America’s legacy of racism and racial injustice has been and continues to be a fundamental obstacle to workers’ efforts to act together to build better lives for all of us. Racism has always been a key tactic of employers seeking to divide us. But we also have an ugly history of racism in our own movement. Yet at the same time the labor movement has a proud history of standing for racial and economic justice. When we have embraced our better selves we have always emerged stronger in every sense. And whenever we have succumbed to the temptation to see some working people as better than others, we have always ended up weaker.
Today, in the face of dramatically increasing economic inequality, decreasing union density and growing instability for the majority of Americans, the need for all workers to strengthen common interests in achieving economic justice is clear. At the same time our different experiences organized around race, gender identity, ethnicity, disability and sexual orientation often challenge and complicate this shared experience. If we are to succeed as a movement, the full range of working peoples’ voices must be heard in the internal processes of our movement. To be able to stand together we have to understand where all of us are coming from.
To understand how important this is, consider the issue of jobs. We fight for full employment. White unemployment is 4.9%—which is not good enough. But black unemployment is 10.3%, higher than it ever got for whites in the entire economic crisis. To stand together on jobs, we have to hear from each other about the different experiences we live.
Or consider the criminal justice system. The growing movement for racial justice around these issues is greater than anything we’ve seen since the Civil Rights era. It is a movement responding to facts—African Americans make up 13% of our population, but 38% of the incarcerated. We incarcerate a greater percentage of our people than any other developed country. Young black males are 21 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement than young white males. Those who suffer are our members and our members’ children. The labor movement must respond. How can we do so unless the experience of all union members is heard in the conversation?
The demand for racial justice cannot be divorced from the fight for economic justice, and the fight for economic justice cannot be pursued without considering educational equity. It is no secret that communities of color continue to face higher unemployment rates, lower wages, job discrimination and more economic insecurity—one consequences of which is more encounters with the criminal justice system. Negative encounters with our criminal justice system have long-lasting impacts on families and their surrounding communities, and they harm our efforts to create shared prosperity for all.
Movements like #BlackLivesMatters, Not1More, Fight for $15 and Not Your Model Minority have shown tremendous courage in tackling these issues, which many in this country want to ignore. We in the labor movement should stand with them as partners, allies and fellow community members. Their fight is our fight.
We still live in a world divided in many ways by color lines. At the same time working people share a common experience of falling wages and rising economic insecurity. To build a different, better economy we need power that can only come from unity and unity has to begin with having all our voices be heard, on all sides of those color lines. We have to start by acknowledging our own shortcomings and honestly addressing issues that are faced by the communities in which our members live—both the problems and the solutions. We have to find a way to see with each other’s eyes, and address the facts and realities.
The fight against racism is about whom we choose to be. And it is about whether working people will be able stand together and raise wages in the America of the 21st century.
To that end, it is time for a frank and thoughtful discussion on racial inequality and its economic impact—starting first in the house of labor. Over the next year, the AFL-CIO will launch a Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice, comprising members of the AFL-CIO’s Executive Council, which will facilitate a broad conversation with local labor leaders around racial and economic disparities and institutional biases, and identify ways to become more inclusive as the new entrants to the labor force diversify.
Over the next year, the Labor Commission will engage in six to eight labor discussions around the country, addressing racial and economic issues impacting the labor movement and offering recommendations for change. Participants in the process will include local labor leaders, constituency groups and young workers. The commission will be assisted by an advisory council made up of experts.
The commission will attempt to create a safe, structured and constructive opportunity for local union leaders to discuss issues pertaining to the persistence of racial injustice today in the workforce and in their communities, and to ensure that the voices of all working people in the labor movement are heard. The results of the commission will lead to reports and tools to transform how we think about racial justice issues, and to providing the tools to support these discussions at the city and state levels.