“We have no quarrel with any union or individual,
unless they question our right to be in the room.” – William
Lucy, President, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU)
“I sit on the AFL-CIO Council. Those boys don’t
ask me anything.” – Clayola Brown, Executive Council, AFL-CIO
We must build an independent political struggle
that will define priorities and behavior of both parties.”
– Rev. Jesse Jackson, President, Rainbow/PUSH
“It’s time to go back to Gary,” William Lucy told
1,500 delegates to the 34th annual convention of the Coalition
of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU),
meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, last week. “It’s time to go back
to Gary to talk among ourselves as trade unionists, as social
activists, as political leaders, as academics about what it will
take to move our communities forward.”
Lucy, Secretary-Treasurer of the American Federation
of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and President
of the CBTU since its founding in 1972, was also a convener of
the historic National
Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, that same year.
In the intervening decades, Black fortunes have waxed and waned
– depending on who’s doing the measuring. However, under George
Bush’s administration, African Americans as a people have been
dealt a series of catastrophic blows, including assaults from
within the labor movement, itself.
reflects the growing realization that it’s time to rethink,
to regroup, to reaffirm the historical Black Political Consensus
and shape a broad Black Agenda, in the spirit of Gary and of Black
political conventions dating back to 1830.
CBTU delegates agreed, passing a resolution for a “national convocation
of grassroots advocates and leaders to achieve consensus about
the elements of a Black Agenda, which would then be presented
to organizations and forums for development and discussion.”
The road to the next Gary-type convention (not necessarily
at the same location) must be mapped out quickly, before the 2006
congressional election cycle works its centrifugal pressures on
Black leadership and organizations, pulling them into various
camps and campaigns at the expense of the national Black mission.
CBTU President Lucy stressed the urgency of the project:
“We must think nationally and act locally…and
use our organizing skills to build community power block by
block, neighborhood by neighborhood.
“Let’s go back to Gary and build a movement where
organized labor and the broad community can fashion an agenda
of partnership. Let’s go back to Gary and fashion our own strategy
for mobilizing and energizing our community. Let’s go back to
Gary and figure out how to finance our politics and get up off
our knees. Let’s go back to Gary and once again change the direction
of this country.”
Crisis upon crisis
African American labor began the year reeling from
the disappearance of 168,000 Black union jobs in 2004 – a staggering
of the total union jobs lost – and from two body blows delivered
in quick succession by “allies” in the trade union movement. First,
the AFL-CIO, under President John Sweeney, froze the CBTU and
other non-white-male constituent groups out of Big Labor’s 2004
election efforts. Labor refused to fund the grassroots campaign
activities of labor’s six constituency
groups – now organized as the Labor Coalition for Community
Action – despite the fact that Blacks, other minorities and women
make up 60 percent of union membership.
Then, five unions led by Service Employees International
Union (SEIU) President Andrew Stern – collectively known as the
Group of Five, or G-5 – demanded that the Executive Council of
a reorganized AFL-CIO be shrunk to 13 or 16 members, from the
current 54. The council was expanded
when Sweeney was elected ten years ago, specifically to make room
for minorities and women. (It know includes seven African Americans.)
But under the original G-5 dissident proposal, only the heads
of the labor federation’s largest unions would have a seat at
the executive table – a catastrophic turning back of the clock
for non-whites and women.
Blacks also feared that the AFL-CIO’s Central Labor
Councils, where urban minority influence is strongest, would be
weakened under the “reforms” of the G-5 dissidents: the SEIU,
Teamsters, Laborers, UNITE-HERE, and United Food and Commercial
Workers union (UFCW) – many of whose African American members
and leaders are represented in the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.
Facing the G-5’s ultimatum to withdraw from the
labor federation if their demands are not met, President Sweeney
the jobs of one-third of his headquarters staff, in early May.
However, the SEIU’s Andrew Stern and his allies called the streamlining
“too little, too late,” and continued on the brinkmanship path.
And, although Sweeney made informal promises to stand by representation
of minorities and women on the Executive Council and to strengthen
state federations and Central Labor Councils, he continued to
avoid a firm declaration – until his appearance
on the second day of the CBTU’s convention in 100-plus degree
“The Executive Council is extremely important
to the labor movement; it governs the AFL-CIO between conventions.
And when I ran for president of the AFL-CIO nearly ten years
ago, I pushed to expand it so that women, and men and women
of color, could have a greater voice in the decisions we make.”
“There are some leaders in our movement who are
now suggesting that the Executive Council be reduced in size
or its responsibilities diminished in the name of efficiency
and control. John Sweeney is not among them. At the AFL-CIO,
we will not turn back the clock.”
To the delegates assembled in the huge Phoenix Civic
Center island of air conditioning, this sounded like victory.
The same day, Sweeney had been endorsed by the powerful United
Auto Workers (UAW) – apparently putting him over the top for reelection
at the AFL-CIO’s convention in Chicago, July 23.
Flush with confidence, Sweeney seemed to blame the
dissidents for George Bush’s victory, in November.
“The hostility from inside our movement began
to bubble up prior to the elections last fall when some of our
affiliates began to publicly go after the AFL-CIO just as we
began planning for the most important presidential election
we’ve ever faced.
“… CBTU, you understood the importance of this
past presidential election, and despite any challenges, obstacles
or criticism you may have faced, you moved forward to stage
30 town hall meetings and worked tirelessly in your community
to beat all records for voter registration and ballot protection
and GOTV [Get Out The Vote].”
Of course, it was under Sweeney that the CBTU and
other constituent groups were denied federation funds for 2004
election activities – a fact known by virtually everyone in the
convention hall. But Sweeney was on a roll:
“I do not share [the dissidents’] enthusiasm for
re-shaping the labor movement from the top down, forcing mergers
of unions, dictating bargaining standards and dividing and weakening
the AFL-CIO itself. And I certainly disagree with the threat
by my own union [SEIU, which Sweeney once led] to disaffiliate
from the AFL-CIO if their demands are not met – it is one of
the most destructive actions I’ve ever witnessed and I hope
the members of my union will reject it….
“Do we want a movement that is run like a corporation,
with decisions and orders handed down from the top? Do we run
the AFL-CIO and our unions like a business and encourage bigger
organizations to gobble up smaller organizations the way Wal-Mart
devours traditional retailers and entire communities?
“The CBTU proposal urged us to integrate constituency group
leadership into our political and organizing programs and strengthen
our movement at the state and local levels where our afl-cio organizations are in close touch with our allies and
[Quoting CBTU leader Bill Lucy]: ‘I do not believe labor’s
problem revolves around structure. I believe to the extent we
have a problem, it’s around mission…. While the composition
of the Executive Council may be large, it reflects who we want
to organize, mobilize and politicize.’
“Bill Lucy, we heard you. And at the AFL-CIO, the
voices of women and members and leaders of color will be heard….
“And we’re going to steal a page from civil rights
history and require that women and people of color are represented
proportionately in union delegations to AFL-CIO conventions.
No ifs, no excuses.”
Sweeney’s last remarks brought down the house, but
they could not alter the resolve of CBTU’s leadership to break
with, in Bill Lucy’s words, “the politics of paternalism.”
“I pledge to you that we are out of the game of
begging for resources to mobilize our communities,” Lucy told
delegates in his opening day speech. “Whether we are accepted
by the powerful players in labor or not…we will continue to come
to the aid of unorganized workers whenever we can with or without
the help of the so-called big players. We will help to mobilize
“We are out of the begging business. We can’t waste
time chasing rainbows.”
Black folks will seek their own solutions and finances,
on the road to the next “Gary” convention.
Dissidents wake up too late
If SEIU President Andrew Stern thought he might
turn the CBTU from its position on constituency group representation,
he was mistaken. Black SEIU Executive Vice President Gerald Hudson,
a respected, veteran organizer, made his union’s case for “reform”
to SEIU delegates at a conference room in Phoenix – and caught
hell from some of them.
“We’re having a big problem” with the divisions
in labor, said one delegate from California. “The newspapers are
saying Andy [Stern] is fighting Sweeney. But we have to face ‘The
Terminator’ [union-hating Governor Arnold Schwartennegger]. Some
members are furious.”
Said another delegate, “When I have a problem with
my union, I don’t start talking about decertification.”
Another delegate: “Ask me, don’t tell me” about
the positions union leadership is taking.
In recent weeks, some of the five dissident union
leaders softened their verbal positions on inclusion of constituent
groups in the Executive Council, but whatever modifications that
were made came very late in the game, and appear to have only
been circulated in-house. Hudson said the new reform proposals
would allocate “four or five” of twenty or so council seats to
“The G-5 are increasingly getting to the point where
they’re saying the right things,” Hudson assured the SEIU delegates.
However, the CBTU convention’s collective mind was made up. The
full convention resolved to resist any diminution of the Executive
Council; that a department be created to build formal relationships
among labor and community institutions; and that constituent group
leadership and structures (the six-organization Labor Coalition
for Community Action) be integrated into the new department’s
In other words, the massed CBTU demanded that the
institutional role of non-whites and women in AFL-CIO structures
become deeper and stronger – a functional part of the organizational
chart – rather than an informal afterthought.
Independence is a necessity
John Sweeney’s failure to fund AFL-CIO constituent
groups during the 2004 campaign, followed by the Group of Five’s
bid to read them out of the Executive Council, on top of the
worst setbacks for Black workers since the demise of Jim Crow,
all combined to make a much more independent Black labor strategy
Traditional Black organizations also found themselves
cut out of the 2004 campaign money loop by their erstwhile “friends”
in the Democratic Party – a clear precursor to jettisoning them
entirely in favor of what Keith Jennings, President of the African
American Human Rights Foundation and an advisor to CBTU, calls
“corporate-selected” Black leadership.
Independence is, therefore, not just an option –
it is necessary for the survival of the Black polity. Rev. Jesse
Jackson put it well, in one of two CBTU convention Town Hall meetings:
“The women’s struggle for the right to vote was
independent. The labor struggles of the 1930s were independent.
The 1955 bus boycott against segregation was independent. We must
build an independent political struggle that will define priorities
and behavior of both parties.”
William Lucy, the consummate coalition builder,
has “no quarrel with any union or individual, unless they question
our right to be in the room,” a position seconded by CBTU Executive
Vice President Willie Baker, a VP of the (Group of Five aligned)
United Food and Commercial Workers Union: “If others pick and
choose who goes into the room” we are in trouble.
CBTU Executive Council member Clayola Brown, a Vice
President of the (Group of Five aligned) UNITE-HERE union, says
Black workers have the same concerns throughout organized labor.
“I sit on the AFL-CIO Council. Those boys don’t ask me anything,”
Clayola told the convention crowd. “Many of us have been speaking
at opposite ends” from our union leaders. “But if they [whites]
don’t speak to Black people….”
White arrogance has defined the limits of collaboration
across racial lines. And nothing has been more hurtful to Black
leadership than the signals emanating from whites in labor and
the Democratic Party, that African Americans were somehow a burden
in 2004, dragging both institutions down to defeat.
“In 2004 the minority community voted in higher
numbers than ever before,” said Willie Baker. “We are a larger
percentage of the voters than ever before. Eighty-nine percent
went for progressive or liberal candidates – and that’s right
on the average for the past 30 years. I think those numbers speak
to our role in organized labor.”
Only bare majorities of white unionists voted for
John Kerry. White labor and Democrats “should ask our advice,”
said Baker. “Maybe we’d all be better off.”
“Some ‘constituent groups’ got over $100 million,”
said CBTU Executive Council member Nat LaCour, sarcastically referring
to whites – and their vote went down. “If CBTU and APRI
[the Black-led A. Phillip Randolph Institute] had that kind of
money, we’d have gotten 100 percent of the vote.”
LaCour is Executive Vice President of the American
Federation of Teachers, and sits on the AFL-CIO Executive Council.
The prospect of an Executive Council comprised of “fifteen white
males, one African American male, no women,” is “ridiculous,”
Labor legend Henry Nicholas, of AFSCME, blames white
failures for the disarray in labor and progressive politics. “Unless
we do something now, we will wake up and find there are no jobs,
here in the United States,” he warned, urging CBTU delegates to
take vacation time to attend the AFL-CIO’s Chicago convention,
in July. “We’re the only ones that can save the labor movement.”
Rev. Jackson was ubiquitous at the convention, speaking
on Mexican-Black relations (“We must not allow Black Americans
to be pawns, and Mexicans to be scapegoats”) and extension of
the Voting Rights Act (he’s leading a march in Atlanta, August
6). Jackson said white Democrats and unionists have it backwards
– they are the unreliable elements: “They’re not pulling
their weight, depending on us to deliver them. Those
who can’t pull their weight want to pull us.”
In such an environment, there is no choice but for
Blacks to pull together, guided by their own instincts and experiences.
The corporate infection
“At the end of the day, I wonder what’s going to
happen to the most loyal people in the House of Labor,” said staunch
labor ally Bennie Thompson, the Black Congressman from Mississippi.
Thompson was eager to talk about the “stupid” letter
sent by the SEIU, which criticized the Congressional Black Caucus
as a body for “giving Wal-Mart an opportunity to fashion a false image
that they are friends of African Americans and working people
generally.” Laughing derisively, Thompson pointed out that the
Caucus averages 90 percent support for labor. “The SEIU…think
that if they support you they own you. Sometimes, you’ve got to
take the chains off,” said Thompson, to rich applause. “When I
look at the [union] leadership, it doesn’t reflect the membership.
Their attitude is, we know what’s best for you.”
Fellow Democrats came in for similar criticism.
“Every time we learn the game, they change the rules. Guess who
was running the 527s,” the funding mechanisms that received the
bulk of campaign monies in 2004? “Somehow, we didn’t have the
But of course, there is a problem in the
Congressional Black Caucus (see BC, May
12 and April
28, 2005), a spreading corporate infection that has thoroughly
corrupted a hardcore half-dozen members and caused fifteen – more
than a third – to vote with Republicans on “bright line” issues
If the next Gary-type convention is to have any
meaning, it must deal with the contagion in high Black places,
and remake the political terrain that spreads it. As one speaker
reminded the Phoenix gathering, it was the great African revolutionary
Cabral who said, we must struggle against our own weaknesses.
However, it is extremely difficult to focus on the internal contractions
within a group that is besieged by forces determined to crush
their basic democratic rights.
Extend the Voting Rights Act
In 2007, elements of the Voting Rights Act of 1965
will come up for renewal by Congress. Most important is the pre-clearance
5, which requires that jurisdictions covered by the Act submit
any changes in voting procedures for review by the U.S. Justice
Department. In one of many CBTU workshops, Debo Adegbile and Jacqueline
Berrien, of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF),
explained that pre-clearance puts the burden on the state. “The
government is forced to turn the lights on. It makes the jurisdiction
come forward and show that it is not discriminating,” said
Opponents of Voting Rights renewal will point to
Black electoral successes as proof that the legislation has outlived
its usefulness. “They say, ‘We now have 43 Blacks in the Congress.
Why do we need the Voting Rights Act?’” said Adegbile, reminding
the room that Blacks were represented in Congress during Reconstruction,
too, but were later made to disappear.
“Reverse discrimination” is the war whoop on every
right-winger’s lips. “Any law that helps Black people,” said the
LDF’s Berrien, “has been challenged in the last decade or two,
as hurting white people.”
Therefore, it’s not too early to mobilize for the
2007 showdown. “We won in Florida. We won in Ohio,” said Rev.
Jesse Jackson, rallying support among CBTU delegates for the August
6 march in Atlanta. “Voting Rights is under attack. Unless we
fight back, they will take back.”
Next Wednesday, June 8, the abominable Black Judge
Rogers Brown comes up for a vote in the U.S. Senate. If confirmed
under the truce engineered by “moderates” of both parties, she
will sit on the federal appellate court that decides most voting
“We ‘protected’ minority voting rights in the Senate.
But they didn’t protect ‘minority’ voting rights outside the Senate,”
said Rev. Jackson. “This is a setback for labor. The Democrats
in the Senate and Blacks are not on the same page.
“I would rather have the 1954 court [nine white
men] than the 2005 court.”
The first Gary convention didn’t have to confront
corporate-engineered Black judicial, cabinet, and electoral candidates.
Getting past Black “head count” politics will be one of the next
convention’s great challenges.
Racial math can often hide political realities.
But the numbers show the prospects for non-white rule are good,
according to Town Hall panelist Dr. Juan Andrade, of the U.S Hispanic
“In the 100 largest cities in America, people
who look like us are the majority. These cities also happen
to be in the nation’s largest states. We can put together coalitions,
as we did in Chicago with Harold Washington in 1983 and ’87….
“We need to convert electoral coalitions into
Dr. Andrade lamented that non-white coalitions –
and coalitions between people of color and labor – have often
had trouble governing. That’s no mystery to Meizhu Lui, a woman
of Chinese descent who is Executive Director of United
for a Fair Economy. “Some of the first unions in this country
were organized against Chinese labor,” Lui pointed out.
Nevertheless, “White guys have done a lousy job. It’s up to us,
the United People of Color.”
Yet racial and ethnic coalitions are problematic
in a United States that has always defined whites as normative
and Blacks as the ultimate “other.” In a new book titled Who
is White?: Latinos, Asians, and the New Black/Nonblack Divide,
Dr. George Yancey argues that, by 2050, most Latinos and Asians
will consider themselves white, thus preserving an effective “white”
majority into the far horizons. (See BC, “The Browning and Yellowing
of Whiteness,” May
12, 2005.) Dr. Yancey concludes:
[G]iven the merging of nonblack racial minorities
into the dominant culture, this white/nonwhite dichotomy is losing
relevance. A black/nonblack dichotomy produces more understanding
about contemporary race relations. It suggests that the
informal rejection of African Americans, rather than a tendency
by the majority to oppress all minority groups in a roughly equal
manner, is the linchpin to the American contemporary racial hierarchy.”
A July 31, 2002 Los
Angeles Times article, headlined “The Great White Influx,”
reported that “regardless of color, two-thirds of immigrants choose
[the ‘white’] designation on census replies. For some, it's synonymous
The next Gary convention should not anticipate that
immigration will necessarily increase the numbers of future Black
allies. However, regardless of how other “minorities” identify
themselves, “Either we are going to organize and share power or
we’re going to fight over crumbs,” said the omnipresent Jesse
Switching Gears on South Africa
“We were successful in driving money out of South
Africa, but we weren’t concerned where it went,” said Bill Lucy,
summing up the Free South Africa Movement’s struggle to force
U.S. corporations, foundations and governments to withdraw investment
during apartheid. The CBTU was the first U.S. labor organization
to call for an economic boycott against South Africa, in 1974.
Now Willy Madisha, President of the Congress of South African
Trade Unions (COSATU), was in Phoenix, imploring his African American
trade union comrades to reverse gears. U.S. corporate investments
never returned to South Africa, but went instead to low-wage,
“The call we are making to you, brothers and sisters,
you need to call for investment in South Africa, with the same
vigor as you called for disinvestments.” Madisha told a workshop
audience and the full convention that South Africa has lost 180,000
jobs in the clothing and textile industries, much of it to China,
vastly complicating the Black government’s attempts to deal with
illiteracy, sanitation, AIDS, and lack of housing and electricity
– “the legacy of apartheid.”
The African National Congress (ANC) governs with
the support of its partners in the revolution: COSATU and the
South African Communist Party. “Up to this minute,” said the trade
unionist, “the ANC has not sold out. We hope it stays that way.”
But the forces of globalization and privatization
exert great pressures on the ANC. “Our government nearly fumbled,
when it tried to privatize,” Madisha informed the workshop. “We
fought them in the streets, toe to toe. They stopped privatizing,
although they never announced they were stopping.”
Harold Rogers, a veteran member of CBTU’s International
Committee, said “in the 70s and 80s there was a great deal of
interest in Africa. Some of it was romantic. In the late 90s,
interest in Africa waned.” Currently, only about five percent
of U.S. tourists to Africa are African American.
COSATU President Madisha remembers when the romance
wore off, after Nelson Mandela formed his government. “After that
victory – which you won yourselves – after winning that victory,
you stopped. You said, ‘Oh, victory has been won.’” The African
American listener is struck by the similarity to post-Sixties
Black America, when “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” filled the airwaves.
“In actual fact,” said Madisha, “the struggle started the day
that the democratic government took over…. We have all these rights,
but they are useless as long as we face these kinds of problems.”
Yet another poignant comment: “Already, young people
in our country begin to forget where they came from. If they forget
our revolution, there will be no future.”
How many African Americans understand the significance
1955, 1963, 1968 – or the Gary convention of 1972?
The COSATU leader educated his workshop on the role
of women in his movement. Women must make up no less than 50 percent
of union leadership, and comprise at least 30 percent of party
parliamentary lists. More than 30 percent of the ANC’s cabinet
ministers are female.
In CBTU, women are a majority of convention delegates
and 17 of 41 Executive Council members – 41 percent. The Women’s
Conference is possibly the biggest draw of the convention. They
are working women and organizers, and anything but compliant –
ready for Gary, wherever it’s held.
CBTU advisor Keith Jennings arrived in Phoenix with
a clear head, and a list of challenges that he outlined to a meeting
of the Executive Council:
- Will the Black/Labor alliance survive?
“The political reality is different now than in
1972 or even ’92,” said Jennings, an Atlanta-based political scientist.
He noted that African Americans are returning to the South, “the
source of Black strength. We need to relearn lessons” and apply
them to “local elections, community empowerment.” The CBTU must
keep “one foot in the Black community, one in the labor movement.”
Most critically, Blacks must “formulate ‘terms of
engagement’ for those who want to work with us, while we pursue
our goals of social justice.”
If the next Gary-type convention is to be a true
watershed in the African American journey, there must also be
‘terms of engagement’ among Black folk. Perhaps the most dramatic
change that has occurred in Black America over the last 33 years,
is massive corporate penetration of African American political
structures, both old and new. As the least contaminated major
Black organization, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists is
an ideal convener for an overdue gathering of sincere and authentic
sectors of the Black polity.
Everybody Black was invited to Gary. In these times,
it would be best if some folks don’t show up.