Local union members of color delivered a strong message to the visiting Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice: Hear us. Help us. Include us. To ensure a future for the labor movement, support us on a path to leadership.
Launched by the national AFL-CIO, the Labor Commission came to Minneapolis Feb. 11-12 as part of a six-city tour to take testimony from union members about racial issues and economic justice issues within the labor movement.
Attendance was strong. Emotions ran high. And the Labor Commission got an earful.
Day One: Town Hall Forum
“This can get very emotional — we’re talking about hard stuff,” said JoAnn Campbell-Sudduth, Education Minnesota retiree, who chaired a “Town Hall Forum” at the United Labor Centre the evening of Feb. 11 open to union members and community members.
Sudduth is a core member of the People of Color Union Members (POCUM) caucus of the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation.
POCUM invited the Labor Commission to include Minneapolis as a stop on its national tour, citing the city’s deep economic disparities based on race.
Union members of color who testified at the forum and another session the next day said that getting the union job that provided them a path to the middle class wasn’t all of the story.
A retired black building trades member talked about being the only person of color on jobsites for years.
A Hispanic school custodian shared experiences of sexual harassment and being passed over for promotions.
A community college employee reported that her union didn’t forcefully defend her in a grievance.
A Somali immigrant nurse spoke about the discrimination she faced as a woman, a person of color, an immigrant, and a Muslim — from patients, management and fellow workers.
A black security officer asked why his union’s staff didn’t include more people who looked like him.
“If you don’t put people of color at the forefront of the labor movement, the labor movement will die,” warned Cathy Jones, a member of Branch 9 National Association of Letter Carriers. “We are your union brothers and sisters. We want to help.”
The forum moved into small group discussions, with whites and people of color at small tables, considering prepared questions such as “how can we enhance the voice of union members who are people of color?”
Tables included a mix of rank-and-file union members, local union leaders, as well as leaders and staff from national unions on the Labor Commission tour.
Labor Commission co-chair Fred Redmond talked with the Labor Review about his view of the group’s work.
“We need to make sure the labor movement keeps up with the changing demographics of this country,” said Redmond, an international vice president for the United Steelworkers.
The comments he heard at the Minneapolis forum, he said, echoed comments at other cities on the tour. In the Labor Commission’s view, Redmond said, race is “what’s dividing us from being an effective labor movement.”
Following the intense testimony and small group discussions of the forum, the evening ended on a high note: the premiere of a video produced by POCUM members.
POCUM members conceived of the video, which was produced by the University of Minnesota Labor Education Service, as a way to reach out to young people of color to encourage them to seek union jobs.
In the video, POCUM members shared how getting a union job provided a path to the middle class — often without the need for an expensive college degree — and brought good wages, benefits, and a pension.
Later, Cathy Jones explained why the night brought both passionate complaints and equally passionate praise for unions.
“We love our unions but we want our unions to love us back. We want them to recognize our God-given talents and abilities. We want to be part of the next generation of leadership that’s going to save the labor movement.”
Jones continued: “The demographics are changing. The country by 2040 is going to see a majority of people of color, so it’s crucial to get people of color into leadership positions so that young people coming into the movement can see themselves.”
“We love our unions so much — that’s why we’re fighting to be part of the leadership,” Jones said.
Bill McCarthy, president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, attended the forum. “I thought it was a great event,” he said. “It was a good venue for people to speak their minds and hearts about their workplaces and their unions and their union leadership… Hopefully, we come up with solutions to address these issues — not just listen and do nothing — that drives me crazy.”
Labor Commission staff Charles Clark, who also is regional director for the AFL-CIO’s southern region, said the Minneapolis forum stood out. “Many of the other ones, they have sugar-coated and danced around the issues. Tonight I felt like folks came out of the box going straight at the issue.”
“We never would get a change if folks aren’t real about what they’re feeling and thinking and having the space and freedom to say it,” Clark said.
“I learned a lot,” said Tefere Gebre, the national AFL-CIO’s executive vice president, who was part of the Labor Commission’s team in Minneapolis. “I’m going to take everything I heard back.”
“Every one of you, you are the union,” Gebre told the room. “It’s not the institutions that make the union.”
Day Two: Membership Voices
The second day of the Labor Commission’s Minneapolis visit began with a “Membership Voices” session for rank-and-file union members to speak out, followed by an invitation-only “Leadership Voices” session.
MRLF president Chelsie Glaubitz Gabiou offered opening remarks. “We talk a lot about racial inequities here in Minnesota,” she said. “You can’t not talk about it because it is everywhere around us. However, I feel like there is an invisible barrier that is still holding us back from having real conversations about changing those inequities.”
“We need to create an environment where we can discuss how our work intersects with race and income inequality,” she said.
“We’re here to listen to what is happening in your community,” said Labor Commission co-chair Redmond. “In each one of these meetings, there has been a common theme — that we have a community that’s in pain, a community that’s looking for the labor movement to lead and do our part for racial and economic justice.”
A long line of union members waited in turn to speak at the microphone.
Members spoke frankly about racism they’ve experienced on the job — and within their unions.
Redmond assured speakers, “all of the testimony and comments, it has all been recorded…” The Labor Commission will be developing a report and recommendations from the testimony they’ve heard, he said. And, he promised, the Commission is “committed to not seeing it end with the report.”
“I believe with all the faults, with the problems we have with the labor movement, this is the only path to the middle class,” Redmond said. “This movement is worth saving… We can’t let them divide us.”
Redmond acknowledged the role of POCUM in bringing the Labor Commission to Minneapolis. “I want to thank POCUM, for your organization, for being the voice of black workers here…”
Redmond added, “we reached out to state federations around the country. Here in Minneapolis and Minnesota you were one of the first ones who stood up and said, ‘we want to talk about this.’ Your leadership deserves recognition.”