By IBEW 1245 Business Representative Al Fortier & IBEW 1245 Organizer Eileen Purcell
On Wednesday, October 21, the AFL-CIO Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice held its second hearing in a series of listening sessions across the United States.
The Commission’s goal is to provide “a safe, structured and constructive opportunity for local union leaders to discuss the persistence of racial injustice today in the workforce and in their communities, to ensure that the voices of all working people in the labor movement are heard, and to explore shared frameworks for understanding how racism that especially hurts minorities also deeply harms white workers.” (Feb. 25 Labor Commission on Racial & Economic Justice document)
California labor leaders joined AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler and the other Commissioners and Advisory Council members to hold a frank and thoughtful discussion on racial inequality and its economic and psychological impact on the house of labor and the community. In the morning session, IBEW 1245 Business Representative Al Fortier and IBEW 1245 Organizer Eileen Purcell represented IBEW 1245 during the round table discussions. They were later joined by former IBEW 1245 Senior Assistant Business Manager Dorothy Fortier, as participants listened to workers’ experiences with the criminal justice system.
The all-day session began with a roundtable discussion of labor leaders. Questions included: How do your rank-and-file members feel about the need to reach out to the community? How do you have constructive conversations around ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘All Lives Matter’? How do we engage white rank-and-file members on issues of race and gender inequality? Leaders shared ways their locals are reaching out to the community and reaching across the racial divides that employers often use to weaken the labor movement.
Special guest speaker, UC Berkeley Law Professor Ian Haney-Lopez, sketched the history of “dog whistle” politics: the deliberate political strategy to employ race-baiting and coded language to stir up fear and division, while connecting it to a resentment of government and those government policies that historically shored up the labor movement and led to the creation of the middle class. He called upon labor to
- Speak out against racism, including the coded race talk, wherever it rears its head;
- Integrate race and economic justice;
- Build a broad social movement that takes pride in mutual respect and makes demands against government, while simultaneously reclaiming the role of government as a pivotal player in advancing the common good.
After the roundtable discussion, labor leaders were joined by rank-and-file and community members. Five workers testified about their direct experience of racial discrimination and racial profiling at work and in the community, and recounted the tremendous role their local unions and labor councils played in providing direct support. Their testimonies were followed by comments from other rank-and-file members, and community and religious allies.
In the afternoon, participants broke into small groups and were tasked with developing strategic responses to two specific scenarios provided by the Commission: Dog Whistle politics applied by Donald Trump in his remarks about Mexican immigrants, and a police shooting of an unarmed black man.
The day concluded with a discussion that addresses the question: “Where do we go from here?” There was recognition that as long as Labor allows other interest groups to define race relations in America, it will continue to be a wedge issue that divides the house of labor, and divides labor from community. We must begin to have the difficult conversation about race and gender inequality in the labor movement so that we can reunite labor and community interests.
Hearings will conclude in February 2016, after which the Commission will issue a report, a toolkit and resources that will be used to strengthen the future of our movement.
AFL-CIO LABOR COMMISSION ON RACIAL & ECONOMIC JUSTICE ALAMEDA HEARING, OCT. 21, 2015
- Executive Director Bhairavi Desae, TWA, Co-Chair
- International Vice President (Human Affairs) Fred Redmond, USW, Co-Chair
- President James Boland, Bricklayers
- President J. David Cox, AFT
- President Kenneth Rigmaiden, IUPAT
- Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, AFL-CIO
- Ian Haney-Lopez, Professor of Law, University of California at Berkeley, Co-Chair
- Dorian Warren, Roosevelt Institute Fellow & MSNBC Host, Co-Chair
- Gregory Cendana, Executive Director, APALA
- Jack Hayn, Assistant to President, IUPAT
- Courtney Jenkins, Young Worker Advisory Council, APWU
- Terry Melvin, Secretary-Treasurer of NY State AFL-CIO, President of Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Chair of Labor Commission for Community Action
- Steven Pitts, Associate Chair, University of California at Berkeley Labor Center
- Diane Babineaux, Vice President, IAMAW
- James Gibbs, Vice President, UMWA