Race and Labor: Let’s Talk About the Elephant in the Room

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 credit: 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. (See box below.) 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.

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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?”

A FEW PLACES TO START

In the Race and Labor workshop we’ve identified some best practices that affiliate unions are already doing, and brainstormed new practices to try. Here are a handful of examples:

Bargaining

  • Contract language can protect members’ rights to observe religious or cultural holidays of their choice, and Muslim members’ right to take breaks for daily prayers.
  • Take a survey of members by job, pay, race, and gender. UFCW Local 21 did, and found that very few back-of-house grocery workers are being promoted to front-of-house jobs. Checkers are mostly white, while lower-paid deli workers are mostly people of color. Union leaders plan to address this problem in bargaining.

Organizing

  • Make sure bargaining teams look like the members they represent.
  • Aim new-organizing drives where many people of color work. Consider non-traditional worksites.

Union Culture

  • Consider when and where the meetings occur. One union had its meetings at a location that was geographically central, but wasn’t on public transit. After the union switched to a transit-friendly spot and started ordering food—recognizing that bonding over meals was a cultural norm for many members—attendance went up.
  • Supply the contract in Spanish, or whatever is the first language of many members.
  • Train staffers to recognize their own implicit biases, such as who they’re inclined to talk with or identify as a leader. Does someone who speaks up at work get stereotyped as an angry Black woman, rather than flagged as a potential steward?
  • Recruit and retain staffers who match the race and gender demographics of the membership.

Community Connections

  • One union has its staff members volunteer to serve on the governing boards of nonprofits with mainly nonwhite members. The goal is to develop a deeper understanding of the issues these community groups face.

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.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #474. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.