This weekend the AFL-CIO held a convention for Martin Luther King day, which is actually being celebrated on Monday, January 19 this year. The keynote address was given by Derrick Johnson, head of the NAACP. There were plenty of references to MLK’s dreams and what he would think about the progress that has been made. The union wanted to celebrate the important roles women were taking on in unions, and they wanted to honor the incredible work of unions, working with Stacey Abrams and others in turning out votes that allowed two earnest citizen Democrats to win out over two wealthy Republicans who were favored to win. It has been a Davida – Goliath story which has changed the power equations in Washington. This win, as we know, removes Mitch McConnell from his high position as Majority Leader of the Senate, a perch he has used to allow Washington to operate as essentially a one-party system: one party with some pretty strange ideas about democracy and governance.
I was invited because I have written a number of times in favor of unions and I am still a union member, paying dues to United University Professions, part of NYS United Teachers, the American Federation of Teachers and AFL-CIO. I understand how extraordinary it is to see women, and minority women, so involved and active in unions. These women have done their due diligence for their unions for years and have risen to positions of power within their unions where almost no African American or other minority women or even white women could have been found even a decade ago.
Unions are unpopular in these years following the Great Factory Migration. Republicans broadcast a message that blamed. increasingly greedy requests by union members for salary increases and benefits for driving corporations first south and then out of America to China, Mexico, Southeast Asia, and even Russia.
The campaigns conducted after World War II against communism and in favor of capitalism finally succeeded in planting capitalism, if not democracy, in nations that had found communism an inadequate economic driver. Once these markets opened, the lure of cheap labor and new consumers deserved far more blame for the migration of our factories than unions did.
What Republicans really hated about unions is how they favored Democrats and the great success they had turning out the vote for Democrats. Republicans decided to run a propaganda campaign to demonize unions, thus robbing Democrats of votes. Robbing Democrats of votes has been an all-consuming and very creatively conducted strategy used by Republicans to hold on to power as they became a party without majority support in America. This drive to suppress certain votes has been one of the policies which has helped twist the Republican Party into the inauthentic, conspiracy-riddled mess that elected and hung on to Trump. Republicans despise unions, and they have driven many Americas to feel the same way, thus the success of ‘right to work’ laws.
Many ask, now that our corporations have fled, if unions are even relevant. If you keep track of the support that unions have offered minority workers and women in the work force you would understand that unions have found work, even though the dynamics of that work has changed.
I worked for many years in a program that grew out of LBJ’s War on Poverty and the civil rights movement. The program still operates in inner cities and on college campuses. It’s called the Educational Opportunity Program, the urban centers are EOCs. It was designed to be affiliated with SUNY colleges giving its faculty the status of college professors and its job was to provide a pathway to success in college for adult students who saw that more education might benefit their families or even just their own personal fortunes.
Since there was no SUNY college in my city, my EOC got shifted from one inappropriate entity to another and finally ended up connected with a rural college miles away. A succession of college presidents at this two-year college refused to accept our faculty as equal members of their staff. Some of the problem can be laid at the feet of an exaggerated elitism because the college was a two-year college instead of a four-year university. Some of the problem can be ascribed to racism. This is racism I might never have experienced as a white person. But it did enlighten me about the racial discrimination even educated African Americans or other minorities faced, in even our supposedly enlightened colleges and universities.
As I fought along with a very supportive union to win the same treatment afforded to EOC faculty assigned to four-year colleges I learned how humiliating elitism and racism can be. Our faculty files were stored with our parent college, but they were made available to us on occasion at our center. We were allowed to make copies. After I copied my records the President of the college accused me of altering my records. This was a tactic to discredit me because I was being too tenacious. The issue arose because when our program became a year-round instead of school year program we never had an increase in pay. I asked the union to either increase our pay or give us summers off. In the end I won, but it was a demoralizing fight and it took a toll on me.
Attending a virtual conference is a lot like attending an in-person conference except you can go in your pajamas, you don’t get served a lunch on white tablecloths with crisp napkins and there is none of the buzzy chatter of colleagues visiting. But you still have keynotes and you still have break-out groups. It was a piece of normal and a piece of the new normal seeing all these women who have leading positions in the nation’s unions. One woman was the head of the Steel Worker’s union. Very cool.
I missed the closing speech but I was back for the awards. The first award of the AFL-CIO at this conference entitled ‘From Protest to Power’ was our heroine Stacey Abrams who tirelessly organized to deliver the two Senators who put Democrats in the majority in the Senate. Stacey Abrams is a capable and warm presence, with a smile that you can’t wait to see. This was a reward well-deserved. The rest of the awards all went to organizers in Georgia. Fair Count whose motto is ‘we are not 3/5’ won an award, as did a group called Georgia: Stand Up led by Debra Scott who likes to say, ‘this is not just a moment, it’s a movement’, Nsé Ufot for the New Georgia Project, and Helen Butler, Executive Director of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda. The Justice, Peace and Freedom Award went to the Labor Coalition for Community Action. Latino women were well represented at this conference also. To sum up the conference projected this message:
When We Fight, We Win