Black labor leaders say united front needed in November to save democracy
The CBTU convention in Houston. | Cameron Harrison / People's World

HOUSTON—The full house at the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) rose to their feet as April Verrett, the newly elected woman, and first African American, president of the two-million strong Service Employees International Union (SEIU) approached the microphone.

Verrett had come straight from the recent SEIU convention in Philadelphia on May 25 to celebrate with 1,200 delegates and guests at the 53rd International CBTU convention in Houston. The crowd included Black labor leaders from the United States, Canada, and different countries in Africa.

Speaking as one of the family of Black trade unionists, Verrett said, “We are building a powerful labor movement that unites us across race, place, and faith!” She backed this call for unity with a pledge to organize one million new members in the next ten years.

Verrett, talking about the challenges facing African American, Latino/a, and all working families in the U.S., linked the struggles for racial and economic justice with those for climate and immigrant justice. She urged organized labor and the whole working class to fully mobilize to deliver a necessary resounding defeat to the MAGA fascist forces in November.

“No single union can do this alone,” she exhorted the crowd. “It’s all of us together.”

SEIU is seeking, Verrett continued, to build a united front of workers to “usher in a new era of worker power. A new era of political power. A future where poverty wages are ended once and for all” and a society in which “racism and exploitation are ended.” The poverty wages paid to U.S. workers, most oppressively to women of color, is modern wage slavery with its roots in the chattel slavery that provided the foundational capital for U.S. economic development and wealth.

“It’s time to rise up from the ashes and keep on keepin’ on,” Verrett said. “It’s time to leave behind business as usual. It’s time to leave behind the status quo,” she continued, to cheers and a standing ovation.

In addition to Verrett, the SEIU convention also elected Rocio Saenz, who came to the U.S. at the age of 22 from Mexico, to be SEIU’s first Latina Secretary-Treasurer.

“SEIU demonstrated that we are committed to the leadership of women of color,” said Verrett. Service employees are striving to build an anti-racist, anti-sexist, pro-democratic union that puts the struggles against racism and exploitation front and center.

“The world needs us to be bold and to be innovative. It’s time for us to step up. Workers all over the world are courageous and taking action!” she said.

Speaking of the fascist threat MAGA forces pose if they win the 2024 elections, Verrett said “Black workers cannot fight this fight alone. It requires a united front” of all working-class people to block the ultra-right threat and build towards a more democratic, pro-worker society.

Continuing in the same vein, AFSCME President Lee Saunders stressed the need for “clarity and honesty” about the political situation facing the trade union movement and our country.

“We need to agitate, educate, and organize like democracy itself depends on it. Because democracy itself does depend on it,” he exclaimed. “We’re going to need an overwhelming force of the organized labor movement and Black people” if we stand any chance of blocking the fascist threat in November.

However, Saunders also spoke to the grievances felt by the working class, and particularly the Black working class. “There are important trade union issues not addressed,” like the PRO Act, “as well as Black issues not addressed…but to not vote is a serious mistake,” he said. “Our ancestors died for the right to vote, and we should never give that away. I’ll be damned if I give mine away.

“Trump is going to pay for stacking the Supreme Court. He’s going to pay for making the entire public workforce a so-called ‘right-to-work’ sector… I promise you that!” Saunders warned.

He acknowledged that “there’s a lot of apathy about this election… But if you think that Donald Trump will be good for working people, will be good for the labor movement… I want some of what you’re smoking.”

In order to effectively block the anti-union and anti-Black MAGA forces, Saunders said, we will need to “vote up and down the ballot”—from president to Congress, city councils to school boards.

“The choice is between democracy and autocracy,” Saunders pointed out. “The choice is between continuing the fight for racial justice or entering an era of racial animosity. We need to defend our unions, and we need to defend democracy!”

Verrett and Saunders were expanding on similar sentiments expressed at the CBTU convention last Thursday by Fred Redmond, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO and the highest-ranking Black trade unionist in the U.S.

“Whether we like it or not, this election comes down to us: Black people and the labor movement,” Redmond had said. The upcoming election determines “the future of this country and the future of our labor movement.” What’s at stake in the 2024 election, according to Redmond, is the continued ability for the working class to fight for “worker’s rights, voting rights, civil rights, healthcare, water rights, the right to live and have a good-paying union job.”

In his keynote address on Thursday, Rev. Terrence Melvin, CBTU International President, said “We need to bury MAGA and defend our hard-earned gains. This is a game of inches…not a game of perfection. The stakes are just too high.”

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Cameron Harrison
Cameron Harrison

Cameron Harrison is a Labor Education Coordinator for the People Before Profits Education Fund. Based in Detroit, he was a grocery worker and a proud member of UFCW Local 876, where he was a shop steward. He writes about the labor and people’s movements and is a die-hard Detroit Lions fan.

Eric Brooks
Eric Brooks

Eric Brooks is Co-convener of the African-American Equality Commission, CPUSA. He is organizing for an anti-racist society that puts the needs of working families over those of the rich.