April 8, 2013
By Joe Maniscalco

Harry Belafonte panel
Harry Belafonte (center) and panelists at the Queens EOC.

Queens, NY – In the same week that witnessed the 45th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination en route to championing striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, fast food workers, supermarket employees, airport sub-contractors and car “washeros” around New York City were all stepping up their own battle for economic justice. At the same time, legendary artist and activist Harry Belafonte was urging the need for “radical thought” in the labor movement. (Watch Video)

“We’ve got to get outside of the box,” Belafonte told a screening audience of the documentary film At The River I Stand, held at the SUNY Queens Education Opportunity Center in Jamaica. “The way to get outside the box is to radicalize the schools, radicalize unions, radicalize people, radicalize religion.”

Belafonte was part of a panel discussion sponsored by grassroots advocacy group Unite NY. The famed entertainer, along with Director of Organizing Transportation Workers Union Local 100 Charles Jenkins, Staff Chair of SEIU Healthcare Dr. L. Toni Lewis, former Local 215 President Brenda Stokely and Director of the Social Justice Ministry at the Powerful Praise Tabernacle Minister Lawrence Hendrickson, were asked to compare and contrast Dr. King’s struggle for economic justice in 1968, with the continuing struggle low-wage workers find themselves in today. 

“Radical doesn’t mean violence,” Belafonte said. “Radicalize doesn’t mean to hurt, harm or disrupt. The word ‘radical’ means different from the norm.”

Belafonte, who was close to King before the civil rights icon was murdered, lamented that union participation among American workers – once nearly half of all employees – has now dwindled to less than 10 percent. 

“What happened to radical thinking?” Belafonte said. “What happened to the labor movement? How did the opposition run away with all of this, leaving us here in a place of frustration, anger and hopelessness?”

Jenkins cast at least some of the blame on suspect union leaders who are more interested in their own six-figure salaries than the lives of the members they are supposed to serve. 

“We see two types of unions,” Jenkins said. “One that’s a business union that cares more about the leaders of unions putting more in their pockets than the base of the memberships. I think it is the unions that have to turn their focus back on the communities at large.”

Dr. Lewis lamented that for many of today’s elected officials, the once-radical “I Am A Man” mantra popularized almost half century ago during the Memphis Sanitation Strike in 1968, still constitutes the extent of “radical thought” here in the 21st century.

“It’s a doggone shame,” Dr. Lewis said. “The ‘99 percent’ was radical thought. Not cutting Medicaid, Medicare, thinking of people not as line items on a budget, but as human beings taking care of their families, is radical thought.”

Stokely called for reform of New York State's Taylor Law which prohibits many workers from striking.

“Striking and organizing are human rights,” Stokely said. “You cannot be a free person if you don’t have the right to withhold your labor.”

Belafonte urged organized labor to change the way it views itself, and to stop playing defense.

“I do genuinely believe that the labor movement has got to understand that it has got to stop behaving as the victim, and to begin behaving like the masters of destiny,” he said. 


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