Speech | Global Worker Rights

Redmond to GLU: Racial Justice Is Economic Justice

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Fred Redmond delivered the following opening remarks virtually as prepared to a Global Labor University Conference discussion on racial justice and the American labor movement:

Hello, everyone. I’m Fred Redmond, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO. We are a federation of 57 unions representing 12.5 million workers in all sectors of the economy.

I’d like to thank FES, and Mark Anner and Jana Silverman and the entire team at the Center for Global Workers’ Rights at Penn State University for all the work that went into bringing this conference to life. Thank you for bringing us together.

I’m glad to have the opportunity to  speak on what the American labor movement is doing to address racial justice here in the United States.

As Jennifer [Bates] and Mike [Foster] helped to highlight in the last session, racial justice is fundamentally economic justice. The two are tied together.

You’ve watched the fight for Black Lives Matter here in the United States… and the widespread demonstrations after the murder of George Floyd… 

And it became clear to me that summer… when the AFL-CIO headquarters was vandalized and a fire set in the lobby… that the Black community did not see the labor movement as an ally.

And we had to ask ourselves why?

We were having tough conversations on institutional bias and ways to be a more inclusive movement. And our work is centered on racial and economic justice. Yet the Black community doesn’t identify with us.

And so in 2020, the AFL-CIO created a Task Force on Racial Justice to take concrete action to address America’s long history of racism, and in particular in the criminal justice system.

The labor movement could not afford to be silent on this issue if we are to be a force for progress for ALL people.

Now, I’ve spent my entire life fighting for racial justice in the workplace and throughout our communities, and while you may not be facing the same set of issues or injustices in the countries where you live and work…we all share the same fundamental beliefs:

That we are stronger together than we are alone.

That freedom of association is the key to securing decent work.

That workers joining together is the best way to address the injustices and inequalities in our workplaces and in our societies.

And that unions are the best vehicle to deliver the change workers want for our families and communities.

But some corporations and governments don’t share our beliefs. And so they use one of our biggest strengths… our diversity… our race, religion, age, nationality, sexual orientation… to try to divide us. On union campaigns… at the bargaining table… and through policy and legislation. The fight in Bessemer exemplifies exactly that.

And when they are successful in dividing us, the result is more for them and less for us… widening inequality and weakening democracy.

The AFL-CIO and the American labor movement are doing everything we can to address economic and racial injustice.

It starts with strengthening our rights in the workplace and at the ballot box.
Most workers in America want a union. In fact, 60 million of America’s workers would join a union today if they could.

But in the U.S., our labor laws are broken. They prevent huge segments of workers from joining a union. And they favor employers who try to stop workers from coming together.

Reforming our labor laws is essential if we want workers to have good wages and benefits, safer jobs, and more racial and gender equity… more power and prosperity.

Because equity and opportunity are baked in unions. And it's remarkable to hear our Deputy Secretary of Labor recognize that today too.

A collective bargaining agreement is the single-most powerful tool to make sure all workers are included, workplaces are diverse and accessible, that there is equity in hiring practices, pay and advancement opportunities, and that workers gain the skills needed for the jobs of today, and the jobs of tomorrow.

There are a couple of bills currently sitting in Congress — the Protecting the Right to Organize Act and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act — that will go a long way in strengthening our ability to organize.

And there are a couple of other bills sitting in Congress — the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — that will restore voting rights and make it easier for a whole bunch of people to cast their ballot and have a voice in our democracy.

Suppressing the right to vote and limiting the right to organize have the same end… to sideline our voices, to limit our power.

And even though we have a pro-worker majority in Congress and the most pro-union administration in our country’s history, our opponents in the Senate are using an outdated procedural rule – the filibuster – to stop these bills from moving forward..

The other thing we’re doing is working to fix our criminal justice system … a system that has incarcerated and killed too many people of color… and last year the Task Force developed steps governments and law enforcement agencies can take to improve public safety.

Formerly incarcerated people should have full access to government services for education, housing and employment assistance… and should be able to fully participate in our democracy, and we’re working toward that.

Through the Task Force we are pioneering education and job training programs to help those who have served their time reintegrate into our communities.

And the Public Safety Blueprint for Change that was also created through the Task Force will hold bad officers accountable while protecting the right of police to bargaining collectively. 

And if we want to guarantee a strong labor movement in the future, we have to hold ourselves accountable too. So we too are having tough conversations on race and racial justice and equality throughout our movement to make sure we are practicing what we’re preaching.

Over the last year, we brought together leaders from communities of color, the LGBTQ+ community and more for critical discussions on national racial justice issues.

And we surveyed our state federations and central labor councils to take a look at the work that they are doing and identify the best ways that we can collaborate to advance our racial justice agenda.

I believe the labor movement has to be part of the solution and is uniquely positioned to tackle these issues and forge real change.

And I hope some of the things we’re doing here in the United States to bring working people together can be applied across the globe and I am looking forward to answering any questions and discussing this further.

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