Black unionists link MLK Day with action

ST. LOUIS – “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a champion for the poor and working class. He fought for economic and social justice. Today we are all better off because of his efforts,” said Don Giljum after receiving the ‘Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Human Rights Award’ from the St. Louis chapter of CBTU, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionist.

Over 200 CBTU members, and their friends and allies, attended the 33rd Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Human Rights Award Banquet here on Jan. 17. The awardees were Don Giljum, business manager of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 148; Gerald T. Feldhaus, executive secretary-treasurer of the St. Louis Building and Construction Trades Council and Yvette Anyongo Goods, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1. 

Giljum called Dr. King  “the organizer of organizers,” adding, “the work of social justice is up to us.”

Yvette Goods, who is a leader in the Coalition of Labor Union Women, Missouri Women In Trades and the Electrical Workers’ Minority Caucus, echoed Giljum’s remarks. She said, “everybody can do a little something to make our community better. Get involved.”

Gerald Feldhaus, a former asbestos worker, cautioned the audience against the Republican attempt to weaken unions in Missouri by introducing so-called ‘right-to-work’ legislation. He said, “‘Right-to-work’ is anti-worker. It has nothing to do with a person’s right to a job. ‘Right-to-work’ is really a right to less pay, no protection and no benefits. It is an employer’s dream come true.”

Feldhaus continued, “‘Right-to-work’ isn’t just a union issue. It impacts all working men and women.”

According to the AFL-CIO, workers in ‘right-to-work’ states make on average about $5,000 less yearly than workers in other states, have fewer benefits and less vacation time.

The keynote speaker was Willie Baker, retired vice president of United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. Baker said, “Ordinary people doing extraordinary things – that’s what makes the difference. That’s Dr. King’s legacy.”

 “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about more than a dream,” Baker added. “. He talked about making that dream come true. He talked about making America better.”

A central theme throughout Baker’s speech was the relationship between words and policy. Baker said “words matter; policy matters more.”

“Don’t get side-tracked by verbiage. Concentrate on policy,” Baker added.

He said tea party rhetoric was dangerous because of its “political philosophy based on words of hate.” However, he continued, it is their political agenda we should really be worried about. “America would not be the America we know today. It would not be the America Dr. King dreamed of,” if the tea party gets its way.

St. Louis board of aldermen president Lewis Reed summed up the event when he said “the growth of the tea party is driven by hate. They are trying to turn our country around. However, we won’t go back. We have to get out every day and fight.”

The St. Louis CBTU chapter also celebrated the recent swearing-in of freshmen State Representatives Clem Smith and Karla May, Democrats of districts 71 and 57, respectively. Both are union members – Smith is a member of the Machinists Union District 837 and May is a member of the Communication Workers’ Union Local 6300. Both won hard-fought election campaigns during St. Louis’ August Primaries.

Image: From left to right, Lew Moye, Gerald Feldhaus, Yvette Anyango, Don Giljum, Willie L. Baker, Jr. Courtesy Mark Esters CWA 6355/PW


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.