The Fight Against Racism Starts in the Union

April Sims

This year AFSCME members marched in Memphis to honor the 50th anniversary of the 1968 strike by Black sanitation workers. Racism still haunts U.S. workplaces. It can even crop up inside our unions unless we confront it directly. (Photo: AFSCME)

In your union or work­place, what’s a sit­u­a­tion where you’ve observed or expe­ri­enced racism?” That’s the first ques­tion we ask peo­ple to dis­cuss, in groups of three, as part of a Race and Labor train­ing that our state labor coun­cil has offered for 29 local unions and labor coun­cils so far in Wash­ing­ton state.

Some sto­ries are dra­mat­ic, like the mem­ber of col­or who was threat­ened with phys­i­cal vio­lence after win­ning union office. Oth­er are more sub­tle, the kind of inci­dents that can weigh on you when they’re repeat­ed over and over. A Black union staffer often inter­acts with mem­bers by phone or email; when she lat­er meets them in per­son, she is told, Oh, you’re not how I pic­tured you.” 

After one or two peo­ple share pow­er­ful sto­ries, oth­er hands start shoot­ing into the air. 

This work­shop isn’t sim­ply a diver­si­ty train­ing. It’s designed to look at the his­to­ry of racism in our coun­try and in our labor move­ment. We talk about how racism shows up in our work­places, our fam­i­ly and com­mu­ni­ty life, and even our unions; how racial cat­e­gories his­tor­i­cal­ly have served the inter­ests of employ­ers; and how divide-and-con­quer ham­pers orga­niz­ing today. 

Once we’ve accept­ed those truths, the next ques­tion is, what can lead­ers do to change them? The work­shop is very prac­ti­cal. We want folks to leave with real ideas for what they can do. 

Par­tic­i­pants brain­storm solu­tions in four areas: bar­gain­ing, orga­niz­ing, union cul­ture, and com­mu­ni­ty con­nec­tions. We also dis­cuss how to answer union sis­ters and broth­ers who aren’t con­vinced racial jus­tice has any­thing to do with union pol­i­tics. One small-group activ­i­ty is to write a per­sua­sive speech you might give to your exec­u­tive board. 

Peo­ple leave feel­ing hope­ful. One old­er gen­tle­man told me he’d been through a num­ber of diver­si­ty and racial equi­ty work­shops, but this was the only one that made him feel he could do some­thing about it. Anoth­er per­son said she’d been afraid even to talk about racism, for fear of say­ing the wrong thing. Now she knew how to start.

How we started

Our state isn’t very diverse — and its labor lead­ers are even less so. Out of 15 cen­tral labor coun­cils in Wash­ing­ton, only one has a prin­ci­pal offi­cer who is a per­son of col­or. Only a hand­ful of the 600 affil­i­ate union locals do, either. 

The project start­ed with a res­o­lu­tion that passed our con­ven­tion in 2015. It called on the state labor coun­cil pres­i­dent to take up AFL-CIO Pres­i­dent Trumka’s call to have a seri­ous and open-end­ed con­ver­sa­tion about what we can do, about what we should do” about race and the labor movement. 

The res­o­lu­tion made clear that we should dis­cuss how racism affects not just our indi­vid­ual beliefs, but also the poli­cies and prac­tices that shape our unions. For instance, who gets into the union — is it tough unless your father or uncle was a mem­ber? Who is con­sid­ered for lead­er­ship roles? 

A spe­cial com­mit­tee con­vened in 2016. With the help of long­time labor activist Bill Fletch­er and our state’s Labor Edu­ca­tion Research Cen­ter, the com­mit­tee devel­oped a sev­en-hour Race and Labor workshop.

Get lead­ers on board

Some of our largest affil­i­ates have sent lead­ers and staff through the train­ing, includ­ing Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers (UFCW) Local 21, the state AFSCME fed­er­a­tion, and the state Teach­ers (AFT).

It’s not easy to sell a sev­en-hour work­shop to union offi­cers. But we ask them to resist the urge to mod­i­fy the work­shop to fit a 90-minute con­fer­ence sched­ule. Real con­ver­sa­tions take time. 

Some lead­ers have a nat­ur­al incli­na­tion to stick to lunch­box issues: wages, ben­e­fits, and work­ing con­di­tions. But here’s one argu­ment why this top­ic mat­ters to a union’s self-inter­est: Before the Janus deci­sion, a large pub­lic sec­tor union did a nation­al mem­ber sur­vey. It found that union favor­a­bil­i­ty was the high­est among African Amer­i­can work­ers — but also that, giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ty, they were the most like­ly to leave the union.

To me that sug­gests that many African-Amer­i­can work­ers rec­og­nize the val­ue of the labor move­ment, but don’t see a place for them­selves in our insti­tu­tions. I sus­pect oth­er peo­ple of col­or may feel the same way. 

It’s per­son­al for me. As I often tell peo­ple, it was my mom’s union job that got us off wel­fare and gave her the dig­ni­ty that comes from being able to pay bills and pro­vide for your fam­i­ly. So I believe in the labor move­ment. I know what a dif­fer­ence it can make. If we con­tin­ue not address­ing racism, we cre­ate a weak­ness in our move­ment. I don’t want to let that happen. 

Goal: 100 percent

In 2017 we offered our first two-day train-the-train­er work­shops with 100 union lead­ers and staff. We did it twice more this spring. 

The first day, par­tic­i­pants go through the Race and Labor work­shop. We ask union prin­ci­pal offi­cers to attend this first day, so that they buy in” to the process. The sec­ond day, prin­ci­pal offi­cers may leave, while the facil­i­ta­tors assigned from their locals (usu­al­ly union staffers) stick around to learn the cur­ricu­lum, includ­ing the goals of each sec­tion, and to dis­cuss how adults learn. 

Labor coun­cil del­e­gates passed our Race and Labor 2.0 res­o­lu­tion in 2017, mov­ing into wider imple­men­ta­tion. They set ambi­tious goals — by the end of 2018, half our union affil­i­ates’ exec­u­tive board and staff mem­bers should have attend­ed the work­shop; by 2019, three­quar­ters; and by 2020, all of them. 

They also resolved that we should train 30 cer­ti­fied train­ers” ready to take the work­shop around the state. We’re devel­op­ing that train­ing now. 

The next step is a Race and Labor sum­mit in Sep­tem­ber. We’ll be bring­ing togeth­er 100 young work­ers of col­or plus allies to devel­op a toolk­it that might include con­tract lan­guage, sam­ple poli­cies, and plans for addi­tion­al train­ing. We’ll ask, If we didn’t have to deal with insti­tu­tion­al racism in our move­ment, what would that look like — and how do we get there?”

This arti­cle first appeared on Labor Notes.

April Sims is the polit­i­cal and strate­gic cam­paigns direc­tor of the Wash­ing­ton State Labor Coun­cil. She pre­sent­ed a ver­sion of the Race and Labor work­shop at the 2018 Labor Notes Conference.
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