“The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) has to be the lightning rod to mobilize labor to formulate actions to turn things around,” stated Lew Moye, chairman of the organization’s St. Louis chapter. Moye expects St. Louis to be represented by 40 to 50 members at the CBTU national convention in San Francisco this weekend where 1,500 delegates and guest from 60 chapters will gather.

Moye stressed the importance of this year’s meet, given the national job loss situation. “On the shop floor, it’s jobs, trade issues and the Bush administration moves to do away with our overtime pay that are on people’s minds,” said Moye, who is shop chairman for United Auto Workers Local 110 at the St. Louis South Assembly plant. Workers there build Chrysler minivans.

The CBTU’s annual Memorial Day weekend conventions have become a fixture on labor’s calendar. It was a resolution passed at its 1980 meeting, at the initiative of steelworkers in the Chicago chapter, that first called for a national labor march on Washington against the anti-labor policies of the Reagan administration. After many locals and internationals adopted that call, the AFL-CIO called the historic Solidarity Day March in 1981.

“Historically the CBTU has always been in the forefront,” said Moye, citing the group’s pioneering role in building support for South African trade unions’ freedom struggles and in the fight for jobs. “We have to continue to play that role. Political action will certainly be very high on the agenda. We definitely need to make changes at all levels, particularly presidential,” he continued. “Mobilizing for 2004 has to be key.”

St. Louis chapter trustee Jim Wilkerson, who attended CBTU’s founding convention with Moye 32 years ago, agreed, pointing out that this week several chapter members were attending a labor-sponsored voter-mobilization workshop in Philadelphia. Wilkerson said these members will train other St. Louis workers to work on voter education and registration. “Voter education is critical,” said Wilkerson, a member of Operating Engineers Local 513. “Bush is looking for every way to split the working class, trying to confuse workers with issues like guns.” In looking for ways to build unity, Wilkerson recalls the late 1970s, when the CBTU in St. Louis “did a hell of a job mobilizing to keep Missouri from joining the ranks of right-to-work states.” That effort was not forgotten. “Just a few weeks ago,” continued Wilkerson, “a young white ironworker on the job told me how his father had told him about the critical role of Black workers in that battle.”

The convention’s theme of “Advancing the Working Families Agenda” seems right on target with the release this week of the disturbing findings of a study on the wage gap in California by the not-for-profit Public Policy Institute of California. The study found that average hourly wages for African- American men in California were only $15.41, compared to $20.83 for white men, or just 74 cents on the dollar. This differential has increased from 1989, when African-American men made 81 percent of the wages of white men. The report, “Racial and Ethnic Wage Gaps in the California Wage Market,” found that differences in educational levels accounted for only a few cents in the gap, and that differences in occupations filled by the two groups could not be responsible for the differences at all. This wage gap will surely be one of the “tough issues to tackle on our watch” that CBTU president William Lucy referred to in his call to the convention. Lucy urged delegates to come “with your sleeves rolled up, ready to work.”

The author can be reached at rwood@pww.org