Labor Advocate Online

Week In Review, June 6, 2005
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by Bill Onasch, webmaster, kclabor.org

CBTU Convention Vocalizes Complaints and Hopes of Black Workers
The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) has historically been primarily a support group for African-American union officials and staffers. It’s still that–but being challenged by the times to go beyond that narrow focus.

The old story of Blacks being last in and first out continues–even in our trade unions. Of the 300,000 union jobs lost in the U.S. last year 55 percent had been held by Blacks. The structural proposals of the two warring factions within the AFL-CIO bureaucracy threaten to virtually eliminate Black leadership at the highest levels and to gut union programs and services committed to the needs of Blacks and other "constituency groups," such as women, Latinos, Asian-Americans, and LGBT. These "constituencies" are hardly special interest groups–collectively they make up about sixty percent of the AFL-CIO’s ranks.

Of course the situation of Black America outside the labor movement is even worse. In this richest society in history African-American held wealth has actually declined. Black communities are being devastated by double-digit unemployment, cut backs in public services, and a racist war on drugs that puts more Black youth in jail than there are in college.

All of these problems were reflected in the discussion reported from the CBTU convention as well. There was a call for the CBTU to "keep one foot in the Black community, one in the labor movement."

Two prominent white labor leaders attended the gathering–UAW president Ron Gettlefinger and AFL-CIO president John Sweeney. Sweeney was very conciliatory in his remarks, addressing CBTU concerns about structuring. "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."

Sweeney didn’t fail to take some shots at his factional opponents within the federation. "...I do not share their 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 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."

Andy Stern was not present.

Bill Lucy, who has been president of CBTU throughout its 33-year history, gave a militant talk. "...it is our view today that there are no more common allies than the broad community and organized labor and there are no more natural allies than organized labor and the African American Community.

"We will not walk away from that premise and whether we are accepted by the powerful players in labor or not, we will continue to work to build on those relationships. We will 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 our community with or without the help of the so called big players. We and others have spent a lifetime trying to prove our value to the political process, speaking for the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. I pledge to this convention that we are out of the begging business. We are who we are, we do what we do. Anyone who wishes to join us to empower our communities we welcome you.

"If you have a program that we can contribute to we will, but we cannot waste our time, energy and effort chasing rainbows while our community suffers continuing loss of power. We must refocus our effort at educating our community on issues critical to its well being. We must use our organizing skills to build community power block by block and neighborhood by neighborhood."

Commenting on the party that both labor and the Black communities have supported so loyally and effectively Lucy said, "If we are honest with ourselves and truthful with others we will tell them that in both elections we had a party with no message and a message that could not find a party."

Recalling a time of more radical activism and vision, "Thirty-Five years ago, give or take a little, a handful of political and social activists frustrated with the politics of paternalism, sat down to talk about an agenda. An agenda that would focus on the ills of the broad community--joblessness, crime, economic development, and a host of other issues.

"At the end of the day someone said let’s go to Gary, Let’s go to Gary, Indiana and talk about it. Let’s talk about political leadership. Let’s talk about political power, Let’s talk about a political agenda, an agenda that will energize our communities from one end of this country to the other. Let’s call on our preachers and our teachers, our actors and artists, our academics and statisticians, our lawyers, our doctors, our business leaders, our political leaders real and imaginary. Let’s go to Gary and develop an agenda that will move this nation, and we did."

He concluded, "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."

The National Black Political Assembly, held in Gary, Indiana in March, 1972, was a remarkable gathering. Some eight thousand leaders and activists from Black communities came together for a free-wheeling debate. Some excellent resolutions were passed. The Gary Declaration was a clarion call for struggle, "A Black political convention, indeed all truly Black politics, must begin from this truth: The American system does not work for the masses of our people, and it cannot be made to work without radical, fundamental changes."

But genuine breaks from Establishment politics, such as the National Black Independent Political Party, never took hold. Despite fine resolutions most Black political activists became coopted by the Democrats.

Another Gary-type convention could be a worthwhile project–if resolutions were backed up by significant commitment and resources by forces such as CBTU. All working people could only gain from a truly independent mobilization of Black workers around a radical social program. Whether this is the time, or whether CBTU proves to be the needed catalyst, remains to be seen. But at least they have advanced the debate and they deserve our support and encouragement.

An Activist Judge the Boss Can Live With
Ignoring bargaining rights supposedly guaranteed by the Railway Labor Act, a federal judge in Seattle gave his blessing to Alaska Airlines contracting out 472 IAM baggage handler jobs during labor negotiations.

Missouri Says Can Do To Fresh Vegetables
Missouri budget cutbacks this year eliminated a program that gave low-income mothers and elderly people coupons to use at farmers' markets.

More than 6,700 seniors and 31,000 mothers bought more than $426,000 worth of produce using these vouchers in Missouri last summer. More than 75,000 coupons totaling about $225,000 were redeemed in Jackson County.

The end of the state program, funded mostly by federal dollars, comes at a time when nutritionists are urging people to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables.

Sorry we’re a bit late with the column this week. We will strive to get back to our Sunday target next week.

As always, much of the material for this column comes from stories posted on our Daily Labor News Digest.

That’s all for this week.

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