AFL-CIO race relations report advocates higher priority for empowering minorities and addressing problems they face

SAN ANTONIO—An extensive AFL-CIO race relations report advocates the labor movement should put a higher priority on recruiting and empowering minorities into unions while addressing problems — notably rampant unemployment and police-minority conflict — that African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans face.

“Talking about racial bias and the impact of racial politics can be challenging, but it lies at the core of strengthening solidarity, growing labor’s membership and allies, and creating a movement that lifts all working people,” says the 94-page report by the fed’s Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice.

“Without an understanding of the intersection between class and race, we are vulnerable to the divisive tactics of corporations and unscrupulous politicians. When we ignore the conditions of particular racial or ethnic groups, those groups become vulnerable to be used as a wedge employers use to tear down” wages and benefits.

The 94-page report was presented and discussed behind closed doors at the AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting in San Antonio on March 13-14. While its genesis was the outbreak of racial tensions in the spotlighted by the police shooting of unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Mo. – followed by similar shootings – the report noted those tensions have become worse since.

One big reason: The 2016 election.

“In November 2016, Donald Trump won the electoral vote and the presidency after running the most racially divisive campaign in modern history. In the weeks that followed, schools around the country reported an alarming increase in hate incidents. Demonstrations and protest marches against the president-elect erupted in major cities, as white supremacists and others celebrated the victory,” the report notes in an epilogue.

“We are more racially divided as a country and as a labor movement today than when we began this project, making the need for the actions described…ever more urgent. The economic and racial anxieties that fueled the election were not confined to white families.

“All working-class people in America are concerned about wage stagnation, the offshoring of jobs, the undue influence of Wall Street, the cost of health care, retirement security and the future their children will face.”

The report also points out some obvious truths. Among them: The U.S. is now a much more multi-racial society and the workforce is, too. So is the labor movement, though, the report admits, not its leadership and sometimes not its political endorsements and interests.

Election coverage notwithstanding, the working class in America is multi-racial today and will become more so in the future. By 2032, no racial group will be a majority,” it states.

The report includes a multitude of recommendations, with examples of union successes in implementing similar programs. It says unions, and particularly state federations and local central labor councils, can also be active players in establishing communications, discussing conflicts and easing tensions between law enforcement officers and minority group members.

The report, its recommendations and an accompanying toolkit are available on the federation’s website. Recommendations include, but are not limited to:

• More effective integration of racial and economic justice issues into labor’s state and local policy work. It notes some unions have started by discussing whether to endorse the Black Lives Matter movement, the wider agenda issued last August by a larger African-American coalition, or both. Many of the goals of the wider group are labor’s goals, too, the report says.

One advisor to the race relations commission, Dr. Ian Haley Lopez, created a separate guide to how politicians and corporations use “dog-whistle” coded racial signals and slogans to divide workers and communities — and how to combat them.

• Recommending that major unions, the state feds and large Central Labor Councils should establish race relations training by the end of this year.  The training should address “rewriting the economic rules, criminal justice reform and immigration.” That includes training on how to discover and combat implicit racial bias.

To help, the commission developed a toolkit of training modules to “challenge labor leaders to see labor’s agenda as a broader community and movement agenda.”

The toolkit includes “how to better integrate members of color into our union structures, listen to their priorities and talk openly about how we can all support each other most effectively,” the report adds.

The Government Employees (AFGE) is already doing that, the report says. Its training sessions, at conventions and conferences, have already reached more than 1,000 members as leaders in the dialogue.

• Unions, state feds and CLCs should “build and deepen long-term partnerships with independent people of color groups to maximize collective power in state and local politics.” It cited the Communications Workers for making “continuous integrated voter engagement the linchpin of its political work. The union is part of an ongoing partnership with community organizations to push for state-level criminal justice reform and against voter suppression.”

Those partnerships also win elections for workers and their allies, the report says. It cited the Orange County, Calif., Labor Federation for its efforts to do so — and its success in changing once the deep-red county outside L.A. to a politically competitive “purple” county. Though the report did not say so, Tefere Gebre, then the Orange County fed’s top political person, led those efforts. Gebre is now the AFL-CIO Executive Vice President.

• Having unions, state feds and CLCs focus, with progressive public officials, on job creation, job quality and increasing access to jobs for minorities.

“In 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union worked with an alliance of community groups to develop a set of demands that included smaller class sizes, facility improvements and increased funding, and won,” it says.

“In 2013, the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers, working with community allies, developed a list of 29 demands for its contract fights and won most of them. AFT is encouraging this strategy.”

“In 2014, the municipal unions in Los Angeles — AFSCME and others — joined with community and faith-based groups in the Fix LA Coalition. After research reports, rallies and direct actions, the city agreed to hire 5,000 new workers, raise wages and benefits, and restore city services to pre-Great Recession levels.”

• The report chides the state feds and CLCs for not backing minority-group members running for public office. And it says those bodies should encourage and train minority-group unionists in how to run, and should include questions vital to blacks, Hispanic-Americans and other minorities on their political candidate surveys, which help govern endorsements.

• “Bargaining for the common good,” by taking contract negotiations beyond the traditional fields of wages, benefits and working conditions. AFT, AFSCME and National Nurses United already do that, the report says. The “common good” goals include those important to women and minorities.

“More representation” on union boards “by people of color and women of color might put new issues on the collective bargaining agenda — like removing the felony conviction box on job application forms, pushing for tuition assistance and bargaining for paid sick days, family leave and child care,” the report says.

Unions “should look for issues the union shares with other residents of the(ir) communities…and take community concerns into account in formulating the union’s bargaining priorities,” it adds.

• Opening automatic seats on state fed and large CLC boards to representatives of the federation’s constituency groups, to increase diversity. The groups represent women, African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, LGBT workers and Asian-Americans.

• Expanding apprenticeship training, advertising it as a route to well-paying jobs — and really emphasizing it in outreach to minorities.

“Some affiliates” — the report did not say who — “created innovative apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs that recruit people of color, formerly incarcerated citizens, immigrants, women and veterans, providing a pathway into secure, middle-class jobs.

“But at the commission hearings, few people of color were aware of such opportunities, and many felt apprenticeship opportunities were reserved for the friends and family of union members, and/or deliberately located in places inconvenient to communities of color.”

But construction union leaders told the panel that during the Great Recession, jobs and apprenticeship opportunities drastically shrank. The sector still has not reached pre-Great Recession (2006) employment levels, they noted. The commission discovered, however, that some unions are using increased local funding for mass transit construction — $140 billion voted for it in 2014 alone — as a way to increase job opportunities and training for minorities.

The commission also reminded readers of divisions within the labor movement that must be solved. The big one is police-community conflict.

“State federations and CLCs” should “urge policymakers to require police officers be properly trained in community policing and de-escalation tactics,” the report says. “Most research shows that our police force is no more racist than our population as a whole, while the consequences of their bias are more deadly.

“Local jurisdictions should participate in the Quality Policing Initiative, which promotes reciprocal, professional, accountable and cooperative policing and addresses recruitment, training, community deployment, accountability and advancement issues.

The report reiterated AFL-CIO, state federation and central labor council efforts to reduce mandatory minimum sentencing laws, “support ‘ban the box’ legislation and to restore the rights of the formerly incarcerated.” All three initiatives would have a large impact for minority-group members.

Besides the confrontations — and resulting divisions — between law-enforcement officers and minorities, especially young black men, the report notes many private-sector unions campaign against so-called right to work laws, which affect their members.

But many unions, especially locally, don’t campaign against similar anti-union legislation that affects public sector workers, the report notes. Public sector unions have higher proportions of minority-group members and women in their ranks.

The entire report and its toolkit are available on the AFL-CIO website.

Source: PAI