by Tiffanie Bright | January 20, 2016
The partnership between minorities and labor has never been more vital than it is today. More than 1,000 labor and community activists explored the power of this solidarity during the 2016 Martin Luther King Jr. Civil and Human Rights Conference, Jan. 15-18, sharing tactics to build a collective civil, human and women’s rights agenda for 2016.
Sponsored by the AFL-CIO, the conference honored the legacy of Dr. King with workshops and panels on a variety of topics ranging from political activism, gender equality, racial justice, and organizing communities and workers of color.
Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968 while helping striking sanitation workers – members of AFSCME Local 1733 – gain a voice on the job. He strongly supported unions. “[Labor] was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress,” said Dr. King.
The opening panel, Change the Rules, described how labor and Planned Parenthood joined together to fight for all working families. Speaking of the super wealthy, AFL-CIO Pres. Richard Trumka warned, “When they divide us up, they can beat us. When we stick together, they can't.” Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, agreed, recounting how labor supported the organization during attacks on several clinics, threatening women patients and staff.
“Planned Parenthood stood with labor in Wisconsin during the attacks from Scott Walker, and labor had our back,” Richards said. She pointed to the importance of labor-community alliances to ensure that women have access to health care and can make their own decisions about reproduction, as women are increasingly becoming the heads of households.
The importance of organizing working women was later echoed by Johanna Puno Hester, an AFSCME International vice president, during a panel discussion. As more women become their household’s primary breadwinners, union membership can make a difference because women of color on average earn better salaries than non-union women of color earn.
“The value this union brought to an immigrant person is deep,” said Puno Hester referring to when she joined United Domestic Workers of America, AFSCME Local 3930. “Labor needs women of color and women of color need labor.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Terry Melvin, president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and member of AFSCME CSEA Local 427. Labor’s growth depends upon organizing women of color, bringing them closer to economic security, Melvin said. “It’s easier to organize black and brown women. If we start doing that organizing then our collective voice as the minority community can be the labor movement.”
The conference weekend included a day of community service, with delegates honoring Dr. King in projects ranging from packing lunches for seniors to cleaning and painting elementary schools, and to serving meals and toiletries for homeless and others in need.
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