The labor movement has a long and important history in the United States. Chris Crass speaks with Liz Perlman and Seth Newton Patel who are working to help build economic justice for all.
Author note: This post is part of a series of interviews with white racial justice organizers and leaders from around the country, to draw out examples of what white activists are doing and can do, along with insights and lessons born from years of experience. While white people need to be mindful of how white privilege operates, we must also be powerful for collective liberation, knowing that the time for us to rise against structural racism is now. Read more in this series here.
While the long history of racism in the labor movement is often used as an example of how the ruling class divides working people, and how workers racialized as whites have fought for access to white privilege at the expense of workers of color, the labor movement is also rich with multiracial, anti-racist, racial justice campaigns, lessons, and victories that have built working class power for economic justice for all. These efforts have overwhelming been led by working class people of color, but white anti-racist workers are also an important part of this history and contemporary struggle.
As white people around the country are awakening to the enduring reality of racism in our country, and as Black Lives Matter movement on the move is demanding that white people opposed to racism, step up, it is vital that white people learn about the experiences of white anti-racists deeply involved in this work, for inspiration, examples, and next steps. This interview is part of a series I’m doing with white racial justice leaders and organizers around the country. My goal is to help equip white people to be courageous, humble, visionary, accountable, loving, and effective as we, as white people, work to save white communities from the death culture of white supremacy and unite our people with the deeply life affirming, liberatory power of the Black Lives Matter movement.
This interview is with white racial justice union leaders and organizers Liz Perlman and Seth Newton Patel explore in this interview about AFSCME Local 3299. In response to the Black Lives Matter movement, a multiracial group of worker leaders and the board of the union and staff, with Black workers at the forefront, started up the Racial Justice Working Group to build solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and move racial justice forward in the union for the long haul.
Let us cultivate a vibrant and powerful culture and practice of solidarity for Black Lives Matter, and let us draw lessons from the work happening all around the country to do it.
CC: How are you working to move white people into racial justice movement in this time? What’s working? And what are you learning from what works?
AFSCME Local 3299 is a union of over 22,000 patient care and service workers at the University of California’s (UC) hospitals and campuses. Our own constitution reminds us that “our legacy goes back to…the fight to end slavery, the Civil Rights movement, and lives on today as we seek fairness for all working families and respect for new immigrant workers.” With a union that is nearly 80 percent people of color (of those, approximately 13 percent Black), we are currently working to move our multi-racial membership—including our white workers who make up approximately 17 percent of our union—to support racial justice movements primarily through the creation and campaigns of our union’s Racial Justice Working Group (RJWG).
The RJWG was born of our Local’s elected worker leaders’ individual involvement in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. After multiple conversations with Black executive board members—including one with a board member who had just returned from a BLM action with his nephew in Arizona—our president, Kathryn Lybarger, formed the RJWG in December of 2014. Lybarger invited any and all executive board members to participate, and specifically encouraged Black members to join. Some leaders brought a wealth of past experience, including one member who had completed the C. L. Dellums African American Leadership School. Black, Latino and white leaders joined the committee, and Local union staff were also invited to participate in supporting the work of the RJWG.
The RJWG’s first goal was to educate and involve our union’s top worker leadership—a 40-member statewide executive board—to stand in solidarity with the BLM movement and struggle against police brutality by doing more than just passing a resolution. We asked our white and Latino worker leaders to play an active role in an internal campaign lead by a predominantly Black committee. We asked Steven Pitts to share his expertise in Black worker organizing and education—his regular feedback informs our RJWG’s vision, and he facilitated our first board training.
At the first training worker leaders were asked to share: what the movement for Black lives has meant to them, how AFSCME’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement strengthened our union, and how racism is used by the UC to divide us, as well as how racism operates within our union. While most appreciated the history and context, board members’ reactions ranged from being deeply inspired to showing indifference. We found that connecting the BLM movement to our union’s history and UC’s anti-union tactics were particularly effective in convincing white and other non-Black leaders to actively participate in the conversation. During our RJWG debrief, our committee observed that while the training was a good beginning, we had a long way go.
Inspired by Pitts to create a “culture of conversation” about racism in our union and workplaces, our committee set out to organize our board, followed by our hundreds-strong statewide worker leadership structure. The RJWG’s next training will be held at our statewide worker leadership conference this summer, after which our committee plans to launch an internal campaign to systematically collect and share our members’ stories of police violence and racism. Ultimately we aim to use our internal campaign to fuel broader AFSCME 3299 action in support of the BLM movement and to contribute to struggles for racial justice at UC.
In addition to internal education and organizing, our leaders have also been inspired by efforts of other San Francisco Bay Area unions. For example, ILWU Local 10 shutdown the Port of Oakland on May Day and marched with other unions to City Hall. The Alameda Labor Council disinvited Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley—originally selected as the Labor Council’s “Woman Warrior of the Year”—from its annual awards celebration because she refuses to drop charges against the Black Friday 14 protesters whose civil disobedience action stopped BART train service in November. While not at all an exhaustive list, Fight for $15, SEIU 1021, UNITE HERE locals, and AFSCME United Domestic Workers have regularly participated in BLM actions. And San Francisco Jobs with Justice recently organized a “Black Lives Matter at Work” panel made up of Black labor leaders to beg the question: what would our labor movement look like if Black lives mattered?
As white labor leaders, we have found that we have the responsibility to create space for, drive, and resource ongoing racial justice education and organizing. We have learned that we have to keep focus on the specificity and stories of anti-Black racism, meaningfully acknowledge police violence against other communities of color, and give white workers a vision for what we stand to gain in the fight for racial justice. We are learning from several board conversations on the BLM movement that we must be better prepared to respond to comments from non-Black leaders—members from white, Latino and Asian communities—that can serve to diminish the devastating reality of police violence against Black communities. And most of all: we are learning that our work within our union and labor movement has just begun.
CC: How do you think about effectiveness and how do you measure it? Can you share an experience that helps you think about effective work in white communities for racial justice?
Our union generally thinks about effectiveness as the ability to build power in the UC system—and for our labor movement—that can make meaningful change and lift up the lives of working people, primarily through the recruitment and development of a representative and massive organization of worker leaders committed to collective action. With this foundation, we see effectiveness at moving our Local to contribute to struggles for racial justice as: our ability to educate and organize our worker leadership and membership to see how the fight for racial justice is part of our fight for economic justice. Ideally, this will make our economic justice campaigns inseparable from campaigns for racial justice at UC, and inspire Local 3299 leadership to actively participate in the BLM movement. A further measure of effectiveness would be our union’s ability to collaborate with other unions and community-based worker organizations across California to further expand labor movement support for the BLM movement.
To get anywhere close to these ambitious goals, of course, we must create many modest markers along the way. Our RJWG currently aims to engage our board and member leadership in a series of racial justice trainings, teach worker leaders how to talk to and move their co-workers to support our union’s racial justice organizing, and have a larger presence at Black Lives Matter actions.
Multiple members of the RJWG remind us: while we are off to an encouraging start with a multi-racial conversation, we have work to do facilitate deeper commitment. During our RJWG debrief meeting following the first board training, one Black committee member said: “I didn’t see any white folks speaking. I was reading their faces and their body language, and it looked like they couldn’t wait for it to be over. There were certain people that I’m looking at and I’m thinking: you really don’t have anything to say?” At the same time, this RJWG leader said he felt that, “it’s been a blessing to have this topic discussed openly on the floor,” and looked forward to the next training that would provide additional tools for having organizing conversations with non-Black members.
CC: What are the goals and strategies (as emergent, planned, messy, and sophisticated, basic as it is) you’re operating from?
Aside from the goals and strategy already discussed, we have set out to drive an internal education and storytelling campaign using our union’s history and worker leaders’ own personal stories. The 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike is the most celebrated example of AFSCME support for racial justice, and the starting point for many internal conversations about how economic and racial justice struggles are truly inseparable. 1,300 Black sanitation workers went on strike to fight Memphis’ racist response to the deaths of two workers crushed by a malfunctioning truck—and to join AFSCME Local 1733. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated while mobilizing support for the strikers, the day after delivering his “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” speech to them. In our first board training, Steven Pitts presented a video documenting the struggle, moving multiple board members to tears.
We have also recently undertaken an effort to gather and share the history of our own Local’s relationship to struggles for racial justice at UC. In 1970, 65 Black residence hall maids at UC Berkeley organized to join an AFSCME local that had been originally been chartered at UC Berkeley back in 1948. Race and gender discrimination were as big an issue as the maids’ low wages, and other unions, the Black community, and students actively participated in support. We still have more to learn about this and other struggles to both use them effectively and do them justice.
In addition to using our union’s history, we find that our own worker leaders’ telling of personal stories of police violence is a powerful way to move other workers. Each RJWG leader has had numerous, powerful stories to share; even non-Black members, with coaching, could come to identify examples of how police violence targets Black communities, in turn negatively impacting all working class people. We believe in leading—but not stopping—with the stories of Black worker leaders. We expect that building stronger Black-Brown alliances—as well as white worker leadership against white supremacy—will require that non-Black workers also participate in the storytelling. Our RJWG is currently coming up with an internal campaign to systematically collect, document and distribute our members’ experiences with police violence. We hope that the collection and sharing of these stories will enable systematic organizing conversations and ultimately recruitment for racial justice campaigns.
CC: What challenges are you facing? How are you trying to overcome them? What are you learning from these experiences?
Many. We are challenged when worker leaders remain unconvinced by our explanations of why our Local should be involved in the BLM movement. When it seems as though our methods—use of AFSCME’s history, worker leaders’ personal stories, the ways in which UC management divides our membership based on race, or our vision for a more powerful labor movement—do not move members, we hope that tenacity and the willingness to engage in ongoing one-on-one conversations will lead to breakthroughs.
We are challenged because police unions are a part of our labor movement, and many AFSCME affiliates represent law enforcement officers. A month after Michael Brown was killed, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka spoke openly about this challenge: “the reality is we still have racism in America. Now, some people might ask me why our labor movement should be involved in all that has happened since the tragic death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. And I want to answer that question directly. How can we not be involved? Union members’ lives have been profoundly damaged in ways that cannot be fixed… Our brother killed our sister’s son.” Trumka referred to the fact that both Michael Brown’s mother and killer are union members.
We need to be deliberate about engaging with AFSCME affiliates representing law enforcement around issues of policing, profiling, sentencing, and reentry. One initial step in this direction was our Local’s effort to organize AFSCME support for the sentencing reform Proposition 47 passed by voters in 2014—reducing nonviolent drug possession and petty theft crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. The only AFSCME affiliate opposing the proposition—the Los Angeles Probation Department Union, AFSCME Local 685—was not convinced that there would be adequate funding to address the workload increase that would result from sentencing reform.
Finally, it is a challenge to maintain focus and capacity to support the RJWG’s internal education and organizing alongside ongoing union contract, enforcement, non-union organizing, political and leadership development campaigns pulling us in many directions at once. While we do not have easy answers to this enduring challenge, we are also working to (1) incorporate a racial justice analysis in our ongoing campaigns—such as our fight for a community benefits agreement for the planned UC Berkeley Global Campus at Richmond Bay, and our campaign to in-source contracted out workers across the UC system, and (2) develop the leadership of our RJWG members.
CC: How are you developing your own leadership and the leadership of people around you to step up in these profound, painful and powerful Black Lives Matter movement times?
To develop our own leadership and that of our RJWG, we check in one-on-one, we recruit RJWG members to take leadership roles of: co-chairing the committee, driving our vision, and participating as trainers. Our executive vice president and RJWG member, Michael Avant, has stepped up to provide more leadership. We also ask seasoned labor leaders outside of our own union to share their experience and feedback. We pay attention to the research and recommendations of Black labor leaders, such as those in the Discount Foundation’s report, “Black Workers Matter” (http://www.discountfoundation.org/blackworkersmatter), and the Institute for Policy Studies’ “And Still I Rise: Black Women Labor Leaders’ Voices, Power, Promise” (http://and-still-i-rise.org/).
Yet in the wake of the devastating white terrorist attack killing nine Black people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston—only the latest example of the ongoing, sanctioned violence against Black people at home, play, worship and work—we are reminded that we white labor leaders have so far to go in developing our leadership and the leadership of those around us to step up for racial justice. Fortunately, we get to draw from the courageous, creative and visionary Black Lives Matter leadership and action all around us.
Liz Perlman is the executive director of AFSCME 3299 and a mother.
Seth Newton Patel is Local 3299’s lead negotiator, father of two, and author of “Have We Built the Committee? Advancing Leadership Development in the U.S. Labor Movement,” which appeared in the March 2013 issue of WorkingUSA. For more on AFSCME 3299’s past and present campaigns, see “Strikes Win Staffing Protections at University of California” in Labor Notes, http://labornotes.org/blogs/2014/05/strikes-win-staffing-protections-university-california and www.afscme3299.org.