People of color demand to share in union leadership

National labor leaders hear local testimony of bias, nepotism

Attendees of the February 11 AFLCIO Town Hall Dinner
Attendees of the February 11 AFLCIO Town Hall Dinner

The AFL-CIO eight-city racial and economic justice tour across America included Minneapolis as one of the eight. Five members of the national AFL-CIO’s Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice came to Minnesota on February 11 to attend a “Town Hall Dinner” and listen to testimonies of racial disparities within unions.

Many came more prepared to tell their stories of union bias than to have dinner. There was an estimated 300 people in attendance.

Joan Campbell Sudduth, a retired school nurse, and Carlos Zhingre, who is an engineer and the co-chair of the Economic/Labor and Justice Committee for the Minneapolis NAACP, were the co-hosts for the evening. Zhingre mainly addressed Spanish-speaking workers in attendance.

The evening represented an historic first with the national AFL-CIO in town to address racial disparities. Sudduth introduced Chelsie Claubitz Gabiou, who made history in December of 2015 by being elected as the first woman president of the Minnesota Regional Labor Federation in its 114-year history.

“On behalf of the 70,000 members of the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation, I want to thank you all for being a part of this very important conversation to improve the lives of the workers in our unions and the workers in our communities,” said Gabiou.

However, in the long history of the labor unions in America, people of color — Black people in particular — have been marginalized for work contributions and abilities that qualify them for upward mobility on the job. After their documented sacrifices made while building up various unions and sometimes losing their lives advocating for worker’s rights in places like West Virginia (coal miners) and Chicago (garment workers), leadership positions with their local unions never came about.

The MSR asked Campbell Sudduth what the biggest problem is in Minneapolis. “Lack of advancement for people of color to management jobs and leadership positions in the local unions,” Sudduth answered. “Nepotism is big here.”

She also said that when nepotism stops working for certain White people, claims of reverse discrimination arise. “As a result of tonight’s dinner, we have had so many negative threats in this building alone. People were calling saying, ‘You guys are doing this because you want the Mexicans to have all our jobs. These are White men jobs.’”

In a June 2014 issue of Labor Watch, published by the Capital Research Center in Washington, D.C., writer Horace Cooper described Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), as fanning the flames of racial hatred rather than preaching solidarity. In Minneapolis on May 24, 1905, Gompers addressed workers from Minneapolis and St. Paul at the Mozart Hall in St. Paul.

“I have stood as a champion of the colored man and have sacrificed self and much of the movement that the colored man should get a chance,” stated Gompers. “But the Caucasians are not going to let their standard of living be destroyed by Negroes, China-men, Japs or any others.” Gompers was upset about some Black people in Chicago who crossed the picket line to break the strike.

“If the colored man continues to lend himself to the work of tearing down everything that the White man has built up, a race hatred worse than any ever known will result,” said Gompers. “Caucasian civilization will serve notice that its uplifting process is not to be interfered with in any way.”

Apparently in the year 2016 not much has changed, and some of the worst reports of discrimination and racial disparities originate in eight U.S. cities, with Minneapolis being identified as one of the worst.

Sudduth opened the floor for testimonies. The first came from Debra Jacoway, who worked for Hennepin County for 15 years: “This is [the] first opportunity that I’ve had to bring before people about my experience with Hennepin County.” According to Jacoway, she had a union rep that did not do their job. She eventually won her case against the County and wants her union dues back because she feels that the union didn’t earn them.

Cathy Jones
Cathy Jones

Following Jacoway was Cathy Jones, a union activist with branch number nine letter carriers and second vice president of the Minneapolis NAACP. Jones started out by requesting a special round of applause for Kerry Jo Fielder for putting everything together.

“I’m going to be brief tonight,” said Jones. “But I’m going to tell you leaders here, you have failed us,” Jones said, raising her voice to a shout. “You have not done your job putting people of color in the forefront of your union.”

“Say it again!” someone shouted from the crowd.

“You have not taken responsibility for putting people of color in the forefront of the labor movement,” Jones continued. “Why won’t you do it? Are you afraid to put someone that doesn’t look like you in charge of something? Do you want to ruin all the hard work we have done together because of your bias?

“I don’t want to hear that you can’t find anybody that’s qualified, and ‘We tried, but they won’t come to meetings,’ said Jones. “ If you don’t start to put people of color at the forefront of the labor movement, the movement will die!”

Crystal, a letter carrier with the post office currently, who said that she previously worked for the former Northwest Airlines, now Delta, said she was terminated without being represented by a union rep. Crystal’s message was to the union reps guilty of nepotism: “Stop giving all the jobs to your friends and family and start giving qualified Black people positions.”

“A lot of riveting testimonies” took place,” said Jones after the meeting. “The room was very welcoming. It was very interactive and very engaging, and a lot of people stood up and gave testimony.”

However, the following day, the February 12 closed-door meeting was very different. “It was back to business as usual,” said Jones. “You can tell the establishment came in to control this meeting. The setup of the room was rows of chairs and not as engaging and welcoming as the night before.”

“It seemed like a lack of leadership from the unions in the room on that Friday,” she said, adding that those present “were pretty quiet and just sat there.”

“I got a sense that the commission members were a little upset that I called out the union leaders,” said Jones. “We spoke, but we also were listening to what people were saying, trying to figure out who were real and not for real on the commission.”

Commission members said a final report based on the testimonies from the eight cities is expected to be released in August. “That’s almost six months away,” Jones pointed out, adding that she fears that in the long run no change will come out of it. She reminded a couple of commission members of the urgency of the matter, and one of them assured her this time will be different.

“There was a report done in 1995 and in 2005, and nothing happened,” said Jones. “We just have to wait and see. I was encouraged with the number of people of color who showed up and testified. I hope this is the moment that we can start going forward… We got to get people of color in leadership. We got to start changing the way we do business.

“We’re not stopping,” pledged Jones. “It is going to be up to us to use the platform to move forward.”


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