 39th convention here that the CBTU would be moving its 2011 convention from its scheduled location in Phoenix.
"We have to join in that fight," said Lucy, even though his organization may face severe penalties for breaking its hotel contract.
Lucy, who is also secretary-treasurer of the 1.6-million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, elaborated further on why Black trade unionists were taking this stand, saying the law targets immigrants who "have as much right to be here as any other nationality."
"People want a decent job and better life and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that," he said. "We need an immigration law to bring 12 million people out of the shadows and give them legitimacy. Yes we can!"
Lucy spoke of the victories that have been won and those still left on the table. "Forty years ago it was inconceivable that a man of color would occupy the White House," he said. 2008 witnessed a political movement that inspired the dreams of people of good will, workers, young people, who all came together to work toward creating a level playing field for the average person, he added.
"President Obama is our friend; we want to be seen with him day and night. He's our best chance" said Lucy.
That does not mean the president is above any criticism, Lucy said. He told the convention he had personally written a letter to President Obama voicing opposition to the "insane position" taken by Obama's secretary of education in supporting the firing of teachers in Central Falls, R.I.
But he reminded everyone that President Obama inherited the greatest mess since FDR. Our economy was "going down the sewer" until this president came into office, Lucy noted. Obama has the sensibilities and program to reclaim this country for regular people, he said, but he warned that "Republicans will never vote for anything that allows him to claim success bringing this country back."
Detroit Metro AFL-CIO President Saundra Williams welcomed the delegates and spoke about two campaigns the Detroit Labor Council is involved in. One is a campaign by the building trades unions against Michigan-based non-union Pulte Homes, known for both its shoddy construction and its unfair treatment of its workers. The second campaign is to counter a nationwide attack on public workers who are "under siege, doing more work with fewer people," Williams said. She announced an upcoming labor summit to map out a plan of action and mobilization.
Sitting at the St. Louis CBTU table outside the meeting hall were Odie Gibbs, Leon Smith and Carline Lang-Smith, all members of the Machinists union.
All three said jobs were the important issue facing people in their city. Gibbs said both Chrysler and Ford have closed plants and GM has downsized, "St. Louis was really hit," she said.
Frank Woods, president of the Detroit CBTU chapter, spoke to this reporter about his chapter's campaign around "project labor agreements." These are construction agreements with municipalities to build things like schools or hospitals. "It has been a discriminatory process for years," he explained.
Detroit has several large projects looming. One is a $500 million school construction project.
"It's an 11,000-job project just for schools," Woods said. "New hospital construction in the city could result in another 7,000 to 9,000 jobs. Over the next three, four, five years you are talking about 20,000 jobs."
Woods said the problem has been that the city residency requirement was lowered from six months to 30 days. This has made it harder to get local residents trained for these shovel-ready jobs.
The local chapter was not giving up, he said. "We've taken it to the state Legislature and we've gotten a resolution passed in the City Council to take a look at the project labor agreement to see if it can be changed."
"It will be Detroiters' money and Detroiters should get the jobs or at least first chance at the jobs."
Photo: Odie Gibbs, Leon Smith and Carline Lang-Smith, from St. Louis, take time to pose for a photo at the CBTU convention. (PW/John Rummel)