Monday, June 10, 2024

Is organized Labor taking African Americans for granted?

July 15, 2008 by  
Filed under News, Weekly Columns

( There is no question the civil rights and labor movements have shared a public commitment to issues of parity and justice affecting African Americans and working people over the years. Forty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King embodied that partnership when he led his last march for justice in support of the striking sanitation workers of AFSCME Local 1733 in Memphis.

But, it is also true that the union movement has been slow to practice what it preaches when it comes to equality within its own ranks.

In the early years of the labor movement, African Americans were systematically excluded from major unions, which led to the formation of separate Black labor unions. A. Philip Randolph founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925 and waged a 12-year fight to gain recognition by the American Federation of Labor. He went on to become a national leader in the fight against racism within unions, in the workplace and throughout America.

Those early barriers have slowly fallen and now Blacks represent about 14 percent of American union workers. But, at a time when African Americans are an increasingly important part of the organized labor’s future, they are still not adequately represented at the top echelons of the American labor leadership. But don’t take my word for it.

Listen to what William Lucy, AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer and the highest ranking African American in American labor has to say. In remarks to a 2005 national summit on labor and diversity in Chicago, Lucy said that at a time when the vast majority of new union members are women and people of color, “a majority of people of color still encounter barriers to gaining leadership positions within their union and even where they have reached leadership positions, they face additional challenges.”

Lucy recommends mentoring support, education, training, and other pro-active efforts to achieve opportunities and equality within the union movement. The National Urban League agrees. Organized labor must not take African American support for granted.

As the presidential election of 2008 draws closer, the American labor movement is mobilizing to represent the interests of working people on issues like universal health care, the elimination of poverty and the right to organize. Let’s hope they apply that same vigor to increasing diversity in union leadership and in the continued fight for equal opportunity throughout America.

As A. Philip Randolph reminded us, “Salvation for a race, nation or class must come from within.”

Written By Marc Morial

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