Black trade unionists challenge corporate power in America
From left to right: State Sen. Karla May; Lew Moye, President Emeritus St. Louis CBTU; Claude Cummings, International President CWA. | Tony Pecinovsky / People's World

St. LOUIS – “With union support workers are becoming aware that they are pawns in the bottom line in a corporate drive for profits,” Claude Cummings, International President of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) told more than 200 St. Louis area Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) members and friends gathered at the downtown Marriot Hotel on Saturday, September 2.

Workers are “fed up with corporate greed and a lack of respect,” Cummings declared, and they are “fighting back.”

He also linked worker’s rights to the electoral arena, and added, “We face two very different and distinct political choices…much like the choices Black trade unionists faced in 1972” when CBTU was founded. At that time the choice was between Richard Nixon, the anti-labor Republican, and George McGovern, the Democratic Party candidate for the presidency.

“Power of the Past, Force of the Future,” was the theme of the packed banquet hall as the St. Louis chapter of CBTU celebrated its 50th Anniversary – founded in 1973, one year after the initial Chicago conference.

According to Marcia Gant, vice president of the CWA Local 6355, the St. Louis chapter has been a “bridge between labor and the Black community helping to defeat so-called right-to-work both in 1978 and in 2018.”Labor and its allies mobilized massive campaigns to turn back right to work for less schemes pushed by Republicans and right wingers generally.

Additionally, she said, CBTU is a “champion of Black political empowerment…a leader on the front lines.”

Pat White, President of the Greater St. Louis Central Labor Council, representing 80,000 union members echoed Gant. He said, “Even though we’ve worked hard to diversify the workforce, we know we have a long way to go.” He praised the work of the Building Union Diversity (BUD) Program, noting that it recently graduated its 30th class.

White also thanked CBTU for holding the labor movement’s “feet to the fire” and for bringing “uncomfortable topics to the forefront.” Because of CBTU “our movement is stronger!”

St. Louis chapter President Emeritus Lew Moye provided some history on the chapter’s founding. Moye, who served as chapter President for 35 years and is also a 59-year leader of the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 110, noted that St. Louis was “ripe for the founding of CBTU.”

He said, even prior to CBTU’s founding “Black trade unionists were discussing the lack of Black leadership in the labor movement.” He added that there were five St. Louisans among the 1,200 Black trade unionists that attended the 1972 conference that led to CBTU’s formation.

He added that the St. Louis chapter developed a reputation over the years as a no-nonsense chapter of committed activists. “They say…‘if you want to get something done, call St. Louis CBTU.’”

The chapter’s current President Jay O’zier, a member of Carpenters’ Local 92, led a slide show presentation of photos documenting the chapter’s activist history. Photos included CBTU members at picket lines and rallies, at marches and protests; photos of members who ran for and won local, state, and national office; as well as photos of CBTU members with national movement leaders, such as They showed photos of the late Charlene Mitchell, an active supporter of CBTU. She was chair of the National Coordinated Committee to Free Angela Davis and Executive Director of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, one of the most important civil rights organizations of the 1970s and 80s.

One photo O’zier was most proud of was when a leader of the African National Congress (ANC) attended a St. Louis area banquet to thank the St. Louis chapter for its support in the fight against apartheid in South Africa. For example, in the 1980s CBTU member and Alderman of the 22nd Ward Kenny Jones, an iron worker by trade, led the anti-apartheid divestment campaign in St. Louis’ City Hall, calling for all city investments and pension funds to be divested from South Africa.

Numerous elected officials attended the banquet, including Missouri State Senator and CBTU member Karla May. May, a member of CWA Missouri State Workers Local 6355, said she was “forged through CBTU. The education I received through CBTU laid a strong foundation,” she said, which enables her to better fight for workers in Jefferson City, Missouri’s Capitol.

Center: Jim Wilkerson, directly behind him Laura Francis Wilkerson, his wife; far right Fay Davis, Secretary of St. Louis CBTU, Jay O’zier, President of St. Louis CBTU; and other CBTU members. | Tony Pecinovsky / People’s World

Though unable to attend, Congresswoman Cori Bush sent greetings and noted that CBTU “is the voice of Black workers in St. Louis.”

Lisa Wilkerson, daughter of long-time CBTU leader and St. Louis chapter founder, Jim Wilkerson, made special remarks on behalf of her father who is fighting Parkinson’s disease. Wilkerson, a member of the Operating Engineers International Union Local 513, recalled his path from the St. Louis Black Labor Council to CBTU. He emphasized the “collective fight” to defeat the so-called right-to-work in 1978, to free the Wilmington Ten, and to defeat apartheid in South Africa.

Fitting the evening’s theme to become a “Force of the Future,” the chapter also emphasized the role of young workers in building and solidifying the labor movement today.

Oluwadamini Melvin, a member of CWA Local 6355 and Chair of the CBTU Under 40 Leaders Committee, said, “We have the power to change the trajectory of the future.” He noted the “importance of mentorships” and implored elder CBTU leaders to “remember the youth…to give them space to thrive, to drive, to learn, and to empathize. And most importantly to put resources behind us.”

“We proudly stand on the shoulders of giants,” Cummings concluded in his speech, while cautioning the attendees of a “dangerous agenda” unfolding in Texas, Florida, and across the country. He said, the far-right wants to “rewrite the past…they want to eradicate the best of the past and replace it with the worst of the present. The very foundation of our government is being threatened by racists, a hateful throwback to the worst of us.”

He noted the array of new “voter suppression schemes” across the country and said, “They want to seize control of elections if they don’t like the results.”

However, he also told the assembled Black trade unionists not to despair. He emphasized coalition building and collaboration. He said, “Mobilize our people and get them out to vote. Democracy is on the Ballot. Our future as a nation is on the ballot. We’ve got to fight. We can’t give up.”

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Tony Pecinovsky
Tony Pecinovsky

Tony Pecinovsky is the author of "Let Them Tremble: Biographical Interventions Marking 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA" and author/editor of "Faith In The Masses: Essays Celebrating 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA." His forthcoming book is titled "The Cancer of Colonialism: W. Alphaeus Hunton, Black Liberation, and the Daily Worker, 1944-1946." Pecinovsky has appeared on C-SPAN’s "Book TV" and speaks regularly on college and university campuses across the country.