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For Black unionists, labor reforms like those in public education, law enforcement and politics are paper pronouncements, not a reality. They also know that “reform” emanates from privileged conversation and closed door decisions by leaders who do not look like them; organized labor’s discussions are not intended to benefit Black workers.
Debate over the future of the AFL-CIO began in earnest about four years ago. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) started to focus on how to reverse the unions’ downward slide. Then, as now, Blacks were phantom non-participants in developing alternative strategies. (Unified, Blacks in organized labor could be a significant force in crafting labor’s direction, strengthening themselves as well as labor.)
Three years ago, Bill Fletcher, president of TransAfrica Forum (formed to raise awareness in the U.S. about issues facing the nations and peoples of Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America), offered insightful perspective on organized labor’s “train wreck.”
Fletcher cited SEIU’s main suggested proposals: mergers of national/international unions so that there’s less competition and better use of resources and focusing unions on organizing workers in their core areas. He maintained that the greater challenge facing organized labor included: globalization; the manner in which the U.S. government had shifted more and more to the Right and become increasingly hostile to workers; how unions should organize critical regions like the U.S. south and southwest; how to ally with African Americans and Latinos in these regions in order to be successful; how to engage in political action in such a way that working people can advance agendas that represent their interests and not simply those of unions or political parties; the continued relevance of fighting racism and sexism; how to work with and build mutual support with workers in other countries—and the critical importance of joining with others to fight for democracy.
Fletcher contended that labor’s fight focused on arcane issues such as whether the AFL-CIO should give larger or smaller rebates to unions that are allegedly organizing and whether the AFL-CIO Executive Council should grow or shrink. These contentious debates ignored more profound problems such as the way unions in the U.S. see themselves, their lack of a mission and strategy, and blindness to the real features of the barbaric society unfolding before their eyes.
Bill Fletcher contends that the culture of the U.S. union movement generally precludes honest debate. Individuals or groups who raise unpopular opinions critical of leadership often find themselves isolated or undermined. He also found it amazing that some unions were threatening to leave the AFL-CIO and others threatening to drive others out after so little discussion. No attempt was made by either side to bring the debate to the members.
He felt while that the debate needed to take place it should have been reframed in its entirety. He insisted it needed to be about a compelling vision for the future of workers in the U.S. and the rest of the world, and strategies that work in the face of dramatic changes in the economy, and address how to stop using working people as cannon fodder in unjust imperialistic assertion of power. Fletcher concludes, “I keep wondering whether it is too much to ask of our leaders to think about the needs of working people rather than focusing on the alleged profundity of their rhetoric and the seductiveness of their own publicity.”
The split among and between labor unions affords Blacks and Latinos the opportunity, together, to craft reforms that unapologetically benefit their respective groups yet ultimately portend a stronger union movement.
In Los Angeles, Black-oriented labor groups would do well to form an “umbrella” group in order to maximize their influence while retaining primary affiliation with their respective unions. This would strengthen the chances of accomplishing mutually agree on objectives. (Accordingly, the Los Angeles A. Philip Randolph Institute recently began reassessing its mission and goals in order to increase overall effectiveness and its ability to collaborate with others for mutual benefit.
Black-Latino relations are barely on organized labor’s radar screen, but should be. Shoring up relations between the two groups has major implications, especially in Los Angeles’ schools and tangentially, with gangs and other problem areas. Collaborative Black-Latino strategic alternatives would serve as a base for stronger advocacy around mutually agreed on interests.
More on point for this discussion, inter-group collaboration should be an indispensible part of organized labor’s arsenal to combat racial and ethnic injustice, internally and in the broader community.
Larry Aubry n can be contacted at e-mail