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Union and Nonprofit Leaders: Labor Should Shift Its Focus to Organizing Black Workers

Friday, July 17th, 2015

By Andrew Elrod

In These Times

In 1956, as Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin struggled to sustain the historic boycott of segregated public transit in Montgomery, Alabama, Rustin turned to the union leader A. Phillip Randolph for advice. The carpool for black workers was faltering. “Go up to Birmingham,” Randolph told them, “where the steel workers are making enough to afford two cars. Ask them to donate their second car.” According to historian Judith Stein, King reported the steel workers saved the boycott.

At their height, American labor unions proved an invaluable resource to the civil rights movement—through both financial security, which helped enable private activism, and the institutional funding of organizations like SNCC and events like the 1964 March on Washington. Today, despite years of decline, the labor movement continues to provide economic stability in many black communities. Of all demographic groups, black workers have the highest union membership rates.

These historic ties have led some to see black workers as a cornerstone to any effort to rebuild a movement in deep decline. And drawing from the national momentum of organizing around police reform, many black labor leaders today are leading the charge. On Friday, May 1, black labor and community leaders met at Columbia University for the third-annual State of Black Workers in America Conference, where they made this case to an audience of philanthropy staffers and activists.

“We’ve got to resist the black jobs crisis,” said Lola Smallwood Cuevas, director of the Los Angeles Black Worker Center. “Our movement sees the deep connection between economic justice and racial justice, and what that means for the safety of our community, particularly young black men and women.”

Nationally, black unemployment is more than double white unemployment. Cuevas points out the tremendous wealth gap between white and black families—median household wealth is $142,000 for whites, while only $11,000 for blacks—and says, “We’re living through the same poverty that’s been with us since after Reconstruction.”

The conference also occasioned the release of two reports on black leadership in labor unions and nonprofits, and served as a pitch for philanthropy to begin investing in a new wave of black-led organizing.

“I am hopeful that this [conference] is an indication that there is an opening in philanthropy to support race-conscious efforts to organize black workers and communities,” said Susan Wefald, Executive Director of the Discount Foundation, which is hoping to spark increased funding in black-led nonprofits as it spends down its endowment this year and closes its doors.

Read more at Working In These Times