Black trade unionists urge labor unity

Warn against AFL-CIO restructuring that reduces minority representation, call for new Black political agenda

PHOENIX — “There are no more common allies than the broad community and organized labor, and there are no more natural allies than organized labor and the African American community,” Coalition of Black Trade Unionists President Bill Lucy told the estimated 1,500 delegates at the 34th annual CBTU convention here May 26.

The convention theme, “CBTU: Forging a New Vision for Tough Challenges Ahead,” attests to what many see as a critical moment for the U.S. labor movement. It is under intense pressure from an administration bent on destroying it. Meanwhile, some in labor are concerned that a restructuring proposal to drastically downsize the AFL-CIO Executive Council threatens to marginalize workers of color and women representation in the national labor federation.

In a unanimously passed resolution on reorganizing the AFL-CIO, the CBTU resolved to submit a proposal for “an immediate campaign to organize workers in the South and the Southwest where there are large sections of unorganized and exploited workers of color.”

In his keynote address, Lucy said Black workers — like other people of color and women — are central to organized labor’s attempt to become more relevant to an American workforce and labor movement that have changed greatly over the past half-century.

Lucy said, “I, for one, reject the notion that a select few shall dictate the needs of millions of current members of organized labor.” He added, “If labor’s mission is to raise the standard of living and improve the quality of life for all workers,” then labor must reflect not only its current members’ concerns, “but the hopes and aspirations of the millions that would join based upon that mission.”

Addressing the convention, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney called the CBTU the “heart and soul” of labor. No one has suffered under the policies of the Bush administration more than the families of African American workers, he noted. Fifty-five percent of the union jobs lost last year were held by African Americans, with 100,000 African Americans losing their jobs in 2004, many of them single mothers, Sweeney noted.

Repeating the theme, “It’s time to go back to Gary” — referring to the 1972 National Black Political Assembly in Gary, Ind., the largest African American political convention in the nation’s history — Lucy called for a new national meeting to develop an independent political agenda in the African American community to address these critical economic and social issues.

In an interview during the convention, Lucy told the World that in referring to the “Gary movement of old,” he was calling for “a recommitment” to formulating a Black social, political and economic agenda “that is applicable to all groups of our society but comes out of the Black condition.”

Sweeney told the convention he had invited suggestions and proposals for change from across the labor movement, resulting in thousands of responses from individual union members; national unions; state federations, central labor councils, constituency groups, and AFL-CIO departments, and from partner organizations and academics.

One of the most thoughtful proposals came from the CBTU, Sweeney said, quoting Lucy’s suggestion that “the federation leadership resist the call to reduce the size of the Executive Council. The added size of the council bears no relationship to the decline in labor’s fortunes.”

CBTU’s proposal, Sweeney said, urged integration of constituency group leadership into the AFL-CIO’s political and organizing programs, and strengthening of the labor movement at the state and local levels where AFL-CIO organizations are in close touch with allies and constituencies.

At a “town hall meeting” on African American, Native American, Asian American and Latino relations, including leaders from these communities, panels pointed out the importance of united action to defeat the ultra-right attacks on labor and the poor. After addressing the meeting, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) told the World, “The issue for people of color in the labor movement is that they have to stay together. As organizations change sometimes people of color are overlooked. And if they don’t stick together they lose out. And one of the things I want to share with them is if you don’t stick together then you come in on the short end of the stick.”

Dr. Juan Andrade Jr. of the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute told the town hall meeting that those in the room “represent the majority in every single one of the 100 largest cities in America. The largest cities in America look like you and me.”

This fact, he said, represents a potential for coalition building that can change the political equation in the country. “We can win” if we form the necessary coalitions, he said.

The convention unanimously passed a battery of progressive resolutions ranging from condemning the Iraq war to opposing Social Security privatization to setting up local anti-Wal-Mart committees, to calling for workshops at all levels of the labor movement that will “show the particular relationship between racism, capitalism and imperialism.”

Participant Eric Bitbull of AFSCME District Council 37, New York, told the World he found the convention “extremely successful.” It was a “unity party,” he said.