Black union leaders continue to make history

CHICAGO — Three seasoned Black union leaders came together recently at the home of the Rev. Addie Wyatt on this city’s South Side. Katie Jordan, president of the Chicago chapter of the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), Elwood Flowers Sr., vice president of the Illinois AFL-CIO, and Wyatt herself, a retired vice president of the United Packinghouse Workers Union, began by exchanging warm greetings. Casually, the conversation turned toward the purpose of their coming together: to assess the role of unions in Black America and the leadership contributions of Black union leaders.

A transit worker’s story

Elwood Flowers started in 1956 as a transit worker here in Chicago. After doing four years in the Navy, he began to work for what was to become the Chicago Transit Authority from which he is now retired even though he is still in the leadership of the state AFL-CIO. A Mr. Dave Shepard introduced him to the union, and he got involved with going to the monthly union meetings.

Flowers said, “At that time on the job it was not easy to have African Americans driving trains and buses; they were more at the janitorial level. Unions are important because they prevent discrimination against the individual, relative to what you do and get paid for doing it, and solidify working conditions. The union negotiates the contract with the company and creates an atmosphere for advancement on a fair scale. The union is the reason for the 8-hour day.”

When Harold Washington ran for mayor in 1983, Flowers was president of Amalgamated Transit Workers Union Local 308. According to Flowers, his union was one of the first to endorse Washington, and they provided foot soldiers and finances. He says they fashioned themselves after Charles Hayes, the African American leader of the United Packinghouse Workers Union, who was also with Washington from the start and became congressman in the 1st District after Washington won the mayoralty.

‘A nice lady meatpacker’

When Wyatt began to tell her story the room became very quiet and all eyes were on her. “I joined the union at 17. I came from a very rich family — we just didn’t have any money. I was looking for something that nobody seemed to be offering, and that was economic improvement. I had to work and have a decent job in order to live a decent life. I had experiences that made me feel terrible. They told me they were not hiring, and what they meant was that they were not hiring my color.

“Various experiences, including racism when it came to hiring, made me so angry that I developed a desire to fight back. Though active in the church, and that made you feel good, the church had no way of affecting your economic conditions. Someone told me it’s OK to want to fight back, but you’ve got to fight so you can win. That meant joining in the organization of workers which could affect the economic conditions: the union.

“Unions had a bad reputation of being rough and tough men, and they would say what is a nice lady like you doing messing around with the union? Anyway, I got a job at Armour and Company, and I was told that we had a good wage and other benefits because of the union, so I wanted to find out what this thing called the union was about.”

United action made possible

Wyatt continued, “When I went, I saw something I had never seen before. In the church, on special occasions white people would come to our Black church and participate in activities; but that was only on special occasions. When I went to that thing called the union, I saw Black and white and young and old and men and women. It was a kind of togetherness that gave us the strength to fight and win.

“It was not easy. We had to overcome the problems we had on the racial issue and with men versus women, but together we saw we could have the resources to fight back; the possibility of our united action would help us to overcome. I believed in that even though I had a difficult time being a young Black woman in this movement. We had a lot of training to do for ourselves and each other to teach each other what the struggle was all about in taking on these big companies. We had to have confidence in us. We learned how not to fight each other but to fight for each other. It was not easy; we were abused and sometimes it brings tears to my eyes, but we made it through.”

Dr. King supported unions

“I worked under Charles Hayes with great pride and great joy,” Wyatt said. “It was because of his leadership, and it wasn’t easy for him, that I had the opportunities I had. I took the program coordinator’s job in the union that was held prior by Oscar Brown Jr. In that position, I was responsible for waiting for Dr. King to bring him to the auditorium where we were having a program before anybody really knew who Dr. King was.

“The whites sitting there were filled with racism, and our job was to break it down. Mr. Hayes came to me and said he had promised to raise funds for Dr. King, and he needed my help to do it. The majority of our membership was white and, in spite of that, my job was to get it done.

“The first time Dr. King came, they could not get anybody to wait to meet him because nobody else wanted to miss the conference, so they sent me because I was nobody. But by the time he got finished, you couldn’t get to Dr. King everybody was so overjoyed. That young man was powerful. I had to always coordinate the programs, and from then on if I would call him, he made it easy for me to deliver what ever we needed. Whenever I would call him, he would come. Oh yes, he supported the unions.

“I would not work on a job without a union because of what it means to your independence, your dignity, your confidence, and your strength. As an 83-year-old Black woman, where would I have been without the union? I can look back and say thank God for the union. We were fighting together for peace, equality and justice.”

Civil rights unionism, a tailor’s tale

Then Katie Jordan began to tell her story. She said, “Unions are the best thing that ever happened to us as Black people and women, besides God, and I think he opened that door for us. My story is a little different. I came to Chicago in 1960 with three little ones, and when I decided to go to look for work, it was because I wanted to make some Christmas money. I was a fitter/tailor and they had something sewing buttons on coats at the Lytton’s department store. The side I worked on was not unionized. The other side, the tailor shop, was unionized, and they made more money and had better benefits even though we were all working at the same company.

“Being union or nonunion didn’t matter to me at that time. I really didn’t even know the difference, until I got my paycheck. I had learned to make sure my pay was right, to help other workers make sure their pay was right, and to speak up when I thought something was wrong. I was able later to move to become a fitter, and once the whole place became unionized, I became one of the shop stewards for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union. Becoming a fitter as a Black person was unheard of; one of the executives said it would be over his dead body that a Black person would become a fitter.

“I held every office in my local except treasurer, and I eventually became the president. I was one of the first women to be appointed to the joint board of directors for the union. Most of the participants were men; for many years I was the only or one of the few women to participate. I have been the president of CLUW for 14 years. There were a lot of things going on in that company that did not get straightened out until CLUW came along. They wanted to name all women assistant fitters, so that they could pay women less. We said, no, that’s not going to work.

“Once our shop got Black fitters, and we started talking about civil rights, then you started seeing Black salespeople on the floors. Before, there were no Black people selling clothes at Lytton’s.”

Washington’s legacy

Jordan continued, “During the Harold Washington days, I knew him because he was my congressman. That was my first time signing up to be a voter registrar; I was going to get out there and register some people to vote. With the union, when Harold ran in the primary, my union did not endorse him, but the rank and file voted for him anyway. Then when Harold won the primary, the union got out there working for him. When he became mayor, he was a reachable person.

“Unions need to be involved in politics because a lot of legislation affects working people, so they have to be involved for their own benefit. So when you talk about people who are going to support working people, unions want people to run who are going to be true to themselves and believe that what they are doing is right, that this is right for working people. Unions aren’t looking for people who will support this or that just because of union money; unions are looking for people who support working people because they know it’s the right thing to do. The union has not just benefited people in the union; when the union talks, they are talking about working people.”

Aldermen, which side are you on?

Flowers said, “Unions have meant fighting for a livable wage which is a big thing going on right now with the aldermen here in Chicago. All of that is dealing with the needs of the individual who wants to raise a family and establish themselves in the community. You have to have some kind of quality of life.

“We even had an attempt two or three times to privatize the CTA. Privatizing means having people come in and do a job for $7 or $8 an hour when the job is paying now $17 or $18 dollars an hour. That means the union is out of it, there are no benefits, and nobody is saying how they will administer overtime. It’s going to take two jobs to keep your head above water. Why can Costco pay for medical expenses and livable wages but Wal-Mart won’t? Wal-Mart is one of the wealthiest companies in the world.”

Unions make us strong

“It’s the union that makes us strong,” Wyatt said. “Strong enough to do what? Strong enough to force those companies to give us decent wages and working conditions while we give them a decent day’s work. We are entitled to it; we are entitled to a decent way of life for ourselves and our families. That’s why we work, but they won’t give it to us unless we make them. And we can’t make them, unless we can fight. That’s the purpose of the union, so we can fight together and for our protection. The union makes you strong enough to fight the enemies who try to destroy us.”

Jordan said, “If a person is working, they deserve to get paid and they deserve to be treated right. The only reason we even work on a job is because we need it. It’s all about dignity on the job. You want dignity on the job. That’s also the purpose of the union. Anytime you talk about confirmed equality, you are only going to find it in a union contract. For anyone to try to turn Black people the other way when it comes to unions, they have their own agenda for doing that. That’s why we have to keep telling our story. One person can do nothing, but all of us together — that’s the union. The only way we can get justice is if we stick together in a union.”

Flowers agreed, “One of the reasons for unions is to keep the runaway abuses against labor in check; that was the reason unions came about in the beginning. The union is an association of the workers which speaks for them. When they come at me attacking unions with that broad brush, I say no. Unions are the best thing that happened to Black people that are in them.

“I used to tell the younger members coming in; they would ask me why should they pay union dues; why do they need a union? I would say, the wage, vacation time, and other benefits including a pension — all of that is a result of the fight of the union and that’s why you have it, not because of the kindness of the company, but because of what the union put in that contract.”

Wyatt said she learned about the company’s attitude toward workers early on. “I learned from negotiating my first contract, that the company cares nothing about the workers; they care more about the machines than they do the workers and the workers have to know that. Through the union, we fought for respect as workers, as women, and as Blacks,” she said.

Stories that must be told

I had to fight back tears as each of the three veterans spoke with a passion. It was quite moving. They are living history telling great stories of the interlocking forces that helped us push forward as a people. I hope I spoke for us all when I thanked them.

Dee Myles is a political activist in Chicago.