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NAACP President: Labor Rights Are Civil Rights

Derrick Johnson, head of the national NAACP (Photo by Raju Chebium)
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Drawing on the overlapping history of racism and labor exploitation in our nation, the president and CEO of the NAACP, Derrick Johnson, made a strong case this week for a future in which the fights for labor rights and civil rights are one and the same.

From the Civil War to the civil rights movement, the struggle for equality is inseparable from the fight for worker dignity, said Johnson, who spoke at AFSCME headquarters in Washington on Wednesday in a Black History Month event.

“Without the effort to make sure that people could effectively bargain for their labor,” Johnson said, “there never would have been a civil rights movement.”

The NAACP bills itself the nation’s oldest and largest nonpartisan civil rights organization. Its mission is to ensure “the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate race-based discrimination,” according to its website.

Johnson said A. Philip Randolph was “the most effective civil rights leader. Period.” Randolph was a civil rights and labor rights leader who organized and led the first predominantly African-American labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

Randolph’s ability to organize workers is what made him so effective in the civil rights movement and the years leading up to it, Johnson said, including his role in pressuring President Franklin D. Roosevelt to end discrimination in the defense industries during World War II and his role as the head of the March on Washington in 1963.

“History is rich with direction about how we need to think about the future,” said Johnson, who was elected NAACP president in 2017 and is guiding the association through a period of “re-envisioning and reinvigoration.”

Johnson called for an ever-stronger alliance between civil rights organizations like the NAACP and the labor movement in our country.

“We must understand our role and our relationship to labor,” he said. “We cannot separate what we are and what we do.”

People wonder why the NAACP gets involved in union-organizing campaigns like the one at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, in 2017, Johnson said.

“Well, it’s because this has everything to do with civil rights,” he added. “There is no difference between worker rights and civil rights.”

AFSCME and the NAACP have a long history of working together. Most recently, the NAACP became an important partner to AFSCME during the I AM 2018 campaign. And last year, the NAACP bestowed honors on former AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer Bill Lucy and two of the 1968 Memphis sanitation strikers at the 49th annual Image Awards ceremony.