AFL-CIO Pres. Trumka Speech on Labor and Race

Photo: Lesley McSpadden, right, the mother of 18-year-old Michael Brown, watches as Brown’s father, Michael Brown Sr., holds up a family picture of himself, his son, top left in photo, and a young child during a news conference, Aug. 11, in Ferguson, Mo. (AP/Jeff Roberson)

The following remarks by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka to the 2014 Missouri AFL-CIO Convention in St. Louis on Sept. 15 were released to the media as prepared for delivery and reprinted here.

september 15 2014

It’s great to be here in St. Louis-and I’m grateful to be here at such a critical time for Missouri, for our nation and for our movement.

This hall is filled with leaders who have done so much to protect working people-all working people-in Missouri. You have built strength through unity-across industries and crafts, across the length and breadth of this state and-this is the hard one in America in 2014-across party lines.

As a labor movement, we once again face concerted attacks by those who have enormous wealth. The far right is trying to divide us in many ways. But here in in America the power and dignity of working people will always win-as long as we stay united.

Now, I’m going to stray from my usual convention speech. I’m going to talk about something that may be difficult and uncomfortable but I believe what I’m going to say needs to be said.

You see, the question of unity brings up a hard subject, a subject all of us know about but few want to acknowledge-race.

I’m talking about race in America, and what that means for our communities our movement, and our nation.

Because the reality is that while a young man named Michael Brown died just a short distance from us in Ferguson from gunshot wounds from a police officer other young men of color have died and will die in similar circumstances in communities all across this country.

It happened here but it could have happened and does happen anywhere in America. Because the reality is we still have racism in America.

Labor’s stake in fighting racism

Now, some people might ask me why our labor movement should be involved in all that has happened since the tragic death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. And I want to answer that question directly: How can we not be involved?

Union members’ lives have been profoundly damaged in ways that cannot be fixed. Lesley McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother who works in a grocery store, is our sister, an AFL-CIO union member and Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown, is a union member too, and he is our brother. Our brother killed our sister’s son, and we do not have to wait for the judgment of prosecutors or courts to tell us how terrible this is.

So I say again how can we not be involved? This tragedy and all the complexities of race and racism are a big part of our very big family as they always have been. A union is like a home. And in any home, good and bad things happen. We have to deal with all of them honestly.

But that’s a philosophy. We can’t leave it at that. We have to look at real life today. We cannot wash our hands of the issues raised by Michael Brown’s death. That does not mean we prejudge the specifics of Michael Brown’s death or deny Officer Darren Wilson or any other officer his or her rights on the job or in the courts.

But it does demand that we clearly and openly discuss the reality of racism in American life. We must take responsibility for the past. Racism is part of our inheritance as Americans. Every city, every state and every region of this country has its own deep history with racism. And so does the labor movement.

But it does demand … that we clearly … and openly discuss the reality of racism in American life … We must take responsibility for the past … Racism is part of our inheritance … as Americans … Every city… every state… and every region of this country … has its own deep history with racism … And so does the labor movement.

Here in St. Louis, in 1917 … powerful corporations replaced white strikers … with

African American workers … recruited from the Mississippi Delta … with offers of wages far higher … than anyone could make sharecropping … In response … the St. Louis labor movement … helped lead a blood bath against the African American community … in East St. Louis … No one knows how many men … women … and children were killed … and how many houses and businesses were burned.

The NAACP estimated up to 200 died … and 6,000 were left homeless … Eugene Debs … the founder of the National Railway Union … called the East St. Louis massacre—and I quote—“a foul blot on the American labor movement.”

It was one of the single most violent events … in the history of American racism … and it scarred this city … our labor movement … and our country.

When I think about an event like that … and there are plenty in our history… all over this great country… and not all of them so long ago… I wonder what those white workers would say … if they could stand where we stand today … What would they say … about the choices to embrace hatred and division … over unity and strength?

What would they say … about corporate bosses playing the race card … over and over and over again … in the years after 1917—breaking unions … crushing hopes and dreams … Yet remember … we are here today … because labor leaders like A. Philip Randolph … and Walter Reuther … showed us there was a better way … not just for our unions, but for our country.

But this not just about leaders of the past… and tragedies of yesterday.

If we in the labor movement truly want to act … as a positive force for change around issues of racism and classism … we have to acknowledge our own shortcomings.

We as a movement have not always done our best to support our brothers and sisters of color who face challenges both on and off the job—challenges that you don’t really understand unless you live them.

The test of our movement’s commitment to our legacy is not whether we post Dr. King’s picture in our union halls… it is do we take up his fight when the going gets tough … when the fight gets real against the evils that still exist today.

When a new immigrant gets mistreated by management because they don’t speak the language… that is our fight.

When an African American worker doesn’t get a promotion or fair pay because of the color of his or her skin… that is our fight. When women are paid less than men for the same work…. that is a fight for every single one of us.

We cannot afford to have “my issues” and “your issue” … we must ALL stand together… and mobilize around our issues.

You see … we have a choice … We can either live our history … Or we can change it.

Now as you may be able to tell … this matter is deeply personal with me … When I sit at my conference table … at the AFL-CIO … I look across the office at a picture of my dad … He’s gone now … but if you’ve lost a parent … you know they never stop talking to you.

My dad was a miner … he helped build the United Mine Workers … he bled for his union … and he went to war for our country in the Pacific … in World War II …

As I worked on this speech …. this is what my dad said to me…. He reminded me of something that happened … when I was maybe five or six … I come from a small coal-mining town … in southwest Pennsylvania called Nemacolin … My best friend back then … was a kid named Tom … and Tommy was African American … There was a park near us … called Shady Grove Park … with a swimming pool … where you had to pay to swim … And one day my dad drove us there to go swimming … We came up to the booth to pay … It was one of those places … where you pull up and pay … for everyone in the car … The guy looks in and sees Tommy in the car … and tells my dad … “That boy can’t swim in here …. You know he can’t.”

My dad never raised his voice … but he said, “You take out for him. We’re going swimming.”

The guy said, “He can’t swim here” … and my dad said … “We’re going swimming.”

Now, I don’t know whether he took out for Tommy or not … but we went in and me and Tommy went through the changing room … and jumped in the pool … It was a hot day … and the pool was packed. … We jumped in … and everywhere we went … it was like there was a circle of open water all around us … When we moved … the circle of clear water moved …Well, we swam until we got tired … and then we got out and dried off … and got something to eat … and that was that.

Later, I asked my dad about the man in the booth … I wanted to know why he didn’t like Tommy … My dad explained that it didn’t have anything to do with Tommy … but with the color of his skin … I protested … I said, that’s not fair. … My dad said … that’s the whole point….So let me come back to what’s happened … specifically in Ferguson … It isn’t fair … and that’s the whole point.

I have a son. He’s not so young anymore … but he’s not so old … I don’t worry about him … I don’t know … but I have a suspicion that … like many of you … and certainly like me at that age … he may not always obey the nation’s traffic laws … So I worry he might wrap himself around a Tree … But I never worry when he goes for a cross country road trip … or a night on the town … that he may be stopped … shot to death by a police officer.

But for millions of mothers and fathers … of young African American men and boys … men just like my son … and boys that were as young as me and my friend Tommy — kids with promising futures in America … it is a constant fear, a constant fear.

And if you don’t feel that fear yourself … I’d just ask you … for a moment … to think about what that.

Think about what it would be like … to watch your kid walk out the door and wonder… with good reason… if it’s the last time you’ll see him alive … Because you know it happens … If you haven’t had a close call yourself, you know people who have … friends … family … neighbors … and people you worship with.

And it doesn’t stop there … Unfortunately teenagers of all races … often experiment with drugs.

But only some of our sons and daughters … are suffering terribly long terms in prisons … for the same nonviolent petty crimes … which we all know many of us did as kids … And you can’t get around the fact … that those who fill our prisons … are disproportionately people of color. Continue reading AFL-CIO Pres. Trumka Speech on Labor and Race