‘Mike Brown Is Our Son’

Shermale Humphrey, a member of Show Me $15, spoke at a protest of the county prosecutor's handling of the police killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Fast food workers have been on the front lines in Ferguson. Photo: Emily Koehler/Show Me $15.

“My first reaction was ‘oh no, not again,’” said Mark Esters, an organizer for the Communications Workers in the St. Louis area. “And trying to take it all in.

“And then, what should our response be? The answer was collective action. In a universe of numbness, what do we do?”

Esters is vice president of the St. Louis chapter of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, which marched in Ferguson, Missouri, August 16 in the National Day of Solidarity Actions calling for justice for Michael Brown. They carried a sign reading, “Mike Brown Is Our Son.”

In the wake of widespread anger about Brown’s shooting and police repression of protesters, members of the Show Me $15 fast food workers group were at the demonstrations daily. They said the organizing they’d learned in the last 22 months, as they struck and demanded $15 an hour and a union, helped them know how to organize for justice.

Shermale Humphrey used to work at the McDonald’s in Ferguson that sits right across from the scene of Brown’s shooting. “This [protesting] is something I had to do,” she said. “I’m African American, and this could be anyone I know. I just can’t let it go on any longer.”

Bus Company Tries Racial Divide and Conquer

Bus workers in ATU Local 788, who serve St. Louis, including Ferguson, have been trying for three years to get a new contract with Metro, the bi-state agency that runs the buses. Part of the problem, said ATU President Larry Hanley, is that “the company is populated by racial arsonists.

“They have economic goals for the agency, and the linchpin of economic goals these days is to strip the workers of pensions and wages,” Hanley explained. “The method that the agency has chosen to use is to separate workers by race and category.” Most of the drivers are Black, and most of the mechanics are white.

“Officials of the agency have been privately negotiating with the mechanics to get them to leave the ATU, telling them they can get them more,” said Hanley. “In other words, ‘If you aren’t part of that Black bus drivers union, we’re going to take care of you.’” The real motive, of course, is divide and conquer.

Then in July management came into bargaining, “and they say, ‘We have a gift for the bargaining committee,’ and they hand each one of them the recipe for Oreo cookies.”

When workers leafleted riders to ask for support, the company banned workers from leafleting on Metro property. They kept leafleting, and are planning to rally September 26 outside Metro headquarters while the board meets. For more info on the rally, email 788atu[at]gmail[dot]com or leave a message at 314-649-8631.

—Jenny Brown

Humphrey said the Show Me $15 members tried to maintain calm at the protests, but the police were provocative. She said, “They had us cornered, pointing their weapons, and they were telling us to go home but they wouldn’t let us move. I asked them what we were supposed to do and they said, ‘When we know, you’ll know.’”

Humphrey and fellow Show Me $15 member Jeanina Jenkins were both arrested for trespassing when they protested at McDonald’s shareholders meeting in Oak Brook, Illinois, this May. Jenkins works at the same Ferguson McDonald’s but chose to spend her days and nights after the shooting at rallies instead. “This is new in our community,” she said. She won’t be satisfied until Darren Wilson, the police officer who killed Brown, is in jail.

Cartoon: Dan Moore.



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Labor Notes asked former Jimmy John’s worker Rasheen Aldridge if it was frightening to confront heavily armed police, given what had happened to Mike Brown. “They use their weapons to intimidate us,” he said, “trying to rile people up in the crowd. But we have a bond. I know my brothers and sisters will do what they can to make sure I’m OK. My brothers and sisters got me.”


Esters said unions were not the “lead organizations” in organizing peaceful protests in Ferguson, though some encouraged members to be involved, including his local, CWA 6355, representing Missouri state employees, and the Service Employees, which represents janitors as well as organizing the fast food workers.

Leaders of Local 6355 decided they needed to take seriously the AFL-CIO’s commitment, showcased at its last convention, to build partnerships with community organizations to expand democracy and improve conditions for all working people, not just union members.

In a letter to the Greater St. Louis Central Labor Council, Local 6355 President Bradley Harmon said, “Many of the leaders of the peaceful protests in Ferguson are people who Local 6355 members have stood with in the fight against cuts to the services Local 6355 members provide, in the fight for $15 and even in the fight for the [Mine Workers] against Peabody Energy. If we are to be true to our values of solidarity with the community, I believe the voice of labor must be part of the conversation that moves our community forward.”

But when Esters and others considered bringing a resolution to the local labor council, they decided they didn’t have the votes to bring it forward. Esters cited reluctance by building trades unions, which he said have dragged their feet on diversifying their memberships.

When he asked the delegates, under “new business,” to come out and demonstrate with the peaceful protesters, only one local responded, Transit Union (ATU) Local 788, which represents bus drivers who have experienced racial divide and conquer as they try to get a contract (see box).

In a speech to the Missouri AFL-CIO convention September 15, AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka said, “We cannot wash our hands of the issues raised by Michael Brown’s death... Racism is part of our inheritance as Americans.”

Noting that both the police officer, Wilson, and Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, are union members, Trumka said, “Our brother killed our sister’s son and we do not have to wait for the judgment of prosecutors or courts to tell us how terrible this is.

“How can we not be involved?”

The St. Louis group Organization for Black Struggle is accepting donations to defend those arrested in the Ferguson protests.

Read more about the economic backdrop of the conflict in “Ferguson: A String of Betrayals.”

This article has been updated to report on AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka's September 15 speech.

Jane Slaughter is a former editor of Labor Notes and co-author of Secrets of a Successful Organizer.


Alexandra Bradbury | 08/25/14

Lesley McSpadden, Michael Brown's mother, is a member of UFCW. Here's the statement from the union's national President Joe Hansen:

"At the UFCW, we are a family. When tragedy strikes one of us, it is felt by all of us.

Our sister Lesley McSpadden, a member of UFCW Local 88, is dealing with the loss of her son Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

We have watched the unfolding events in Ferguson—from Michael Brown’s death to the police response that has targeted peaceful protestors and journalists for exercising their first amendment rights. This entire episode highlights systemic problems that still plague our nation—abject poverty, the lack of good jobs, an absence of racial diversity in the halls of power.

We need to address these challenges head on—and labor has a role to play by offering workers the opportunity for a better life. In the meantime, we stand in solidarity with our sister Lesley McSpadden and join her calls for a fair investigation and justice under the law.” http://www.ufcw.org/2014/08/22/ufcw-president-hansen-statement-on-mother...

Alexandra Bradbury | 08/22/14

Here's another strong statement, this one from APWU General Officers Mark Dimondstein, Debby Szeredy, and Elizabeth Powell:

"Fair-minded people from all walks of life are deeply concerned and outraged by the killing of unarmed African-American teenager Michael Brown at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson. There is no justification for this young man’s death.

Police on the scene refused to obtain emergency medical help and left the 18-year-old’s body lying in the street for hours after his death, underscoring the fact that they considered Michael Brown as less than human.

The events following the killing are also most disturbing. In response to the protests, local police launched a military-style crack-down that included armored vehicles and machine guns aimed at protesters. Several reporters were arrested.

Unions stand for good living-wage jobs for all workers, respect for and equality of all people, and justice in the workplace and in the neighborhoods in which we live. As postal workers, we live and work in every community across the nation, including Ferguson. At a time when we are reaching out to the people throughout the nation to defend the public Postal Service and good union jobs, we must also stand with our communities. Martin Luther King put it so well when he said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Rev. William Barber of the North Carolina NAACP, the leader of the Moral Mondays Movement, uplifted our recently-concluded national convention with his wise words: Labor rights and Civil Rights must be united in the same struggle. So it must be in Ferguson, MO.

We urge our members and locals to speak out, peacefully protest, and demand justice for Michael Brown’s family and community. We seek an end to the militarization of local police forces. We seek a new day, where execution-style killings of unarmed African-American teenagers such as Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown take place no more."

Ken Meyer | 08/22/14


Re: your comment which included....

"... an inappropriate law enforcement response to peaceful demonstration"

...were you looking at the same "Ferguson" that I was? I'm sorry, but I don't see where "demonstrations" involving throwing glass bottles and Molotov cocktails, or burning and/or looting multiple businesses is something even close to what I would call "peaceful".

Jenny Brown | 08/21/14

An example of a somewhat stronger statement from a labor source:

Executive Director Jeff Mazur of AFSCME Council 72, a union which represents public workers across Missouri and Kansas, including employees of the County and City of St. Louis, today released the following statement:

“For nine days, the people of Ferguson have tried to make sense of the senseless: the killing of an unarmed teen, an inappropriate law enforcement response to peaceful demonstrations, and the criminalization of a search for answers by citizens and media. Public workers join the chorus of voices calling for justice for those who cannot now speak for themselves.

We ask for justice for Mike Brown and his family, but we also know that justice in one instance is not enough. AFSCME Council 72 calls on national, state and local leaders to deal comprehensively with the structural problems that have led to segregation, hopelessness and violence in communities like Ferguson.

Too often, our economy has been closed to participation by people who already face a history of hardship. With jobs, we give people dignity and a stake in the system. Sadly, we so often see leaders trying to deal with the effects of despair in impoverished communities, rather than rooting out its underlying cause. AFSCME urges Missouri’s leaders, and America’s, to focus on building a country that works for all its citizens, rather than silencing those who dare point out its flaws.” http://www.afscmecouncil72.org/node/165