Speech | Civil Rights

Shuler to AFL-CIO Civil and Human Rights Conference: Black Women Have Been Carrying This Country

Hello, everyone. It is an honor to be with you all to pay tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy and to celebrate the ongoing march, from protest to power.

And this year, we have much to reflect: on the tremendous loss of life, of jobs, and threats to our communities, economy and democracy. But there is also much to celebrate: the incoming Administration, and Georgia and the U.S. Senate!

But, I want to talk specifically about what is owed to Black women.

Recognition is owed to Black women like Stacey Abrams and our own Georgia AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Yvonne Robinson for mobilizing stunning electoral wins in Georgia.

Support is owed to Black women like Dr. Timnit Gebru who stood up to Google, spoke out about the harm algorithms can cause communities of color and inspired union organizing in Big Tech.

Justice is owed to Black women like Breonna Taylor, who had her life in front of her until it was robbed from her—and everyone she loved.

So much is owed to Black women because they’ve been carrying this country since before America was a country. While the U.S. was founded on principles like equality, it was built on the backs of enslaved people, by labor stolen from Black women and men.

Systemic racism exists at every level of American society. It’s reinforced generation after generation, year after year.

Last week, in an attempted coup of the U.S. Capitol, look who committed it, who enabled it, and who encouraged it. We saw white privilege and we saw white supremacy. And in an age of disinformation and divided realities, it’s important to speak the truth, to call it what it is.

We need to have some difficult conversations. That’s how we make our democracy stand. As we often say, the labor movement is a counterforce to racism and sexism and hate. That’s why in 2020 despite the pandemic, the pain, the loss and the challenges, labor marched and organized for racial and economic justice; and caravanned in our cars for COVID relief; and mobilized record numbers of working people to vote.

In 2020, women of color were again the most reliable voters for our pro-worker candidates. 144 women of color are now serving in Congress—the highest number ever. And Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, the first Black woman and the first Southeast Asian woman, will serve in the second highest office in the country. She will be the first, but.—say it with me—SHE WON'T BE THE LAST. The labor movement will make sure of it. Because women of color belong in the House and Senate and the White House, in their union and at every table of leadership and power.

We were able to elect a new era of pro-worker leadership at every level of the federal government—thanks especially to our constituency groups getting out the vote in Georgia. Now let this conference be a source of inspiration for our future leaders and activists.

As we reflect on Dr. King’s legacy, and his powerful words that keep us fighting and organizing, we remember that he was in Memphis that fateful day to help rally the community around 1,300 AFSCME sanitation workers who had gone on strike. He said, “Our society must come to respect the sanitation worker. He is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, disease is rampant.”

Because of the COVID pandemic, we know how true that is. And let’s add she and they to that statement. Because women, especially women of color are the front-line essential workers, in the low-wage jobs—care, retail, and of course health care and education, getting us all through this pandemic. 

What is owed to women of color is the full power and force of their participation and leadership. Let’s start the conversation for how we do that, right here, right now. Today, but also every day. And a year from now, I want us to be discussing our progress.

It’s possible. We’re capable of it. Now, let’s get to work making the real change—in our labor movement, our economy and our world. Thank you.

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