October 21, 2013
By Steven Wishnia
The labor movement needs to unite visions of racial, ethnic, and gender justice with economic and social issues, veteran labor and civil-rights activist Norman Hill told a crowd of more than 100 people at an October 10 forum called “Forging a United Path.”
“We can win if we wear both hats at the same time,” Hill said. “Our program is for the well-being of the middle class, the working class and the poor.” The movement’s not just about integrated housing and jobs, he added; it’s essential to build a coalition to win decent, affordable housing and full employment.
The October 10th forum, at City University of New York’s Murphy Institute for Labor Studies, was organized by the AFL-CIO’s New York City Labor Constituency Coalition, including the A. Philip Randolph Institute [APRI], the Asian-Pacific American Labor Alliance [APALA], the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists [CBTU], the Coalition of Labor Union Women [CLUW], and the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement [LCLAA].
"Given the diversity in the ranks of our movement and workforce, the building of unity, inclusion, labor and civil rights are key issues for the labor movement, as greatly exemplified by the recent National AFL-CIO Convention," said Sonia Ivany, president of NYC LCLAA.
Ivany, along with Anthony Harmon, president, APRI Metro NY, welcomed the participants to the NYC Labor Constituency Forum – the first public activity of the coalition.
"The unity of the Constituency organizations in moving forward a progressive agenda on behalf of labor, and in particular civic participation through voter registration and civic engagement, contribute greatly to building our movement," Harmon said.
Those “constituency groups” largely emerged from efforts to integrate women and racial and ethnic minorities into the union movement in the 1970s. CBTU was founded in 1972, after the AFL-CIO’s all-white board decided not to oppose the re-election of President Richard Nixon, noted Donald Afflick, head of its state chapter. LCLAA was founded the same year, and CLUW in 1974, as women began to enter the workforce in large numbers.
Mario Cilento, head of the New York State AFL-CIO, said “constituency-group issues” are a priority of the labor movement here, in a time when “our opponents don’t just want to defeat us, they literally want to eliminate us.” That means not letting them pit different groups of workers against each other, such as building-trades and public-sector workers, he added.
Reforming immigration laws is crucial, said Maria Figueroa, director of labor and industrial research at Cornell University. Immigrants, she explained, face the same kind of racially charged exclusion that farm and domestic workers did when they were omitted from the National Labor Relations Act. Getting undocumented workers some legal protection will make them less vulnerable to employers’ abuses, and “as long as they are disproportionately vulnerable, the other side will take advantage.”
Michael Yee of APALA called labor rights, human rights, and civil rights a “tripod,” and quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King’s 1961 prediction that an “alliance of business and right-wing politicians might threaten everything that’s decent and fair in American life.”
“We have to go back to the days when we’d agitate, agitate, agitate,” said Carmen Charles, head of CLUW’s New York City chapter, in a discussion after the speakers. “People have forgotten the struggle.” She said the union movement should work more with the Occupy Wall Street movement and give more support to striking fast-food workers.
Charles, Yee, and Figueroa all stressed educating young people about labor history, to overcome anti-union propaganda and to teach them that gains and benefits didn’t come from nowhere.