Freedom weekend unites NAACP and labor

DETROIT — “The NAACP and labor have a marriage: health care, jobs, economic security. We cannot let this go,” said the Rev. Wendell Anthony, head of the Detroit branch of the NAACP, at a recent labor summit here.

The increase in the effects of racism, globalization, the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, and the role played by the world’s largest corporation, Wal-Mart, in “the race to the bottom” were themes running through the day’s talks.

Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson emphasized that race relations in the South are not just about race; they’re about maintaining a source of cheap labor. Racism makes it harder to win white workers to join a union in the South, Johnson said.

Concern about the “Wal-Martization” of the economy was the focus of the panel “Wal-Mart — at what cost to America’s future?”

In every community Wal-Mart goes into, the effect is fewer jobs, the lowering of wages and benefits for all workers, and “the creation of a permanent underclass,” said Paul Blake, national coordinator of Fifty-four percent of Wal-Mart employees have no health care, and that number has increased over the last two years, he said.

United Food and Commercial Workers union organizer Luis Espinosa reminded the audience of Wal-Mart’s past crimes of abusing undocumented workers and “locking-in” night shift workers. The company is shamelessly conducting a $58 million advertising campaign in the Hispanic press, he said.

Panel participant Maria Somma, organizer for the United Steelworkers union and head of the AFL-CIO’s Asian Pacific Labor Alliance, said the growth of Chinese exports in the past 12 years can be attributed to non-Chinese-owned global companies and their joint ventures.

“Global corporations account for 60 percent of Chinese exports to the U.S. This threat is less about trade with China than it is about trade with Wal-Mart and GE. We need to stop the Wal-Marts of the world from perpetuating poverty and poor working conditions in China.”

Luncheon keynote speaker Bill Lucy, president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State Council and Municipal Employees, railed against neo-conservative, supply-side economists who for almost 30 years have set U.S. economic policy, shredded the safety net, attacked public education, reduced the role of government and attacked labor.

Lucy tied racism to an unfair economic system that “does not give us a better life.” Racism and economic policies dictate social policies, he said. “If you keep people divided, you keep control.”

He urged a broad campaign for the Employee Free Choice Act, saying, “No one failing to support this act should get labor’s endorsement. In our unions, in our communities and in our cities, we need to pressure all our representatives to support it. It is the democracy in our country, not Iraq, we should be concerned about.”

Michigan AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney told the luncheon crowd, “The country is quickly changing for the worse.” Sounding the alarm, he said, “The top 1 percent has the income of the bottom 150 million.”

The summit was part of a three-day event sponsored by the nonprofit Freedom Institute for Economic, Social Justice and Political Empowerment, a Detroit organization affiliated with the local NAACP branch.