Minneapolis unions’ commission on racial, economic justice develops work model
Members of the People of Color Union Members caucus will participate in the 2017 Juneteenth celebration. Minneapolis Labor Review photo

MINNEAPOLIS (PAI) — “What can be done in my own union to improve our commitment to racial justice?” That’s just one question defining the scope of the work ahead for union members participating in the work of the Minneapolis Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice, a panel whose work may become a model for others around the country.

The commission is an initiative of the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation and its People of Color Union Members caucus (POCUM). The project grew out of a 2016 visit by national AFL-CIO leaders who were on a nationwide listening tour on racial issues, following the killings of unarmed young African-American men by police officers.

A diverse group of local union members are participating in the Minneapolis commission, which has met several times, including discussions about participants’ own attitudes about race and experiences with racism.

“We’ve had at times difficult conversations, a lot of ‘aha’ moments for people,” commented participant Mary Turner, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association.

Minneapolis Labor Federation’s Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice: JoAnn Campbell-Sudduth, Education Minnesota retiree; Cathy Jones, NALC Branch 9 member; Mary Turner, president, Minnesota Nurses Association; and Marie Dino, AFSCME Local 3800 member. Minneapolis Labor Review photo

“As African-Americans, we know about power and privilege, but for the white folks in the room, it was painful — especially things they never thought about,” added JoAnn Campbell-Sudduth, an Education Minnesota retiree. She co-chairs the commission, along with Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation President Chelsie Glaubitz Gabiou. “Now more than ever, race and racial justice issues are really playing out in our day-to-day lives,” Glaubitz Gabiou said. “The labor movement needs to be an agent of change.”

So far, she added, the commission’s biggest decision is not to become a permanent group or issue a “final report.” Instead, she expects “it’s going to be cohorts of leaders.” A second leadership group will begin meeting in February 2018 and a third group will begin meeting in December 2018.

Each will include 15-20 union members who will use a 4-day orientation to know each other. Over the next 18 months, they will meet, discuss, learn new skills and take on specific projects. The first cohort, Glaubitz Gabiou said, “is the group that’s kind of figuring it out.” She added, “ours is lifted up as a model for what other central labor councils are going to do.”

“The Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation has been a great space for different unions to be able to discuss and plan how to tackle internal equity,” agreed commission participant Jigme Ugen, executive vice president of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota. Through the commission process, he said, “I can see a good pathway for leadership development opportunities for people of color in unions.”

“I’m really excited because we could really lead across this nation,” said one new leader, commission participant Brenda Johnson, a member of Minneapolis Federation of Teachers Local 59. “This work is rough,” Johnson said.

The first step is “courageous conversation. In Minnesota, we’re so ‘Minnesota Nice’ it’s hard for us to get to the core of the issue. We don’t understand each other and who we are. When we begin to understand, we learn we are more alike than we are different.”

“We’re sitting in such a turbulent time in the United States,” Johnson said. “How do we lead along the way and how do we support each other in the fight for equity in the USA? We have an opportunity and we need to grab hold of it — and not be afraid.”

“The fact we’re all coming together to do this endeavor is a huge step forward,” Turner said. Added Ugen: “You can’t win economic justice without winning racial justice. When people of color are struggling at the negotiating table or organizing, it’s bringing down wages every-where.” Said Campbell-Sudduth: “That is my interest, solidarity for all.”


Steve Share
Steve Share

Steve Share is Editor at Minneapolis Labor Review. Share is a member of the Minnesota Newspaper and Communications Guild (CWA Local 37002). In addition to editing the Labor Review, Share serves as communications director for the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation.