AFL-CIO to the nation: Make King’s dream America’s reality
Martin Luther King Jr. addresses thousands of civil rights supporters gathered in front of the Lincolm Memorial for the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. |AP Photo

WASHINGTON—Faced with the renewed and rising right-wing onslaught against women, workers, immigrants and people of color, unionists at the AFL-CIO’s annual Martin Luther King Civil and Human Rights Conference spent their two days in D.C. focusing on reclaiming voting rights, battling voter suppression and educating and empowering workers to ensure they can vote this year – and then getting them to do so. The importance of turning President Trump out of office was emphasized repeatedly.

Richard Trumka

“Dr. King’s fight, the civil rights fight, our fight was for goals big and great: Justice, jobs, dignity and a union,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in opening the two-day conference on Jan. 17. “They’re still our fights.” But the gains are in peril.

Speaker after speaker sounded those themes as they marched to the podium. The confab’s second day was a follow-up nuts and bolts “political boot camp” on workers’ rights, voting rights, legislative fights, the 2020 census, and encouraging even more unionists to seek public office to give ourselves a seat at the table, and other topics.

Expanding, or curbing, voting rights, is important this year for workers, people of color, women and other voters – including, one speaker said, the white working class whose living standards and political rights have also been attacked. And a key part of the approach to all voters is to appeal to them as workers, several speakers added.

“Why is the franchise worth fighting for?” Trumka asked. “Nothing else in democracy makes the powerless so powerful.” And voting rights foes fight so hard to bar people from the polls “because they’re afraid of us.”

The peril comes from what speakers termed a racist, xenophobic and sexist president – several called him “the man with the orange hair” – along with archaic barriers to voting, even in blue states, opposition from other Republicans, and the Supreme Court’s five-man majority of GOP-named justices.

Dora Cervantes

“Just in this administration alone, we’ve had 48 plant closings,” Machinists Secretary-Treasurer Dora Cervantes said of GOP Oval Office occupant Donald Trump. “And the administration said we’ve added jobs. Yeah…minimum wage jobs.”

But it’s not just Trump on the national level who affects people’s everyday lives, speakers added. As one put it, whom you vote for, on the local level, determines whether your street lights stay on. Said NAACP Chairman Leon Russell: “Public policy will kill you, and it’s not just (killing) black people, either.”

That led to the conference’s theme: “Give us the ballot,” because the right to vote and the power of votes brings political and economic power in its wake, speakers affirmed.

To underline the point, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre was one of several speakers who cited electoral gains for workers, women, and people of color in 2018 and last year, and who challenged the crowd to achieve the same result this fall.

Tefere Gebre

Another speaker pointed out how a newly elected African-American female state representative in Connecticut, a Democrat, joined with a new female state senator, also a Democrat and a union member, to push the $15 statewide minimum wage through the legislature.

But a sign of how gains can be wiped out occurred the day before Gebre spoke, in Florida.

Last November, Sunshine State voters repealed a Jim Crow-era constitutional provision which permanently denied the right to vote of people who completed their prison sentences. Their new Amendment 4, passed 64%-36%, would re-enfranchise 21% of all African-American Floridians.

What Gebre did not say: The Florida Supreme Court, at the GOP-run state government’s behest, unanimously ruled on Jan. 16 the state’s 1.4 million ex-prisoners could not vote until they paid all their fines and fees associated with sending them to jail. That’s hundreds or thousands of dollars per person.

Many of the speakers concentrated on empowering African-American women, the most-reliable bloc of pro-worker and progressive voters in the electorate. Some 67% of those women voted in 2018, outstripping other groups, one speaker said.

The overwhelming majority voted Democratic, including 96% for Barack Obama in 2012 and 92% for Hillary Clinton in 2016, one speaker said. African-American women also were a large share, if not an outright majority, of the MLK conference crowd.

Glynda Carr

“Black women are also still severely underrepresented” in political positions, added Glynda Carr of New York-based Higher Heights for America, a Brooklyn campaign finance committee (PAC) dedicated to raising funds to elect more African-American women to office.

“We’ve sent a teacher (Connecticut’s Jahana Hayes, a union member), a nurse (Illinois’ Lauren Underwood), a sexual assault survivor, and a mother of a slain black boy (Georgia’s Lucy McBath) to Congress…But we’re still only 317 of the 7,000 state legislators” nationwide, Carr said.

African-American women are also a key voting bloc in the current Democratic presidential contest, though speakers did not say so. African-Americans in general, and women in particular, are a majority of Democratic voters in the first Southern primary, in South Carolina on Feb. 29.

One way to do so, they added: Social media. African-American women use social media for longer periods of time – three to four hours daily – compared to other population groups. They also have wider social networks and are more used to communicating that way. Unions must leverage that, they said.

But other speakers warned the road to enfranchisement and empowerment would not be easy.

“The current White House resident has convinced the white working class that the alleged billionaire there has more in common with them,” said Elise Bryant, a News Guild local officer and president of the Coalition of Labor Union Women.

The response from some speakers was that activists – the entire crowd — must approach people as workers, not as members of particular groups because workers’ issues would unite them with each other, and transcend race.

“It’s a struggle every day,” for workers, said Cervantes. “CEOs get 100 times what we do. We’re struggling for $15 an hour,” and the right to unionize. Actually, she understated the pay gap. The AFL-CIO Executive Pay Watch says median yearly pay in 2017 for a CEO of the Fortune 500 was 287 times that of a median worker’s wages.

“But there is wage equality” along with rising pay “in a union contract,” between “white, black, brown” and people of other colors, Cervantes pointed out.

And Ken Washington, a Laborer and president of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO, chided his fellow unionists for defections to Trump. Those defections helped swung his state, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan to the GOP nominee four years ago, giving him those states’ electoral votes, and putting him in the Oval Office despite his 3 million vote loss of the popular vote..

“We did see more voting against our own interests,” Cervantes admitted. “So we’ve started an active role within our union to educate our members. That should get the wheels going.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.