AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Fred Redmond delivered the following remarks as prepared to the Celebrating Black Men in Unions Conference:
Thank you for that warm welcome.
Good morning. I’m Fred Redmond, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO. Before I begin I’d like to thank Charlie Flemming of the Georgia AFL-CIO, and James Williams and Sandra Williams of the Atlanta-North Georgia Labor Council for your leadership.
I’d also like to thank UAW President Ray Curry for continuing to support this series of important discussions and panels. To Morehouse College for hosting this year’s conference and especially to Dr. (David) Thomas and Dr. (Cynthia) Hewitt for making me feel at home.
And thank you to the conference organizers for giving me the opportunity to speak with you today.
Today, I stand here as the highest ranking African American in the history of America’s labor movement.
But I do not stand here alone. I am standing on the shoulders of giants.
A. Philip Randolph. Bayard Rustin. Bill Lucy.
And so many others who worked to advance racial and economic justice in a movement where the Black man wasn’t always welcomed. Nor his ideas. Where he had to scratch and claw to rise through the ranks.
I want to talk about the history of the civil rights and labor movements. Where we came from. And where we go from here.
The civil rights and labor movements are forever fused in our nation’s history.
Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis while there in support of a sanitation workers strike.
Five years before that, he delivered his most famous address on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Jobs and Freedom. Economic justice. Racial justice. Linked there together.
And Dr. King said the labor-hater and the race-baiter is a twin-headed creature, spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.
He saw labor and civil rights as natural allies.
But not everybody in the labor movement did.
We are products of our society. Unions are no different.
When the AFL and CIO merged in 1955, African Americans were largely shut out of craft unions. The skilled trades. Some of the unions had Caucasian clauses in their constitutions excluding non-whites. Some locals were segregated.
But two Black men were seated on the executive council. Their appointments were hailed as “evidence” that labor intends to back up its “pledges” against segregation and discrimination in employment.
Willard S. Townsend was one. He died of a heart attack two years later.
And A. Philip Randolph was the other. He had been an outspoken force for black workers and civil rights for some 20 years.
And he was the key figure who was able to align the civil rights and labor movements.
It wasn’t easy navigating the internal politics within a mostly white institution. He had to battle against discrimination and segregation within the labor movement itself.
But he was stubborn and tough. Unrelenting. And his persistence made the labor movement, and our country, better.
In 1959, Randolph wanted the federation to take concrete action against segregated locals. Discriminatory seniority provisions. Exclusionist practices. The systematic barring of Blacks in leadership positions.
He publicly called on President George Meany, and after a heated exchange, Meany pounded the lectern and roared: “Who the hell appointed you the guardian of all the Negroes in America?”
Randolph was undeterred. He laid out recommendations on ways to eliminate segregation and discrimination within unions.
These were rejected. Not only that but Meany pinned the blame on Randolph for the “gap that has developed between organized labor and the Negro community.”
Two years later, Randolph along with Walter Reuther, the progressive president of the UAW, tricked Meany into inviting Dr. King to address the delegates at the 1961 convention.
Dr. King delivered a speech titled “If the Negro Wins, Labor Wins.” It was well-received. King criticized the AFL–CIO for its tolerance of unions that excluded black workers. And he hoped for a coalition between civil rights and labor that would improve the situation for the entire working class by ending racial discrimination.
Randolph was a key figure to build that coalition. And in 1963, he brought together civil rights, labor, and religious groups to organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
But when Dr. King called George Meany to ask for AFL-CIO’s financial and public support for the march, Meany denied the request. And demeaned and disrespected Dr. King in the process.
Randolph ripped the AFL-CIO Executive Council’s failure to officially endorse the march. The march went on without our support of course. And tens of thousands of trade unionists present at the March on Washington heard the now iconic “I Have a Dream” speech delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
That demonstration for “Jobs and Freedom” called not only for desegregation and civil rights, but for economic policies designed to ensure the economic health of Black Americans.
Some of those policies—like non-discrimination laws—existed but weren’t being enforced.
Five months after the Jobs and Freedom march on Washington, the AFL-CIO Building Trades Department met in New York City.
And they were met with picketers. Walking in the rain. Their signs read “Full integration of the Building Trades Unions” and “Job Equality for All.”
On the surface, building trades unions appeared to be making progress with anti-discrimination clauses. Integrated locals. Apprenticeships for non-whites. But much of it was token. And New York politicians were reluctant to take on the building trades unions in their hiring practices.
Unemployment in black communities—Harlem, Bed-Stuy—was double that in the rest of the city.
The president of the building trades department was outraged. He likened these demonstrations as blackmail. He told the delegates “we won’t stand for blackmail—we had it from the gangsters and Communists in the 1930s and we fought it—and if we have to fight integration by blackmail today, fine, we’ll fight it.”
He criticized the demonstrators and the civil rights movement. He said: “We’re not going to have people outside dictate to us, when half of them don’t know how to run their own affairs.”
This is not meant to be critical of the labor movement or its leaders. George Meany’s thinking about racial and economic justice evolved.
It’s meant to be illustrative. Back then the labor movement was more insular. Discriminatory. Top-down. It didn’t always include the people it served. It dictated.
Fast forward to the 2017 convention in St. Louis.
America again is in the midst of a public and intense reckoning on racial justice.
Outside the convention hall we were met by a state senator and members of the Black community. They wanted justice. Racial AND economic. They used our convention as the picketers did in 1963 in New York. As a public way to voice their discontent.
Instead of shutting them out we brought them in. Instead of denouncing. We listened.
The late, great Richard Trumka said the American labor movement must be the tip of the spear in the fight against racism.
And we have had tough conversations with local labor leaders around racial and economic disparities. Institutional biases. Ways to become more inclusive.
Some of these conversations have moved the needle.
But we need to do more than move the needle. We need to break the gauge.
It was clear after the murder of George Floyd and the widespread demonstrations across the country, we’re still not listening hard enough. We’re still not speaking forcefully enough.
The AFL-CIO headquarters was vandalized. A fire set in the lobby. We know there are people who seize the opportunity for anarchy. We don’t know who or their intentions. But what was clear is that the black community does not see us as an ally. The black community does not identify with the labor movement.
We have to ask ourselves why? What role does labor play in solving mass incarceration and criminal justice reform?
How can the labor movement help the black community ravaged by inequities in policing and the criminal justice system when some of our unions represent law enforcement officers?
There was a public call for us to kick out police and law enforcement officers from our unions. I can understand why. The thinking is this: how can we be a progressive force for the oppressed while serving those who are doing the oppressing?
I don’t have to tell you this is a complex and thorny issue. And the easy way out is to run away from it. It would be far easier to sweep it under the rug, dust our hands and walk away and say police reform is not our concern.
But law enforcement officers are workers. And they, as workers, have rights to collectively bargain, to have a voice at work, whistleblower protections, as all workers should.
But the problem is law enforcement is a broken profession.
And the labor movement has a responsibility to fix the profession. And that is something we can’t do from the outside looking in.
Last year, we created a task force on racial justice, which I chaired. And earlier this year, we developed a list of recommendations state and local governments and law enforcement agencies can take to fix the profession.
We also created a program for law enforcement officers called ULEADS.
This is something over which we have more control as a labor movement.
This program is developed, owned and instituted by the union. It’s about weeding out wrong-doers from union membership and holding them accountable when they violate their professional oath, or abuse their power.
The labor movement is uniquely positioned to tackle this issue and forge real change in our communities. To break down the blue wall of silence where it exists. And fix a broken profession for those who serve with honor every day.
These are challenging times for our country and our labor movement. And we cannot afford to be silent.
I’ve spent my entire life fighting for racial justice in the workplace and throughout our communities.
At the aluminum mill in Chicago where I worked right out of high school and became shop steward and then as grievance chair. At the local where I became active in the fight for racial and economic justice and later elected as its president.
At the United Steelworkers where I fought inequality and inequities in the field and at the bargaining table.
And I will continue the fight at the AFL-CIO.
A. Philip Randolph saw the labor movement as the vehicle to fight racism and poverty.
And I see it the same way.
We don’t have to battle against racial discrimination and segregation within the labor movement itself.
But we do need to do battle—to make sure the work of the labor movement overcomes the efforts of those who want to divide us. And we do that by bringing people together.
The author Isabel Wilkerson writes that the price of privilege is the moral duty to act when one sees another person treated unfairly.
It is my privilege to serve America’s working people. And it is my moral duty to act in the face of injustice.
And that is exactly what I aim to do.
But I cannot do it alone.
The labor movement is only as good as its people.
We need your help.
Our democracy is at stake.
Help us beat back attacks on voting rights.
Help us advance legislation like the PRO Act that will give everyone a chance at a good, union job. And close the economic gap for people of color.
Help us build a broad, progressive coalition.
Get involved in your union.
Get involved with the labor movement.
Together, we can save our democracy.
Our children and grandchildren will hold us accountable for this moment in history.
And if we’re courageous and persistent, we will be on the right side of it.