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‘Change The Rules, Be The Power’ Conference Addresses Responsibility Of Labor Unions

Published Monday, February 1, 2016

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – More than 1,000 Members of the AFL-CIO members from across the United States met in Washington, D.C. in mid-January for the largest Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. event of its kind for the second year in a row.  The Change the Rules, Be the Power Conference examined major issues facing its members including Gender Justice, Criminal Justice Reforms, Movement Building and Racial Justice, and discussed solutions that they can take back to their cities to implement.

“A survey was done and people were asked if given the opportunity, would they join a Labor Union?  Eight out of ten African Americans said ‘yes,’ six out of ten Latinos said ‘yes,’ and two out of ten Whites said ‘yes,’” National AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre said at the conference’s town hall meeting, which was entitled: Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired: Ending Criminalization in Our Community.  “People who want to join a Union are the ‘most locked up.’  Then they have to ‘check a box’ which ‘prevents them’ from joining a Union.  This is one of the reasons why the Labor Movement is ‘against’ mass incarceration.  We are fighting for ‘our very survival.’  We have a ‘responsibility’ to save the poor, Workers and immigrants.”

The AFL-CIO is the umbrella Labor Federation for U.S. Unions, with 56 Unions representing nearly 13 million Working Men and Women, who strive to ensure that all people who work receive the rewards of their work: decent paychecks and benefits; safe jobs; respect; and fair treatment.

Phillip Randolph, who organized the first predominantly Black Labor Union - the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925, connected Labor Unions and the Civil Rights Movement. Labor Unions often provided legal and financial help to Dr. King when he was jailed for protesting racism and injustice. The famous 1963 March on Washington, organized by Randolph, included Union Members.  Dr. King was assassinated while in Memphis helping striking Sanitation Workers.

Dorsey Nunn, who attended the conference, was attracted to the AFL-CIO after he read about A. Phillip Randolph’s work while incarcerated: “I have a ‘right’ to feed my family.  I have a ‘right’ to house my family.  How many ‘different ways’ are they going to ‘change the question’ to discriminate against us.  First it was: ‘Are you a Negro?’  Now it’s: ‘Are you a felon?’”

“Was my Labor ‘important’ when I made ‘less than’ eight cents an hour?  That’s states sanctioned slavery,” Nunn continued.  “Where do I ‘fit in your world’ when you’re talking about Labor Conditions and I’m talking about ‘access’ to a job?  Those of us who’ve been ‘shut out’ of the Labor Market, crime is ‘not our first choice.’  It’s our ‘last resort.’”

Nunn explained that many of the formerly incarcerated have been organizing, but they are not Unionized.  There are 70 million Americans with a criminal record and seven million under the control of the criminal justice system.

Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) President Terrence Melvin, who also serves as Secretary-Treasurer of the New York State AFL-CIO, told those at the town hall meeting: “I’m a ‘pissed off’ Black man.  I’ve been ‘pissed off for a long time.’  I get mad when I see someone getting ‘wrongfully arrested’ or ‘treated badly.’  I get ‘pissed off’ when I ‘don’t see’ the Labor Movement that I’ve given thirty years to ‘not having’ the leadership to ‘change’ things.  The movement is ‘not about’ getting a ‘paycheck.  It’s ‘about helping people who cannot help themselves.’  We ‘have to be about making change’ in our society.  I’m sick and tired of the ‘oppression’ in our community.  We’re ‘all’ immigrants.  We ‘all’ came on one boat or another.”

So, Melvin asked, what can Union Members do to combat these issues?

“Look carefully at the leadership in front of you,” responded Panelist Maria Elena Durazzo, who serves as Vice President of the UNITE HERE Union.  “Do they ‘look like you?’  Do they ‘advocate’ for your issues?  If not, consider running for a Union Office.  We have to ‘live and create’ a movement to ‘help others.’  We ‘have to learn to respond, not just to self-interests - but because it’s who we are.’  We ‘have to reflect our values to increase our power.’  We ‘have to do far more’ Workplace Organizing.  I ‘don’t care what you look like, where you came from or what you do,’ we are ‘going to fight this together.’”

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