A Call to Action: Unions Must Help Lead the Fight for Racial Justice

By. Liz Ortega-Toro, Executive Secretary-Treasurer, Alameda Labor Council
Josh Anijar, Executive Director, Contra Costa Central Labor Council
Rudy Gonzalez, Executive Director, San Francisco Labor Council
Julie Lind Rupp, Executive Secretary-Treasurer, San Mateo Central Labor Council

In early 1968, sanitation workers in Memphis were in dire straits. Two of their fellow workers had been killed in an accident on the job. Workers’ grievances on pay and safety were ignored by city leadership, prompting a strike. Police brutally attacked the strikers with mace during a peaceful march. Then Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. came to town.

On April 3, King rallied the strikers, many of whom were Black and poor, saying “The question is not, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’ That’s the question.” The next day he was assassinated.

Two weeks later the sanitation workers reached an agreement. The strike was over. King gave his life for those workers.

As the labor movement grapples with systemic racism and police violence, we must ask ourselves the same question King posed on that fateful April morning. If the labor movement does not act forcefully in response to the plague of racism and police violence, what will happen to our sisters and brothers?

The strength of the labor movement is rooted in our unwavering commitment to dignity, respect and justice. We are saddened and angered by the recent murder of George Floyd. Unfortunately, we are not surprised. For too long, systemic racism has ravaged our communities and left despair, poverty and distrust in its wake. Black families deserve to raise their children in a society that does not commodify their race and force them to confront their oppressors alone.

This fight must be the labor movement’s fight. Not peripherally. Directly. The Brown letter carrier worries not only about Trump’s threats to privatize the US Postal Service, but also worries for his own safety on his route. The Black nurse who worries that her job will be slashed at a community health clinic must also worry about her son facing police brutality on the walk home.

Our movement has a rich tradition of standing in solidarity with movements demanding civil rights. Many unions stood shoulder to shoulder with Dr. King and other leaders to march for equality. We center low-wage workers of color in our fight for economic justice. But what’s painfully clear is that we, as a movement, haven’t done enough. Now is the time to not only address the economic realities of injustice but also to stand up for the communities we represent in every way.

That means getting specific on policies that address police violence. Police unions that have splintered from the labor movement’s goals of justice and equality need to be held accountable for their role in perpetuating police violence on communities of color. Today’s unions must demand that our community leaders stop devoting resources to police militarization and instead devote those taxpayer dollars to schools and services that strengthen us. And with urgency, unions should advocate for a suite of new policies that address both income inequality and racial injustice. They’re two sides of the same coin.

Now, more than ever, we must analyze the type of society we want for our children and grandchildren. Do we want more schoolhouses or more jails? More teachers or more police? We will put the full weight of our movement behind solutions that don’t just nibble around the edges of addressing racial injustice but go to the heart of the problems we collectively face. We call upon elected officials to fund the services that support our community health, education and infrastructure. Defunding oppressive institutions and forcing billionaires to pay their fair share is part of our solution to build the society we deserve.

The struggle for economic equality and racial equity are intertwined, and so too is our collective fate. Today, we’re demanding deep and forceful change. We’re demanding more. More from state and local leaders to address structural racism. More from law enforcement and police unions to ensure they’re protecting and serving our communities, not menacing them. And, most importantly, more from ourselves as a labor movement. This is a once-in-a-generation call to action to all union leaders and members. The fight for racial justice is our fight. And it’s about time we put the full force of our movement behind it.

The Central Labor Councils of Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo and San Francisco Counties represent over half a million working families in the fight for economic, social and racial justice

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