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By Rhonda Smith
Feb. 19 — Although the push by workers from various racial and ethnic groups to be fully integrated in the U.S. labor movement reached its apex during the 1970s, their efforts to expand unions' focus beyond collective bargaining and diversify leadership ranks remain unfinished, various sources told Bloomberg BNA.
The AFL-CIO's year-old Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice offers unions another chance to address issues that some say are too often left outside the scope of organized labor's sometimes narrow focus on wages, hours and working conditions.
Sources familiar with the labor federation's latest efforts spoke with Bloomberg BNA in interviews conducted Feb. 5-15.
“If the labor movement focuses strictly on issues of collective bargaining and representing their members, we're going to die on the vine,” Fred Redmond, an international vice president for the Pittsburgh-based United Steelworkers and one of the commission's three co-chairs, told Bloomberg BNA. “It has to become part of a larger movement for social and economic justice.”
The commission's other co-chairs are Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, and Bhairavi Desai, president of the National Taxi Workers Alliance.
The outcome of the 11-member commission's latest effort to address issues of importance to black, Latino, Asian American, immigrant and other workers—an action report due this summer to the AFL-CIO's Executive Council—should help determine the extent to which substantive change is now possible.
Redmond and others involved in the process are optimistic.
“The workplace is different and issues that confront the workforce are different,” Washington-based William “Bill” Lucy, a co-founder of the 44-year-old Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, told Bloomberg BNA. “So we're in a process now where labor has to be broader than just the defined role of representing workers on wages, hours and working conditions.”
The CBTU was founded in 1972, because “we did not feel our voice was in the room when they made decisions,” Lucy said of AFL-CIO leaders.
The AFL-CIO is a voluntary federation of 56 national and international labor unions that represents 12.5 million working people.
What's different about the federation's latest effort to address race-related issues, Redmond said, is, “For the first time the labor movement has gone out in the field and opened a dialogue on race, confronting our members and labor leaders around the country.”
“This time we went through the right dialogue on race and diversity,” added Redmond, a member of the AFL-CIO's Executive Council since 2008, and the Region 6 representative for the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. “For the labor movement, that's huge.”
But not everyone agrees that this effort will make a major difference.
“They've been talking about this for decades,” Paul Frymer, a political science professor at Princeton University and author of “Black and Blue: African Americans, the Labor Movement, and the Decline of the Democratic Party,” told Bloomberg BNA.
“At every moment there are driving movements within unions pushing for real change, and they have moments of significant success,” Frymer said. “At the same time, in the last 40 years union populations have been declining, and now public employees are under attack. [Unions] are kind of fighting for their lives right now, so it's hard to be too optimistic.”
Proponents of the plan say, if done properly, it could help unions boost their membership levels.
But historically the results of the AFL-CIO's efforts to encourage unions to develop and implement policies pertaining to diversity and inclusion have been mixed. This is because the federation can only suggest that changes be made, Frymer and Lucy said, not mandate them.
What a union local's leadership and its members decide to do will vary, they said, and sometimes greatly.
Having said this, however, Frymer said “it's important the AFL-CIO's leadership is pushing this.”
In the U.S., of the 16.44 million union-represented workers, 14.8 million belonged to a union in 2015, including 7.55 million in business and 7.24 million in government, according to figures the Labor Department released in late January.
Among major race and ethnic groups in 2015, black workers continued to have a higher unionization rate (14.7 percent) than workers who are white (12 percent), Asian (10.9 percent) or Hispanic (10.6 percent), according to the latest figures from the Labor Department.
Momentum in relatively new grassroots campaigns such as Fight for $15 and Black Lives Matter is helping fuel cautious optimism about the commission's work, proponents of this effort said.
Fight for $15 is related to a campaign launched in late 2012 to increase wages and establish union rights for workers with low wages who are employed in fast food restaurants in New York City .
Black Lives Matter also was launched in 2012, after black teenager Trayvon Martin was fatally shot in Florida by George Zimmerman. Organizers describe it as a chapter-based national organization “working for the validity of Black life.”
Carmen Berkley, the AFL-CIO's director of civil, human and women's rights, told Bloomberg BNA that current and prospective union members have been sharing their concerns about race and ethnicity at hearings the commission convened last year and in 2016 in Boston, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Oakland, Calif., and St. Louis. The sixth and final hearing is scheduled to be held March 4 in Birmingham, Ala.
“The AFL-CIO has tried numerous times to have this conversation,” she said. But there seems to be “a deeper level of commitment from our white leadership now to have this conversation.”
Participants in each city either requested that the commission hold a meeting there, Berkley said, “or we knew there was racial tension there.”
One outcome of the hearings, she said, is requests for the commission to train union members and leaders on various issues pertaining to race and ethnicity.
The commission “has created permission for people who have wanted to work on these issues to move the needle forward,” Berkley said.
The concern most often mentioned at the hearings, Berkley said, pertains to the criminal justice system.
“There's been a lot of people talking about how the criminal justice system has impacted people's ability to get a job and participate in the labor movement,” she said. “They want the labor movement to take a stand on ban-the-box, sentencing and gaining employment. They said people who are incarcerated deserve to have a chance.”
Ban-the-box laws restrict the timing of management inquiries about whether a prospective employee has been convicted of a crime .
Lucy said disagreements between stakeholders have cropped up on this issue in the past.
“There have been conflicts between people who are unemployed looking for work and who have no [conviction] record, and individuals with a record and needing employment,” he said. “So where is the balance? Who's responsible for creating the balance? Organized labor, in a broad sense, is responsible for both” interest groups.
In addition to ban-the-box laws, Berkley said speakers at the federation's labor commission hearings have mentioned the need for voting rights to be restored for formerly incarcerated people.
“We will be working with our partners at the national and state levels to roll back those policies,” she said. “We want to make sure they have the right to vote.”
Another top-of-mind issue mentioned at the community meetings, she said, pertains to who makes major policy decisions in the labor movement.
“Communities of color, specifically black and brown communities, want to participate in the political programs the labor movement runs,” Berkley said.
“Often our leadership on political programs are not people of color,” she said. “When they are part of the conversation at the leadership and political level, and are making decisions around which legislative priorities we want to address at state capitols, our labor movement is stronger.”
Frymer at Princeton said diversifying the leadership in the labor movement would be a step in the right direction.
“Having union leaders who don't need to be constantly educated about what diversity means, who have more experience and comfort dealing with diverse communities, will have a big impact,” he said. “That could lead to changing priorities and the way unions are able to engage with their members. All of that matters.”
Redmond is one of the highest-ranking labor leaders of color in the movement.
“People ask me how did I rise,” he said. “I always let my work speak for me. I've never asked for a position. I've just applied, because I believe very strongly in the movement.”
People of color and women who really want to advance have to be “consistent,” Redmond said. “They must get involved and need to have a passion for this work, and a general understanding of social and economic justice—and the role labor plays in those movements.”
Implementing policies related to diversity and inclusion has led to positive results at local unions in various regions.
In Portland, Ore., Local 48 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers recently released a 13-minute documentary that recounts its effort to integrate black as well as female employees in its ranks in late 1941, when the U.S. needed additional workers as a result of World War II.
“Committed to Diversity” is “a positive example of what Labor as a whole is doing to become more consciously inclusive,” Diana Winther, IBEW Local 48's general counsel, recently said in a statement to Bloomberg BNA.
The Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice plans to submit its report to the AFL-CIO's Executive Council in August, Berkley said. A 12-member advisory council to the commission, composed of law professors, labor scholars, decision-makers in other unions and community-based organizations, is helping write the report.
“But we are not waiting on our report to start moving our work forward,” Berkley said, citing a “black jobs crisis” and a growing number of Latino workers who need support now.
“One area the UFCW is really looking at is our work with refugee workers—those who speak languages other than English and Spanish,” Esther López, the UFCW's new secretary-treasury, told Bloomberg BNA.
The UFCW's international executive board elected López as secretary-treasurer of the 1.3 million-member union earlier this month. It marked the first time a woman and a person of color has held that organization's No. 2 position.
“Our industry is kind of an entry point for many refugees and immigrants in this country,” López said. “We have a wide range of languages and plants where we're dealing with workers who speak over 30 different languages.”
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