On July 19, 2016, educators at the American Federation of Teachers’ national convention marched through downtown Minneapolis shouting “Black Lives matter”, “Justice for Philando,” and “We want justice, we want peace, in our schools and in the streets.” Leaders of the Minneapolis and St. Paul Federations sat in the street in their union colors as an act of civil disobedience aimed at local banks that fund prisons over schools, and local police that brutalize and even kill communities of color with impunity.
The Police Federations of St Paul and Minneapolis were quick to chastise the teachers for showing a lack of solidarity with their union brothers and sisters in blue.
This schism in the labor movement is nothing new. From its early years the labor movement moved along two opposing paths, capitulating to racist divide and conquer tactics of the bosses, or organizing against them.
One of the first victories of the nascent labor movement was a major capitulation. As the primary proponents of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, labor committed it’s original sin — criminalizing brethren paid the least, using racism as a tool. It is a sin echoed over the decades, crystalized in the cry THEY take OUR jobs.
It is a sin we continue to commit when we allow immigrant workers to be criminalized, dehumanized, denied citizenship and basic human rights. Today there are union leaders in SEIU and UFCW, among others — who are championing immigrants and undocumented workers. In nearly every local ,when it comes to immigration, there is an opportunity for workers to decide which side they are on.
In that same era that the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, the Ku Klux Klan had its first major success when it divided and conquered tenant farmers, sharecroppers and cotton textile workers who had organized unions made up of Black and White workers in the South. Some White people, like the Georgian Tom Watson, actually went from leadership in biracial labor movements to leadership in the Klan— so great was the victory for southern factory bosses and the old plantation elite.
In the early 1900s the still new American Federation of Labor set about organizing “skilled” white, male, workers into separate trades. The Industrial Workers of the World on the other hand, flourished by doing the opposite — uplifting those on the bottom of the pay scale and organizing women and non-whites –which at the time included workers now considered white. (The race idea, made up by elites, proved so flexible, so divorced from science, that it could turn a person white over night, or vice versa.)
IWW members were no less prone to bigotry than their AFL siblings, but they had that motto, an injury to one is injury to all. In the 21st century that sentiment is echoed in the words of Paul Wellstone We all do better when we all do better.
In the first half of the 20th century, some workers of color formed their own unions– Black sleeping car porters, left out of the white train conductors brotherhood, and Latina Pecan Shellers in Texas and New Mexico. Likewise today some workers of color, are organizing outside of the AFL-CIO. Some, like CTUL in Minneapolis, have since been embraced by the union federations they out-organized.
In the 1930s The New Deal’s National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) left out farm workers and domestic workers at a time when opportunities for African Americans and Latino workers were limited to jobs as maids, janitors, garbage pick-up and farm work. Unfortunately some leaders of the AFL helped to make sure those workers remained unorganized, and helped keep the unionized plant door closed to people of color.
In the 1960s — the Teamsters — that beloved union that made Minneapolis a union town in the 30s — showed up in the fields in Northern California where Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez were struggling to bring farmworkers into the AFL-CIO fold. Instead of picket signs and solidarity banners the Teamsters brought billy clubs, to beat up the striking workers.
Likewise, today some union members are protecting their fellow members when they commit race crimes. The Police unions are the worst, the most egregious, but they are also the canary in the coal mine — forcing us to look at how unions can operate as white clubs, keeping people of color out. This labor activist Cathy Jones’ recent experience is indicative of an attitude we must fight:
On the day that Philando Castile was murdered by a police officer in Falcon Heights, people gathered at the Minnesota Governor’s mansion in St. Paul. One of those who spent that first night in front of the Mansion was Cathy, a postal worker who recently helped organize People of Color Union Members, (POCUM) through the Minneapolis AFL-CIO. Cathy called in sick and and filed her day off as an emergency. When she came back to work management had approved her absence. The next day her Union steward told her she might be in trouble with management since she was on the news.
“He did not realize management had already approved my absence”Cathy told me. “The union was trying to get me in trouble because they don’t like Black Lives Matter and my work with the movement. In this instance, thank goodness the union doesn’t have the authority to discipline. Only management can do that. I’m glad my employer had my back.”
Cathy’s experience is shameful and indicative. We need a principles to guide us as union members that don’t allow a union brother to do that to a union sister; that don’t allow a union to cover up the high crimes and daily harassments of people of color, be they union members, or the public we serve as workers.
And we need to look at our solidarity. Are we out there for those who are most oppressed, singing their song? The fast food workers — predominantly workers of color, are demanding $15 minimum wage. It is time for the rest of the labor movement to follow their lead. In Minneapolis right now that means pressuring City council DFLers who have or seek union backing, to allow the voters to vote on a $15 minimum wage for the city, or pass a $15 minimum wage ordinance for the city. No council person who rejects the petitions of thousands, (and the sweat equity of dozens of labor activists to collect them) should receive a union federation endorsement.
To paraphrase the old miners union anthem: Which side Are We On?