The recent wave of protests against police brutality open space for unions to step up their fight for racial justice. Many national unions issued statements in support of the protests and condemning police brutality, but a resolution only goes so far, particularly if written by union staff without engaging the members. How can unions take the fight for racial justice to new levels?
I spoke with union members and staff from three unions to find out more.
1199SEIU New England
On June 11, 2020, members of the health care union 1199SEIU walked off the job to kneel for 8 minutes and 46 seconds of silence in memory of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The union joined the nationwide Walkout for Black Lives in support of the larger movement against police brutality and for racial justice.
Rob Baril, president of 1199 New England, explains that the Walkout was really just an extension of what has already been happening for the nursing home worker union in Connecticut and Rhode Island. “There are a lot of ways in which Black Lives don’t matter,” said Baril, explaining that the pandemic had made clear the ways in which Black and Brown people are dying at higher rates from Covid-19, as well as serving on the frontlines as essential workers. For Baril, the pandemic is a form of apartheid not seen in this country since Jim Crow, given the scale of suffering, sickness, and death among Black and Brown people.
1199 New England represents nursing home workers. Over 60 percent of Covid-19 fatalities in Connecticut so far occurred in nursing homes. The initial scarcity of personal protective equipment (PPE) led to price gouging and inflation, and corporations and health care administrators began to hoard it, at times keeping equipment locked up while workers went without. Workers had to supply their own equipment, resorting to makeshift masks and trash bags.
Workers walked off the job over and over in protest. Baril says that there have been between 100 to 150 job actions at nursing homes in Connecticut and Rhode Island during the pandemic. None of these were protected by the National Labor Relations Act as workers have a contract that forbids strikes. But they took the risk because they knew their lives were at stake. Their elected officials had abandoned them, and their employers treated them as if they were disposable. An official with the Connecticut Department of Public Health stated that if nursing home workers were using trash bags as PPE it was the employee’s “preference.” Over 200 workers showed up at a rally to demand that the official resign.
Of the 15 nursing home workers that died in Connecticut and Rhode Island, 12 were Black and one was Latina. “Whether you can’t breathe because a cop has a knee of your neck, or because you have to use a trash bag for PPE, you are just as dead,” says Baril.
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The lens of racial capitalism
For 1199 New England, the protests against police brutality are just a natural extension of the fight for rights for Black workers. Baril says, “there is no way to look at how this pandemic played out without the lens of racial capitalism.” The union works in coalition with community and student groups on other actions to reform the police and fight for racial justice. They will join forces with other unions and community organizations around the country for the Strike for Black Lives on July 20th.
The union is also calling for a Long-term Care Worker Bill of Rights, and they are working with other unions and community organizations for a People’s Recovery/People’s Budget. Connecticut state has a $1 billion budget deficit, yet it is the wealthiest state in the nation, per capita. There are 17 billionaires in the state who had a net worth of 66 billion on March 1 and are now worth almost 71 billion. The difference would close the state budget gap five times over.
With Covid-19, it might be a dangerous time to protest. And given labor laws, it is risky for workers to walk off the job. But Baril is reminded of the story of Black veterans returning from WWII. In the book, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, Charles Payne tells how the Vets said they were not afraid to engage in the growing Civil Rights protests as they had been to war, had been shot at, and seen plenty of scarier stuff. Nursing home workers that have had to put their lives on the line every day for the past several months are ready to fight back.
Baril says that this moment teaches us that traditional lobbying is dead. We will not win without putting people in the streets, and without some chaos and disruption. But those efforts will fail if we do not build real unity between organized labor and racial justice organizations. They are two wings of the same movement and you cannot have racial justice without economic justice and vice versa.
Boston teachers union
On June 10, 2020, the Boston Teachers Union (BTU) membership passed a resolution condemning institutional racism, police brutality and the school to prison pipeline, and committed itself to active steps to work on racial justice inside and outside the union.
Maryclare Flores, a 5th grade inclusion teacher, was one of the rank-and-file teachers who helped get the resolution written and passed. Maryclare said she had been excited to become a member of the union and joined other teachers in an informal book club to learn more about teacher unions, racial justice, and how unions can be part of a broader movement for social change.
When the police brutality protests emerged in late May, Maryclare and her colleagues were eager to push the union to take a stand. The last union membership meeting of the year was scheduled for June 10, only a week and a half away. Maryclare had only been active in the union for a few years and the whole process of writing a resolution was new to her. She worked with others in the BTU to quickly assemble a google document with ideas. Working quickly, teachers contacted other teachers, and particularly sought out those active in various identity-based groups and activist groups within the BTU, including the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts (BEAM), Immigrant Rights/Unafraid Educators, Ethnic Studies Now, and the Haitian Educators Committee. Together they developed a resolution to bring to the BTU members. They contacted community organizations to learn about ongoing campaigns to support and researched other union resolutions around the country.
Mobilization of the rank and file
In the meantime, the BTU leadership put out their own statement in solidarity with the movement. But Maryclare and her colleagues felt it was still important to have a resolution come from rank-and-file teachers. They mobilized colleagues to attend the June 10 meeting, and made sure everyone understood the process of how to speak in favor of a motion in an online meeting.
Maryclare says that membership meetings are mostly attended regularly by Building Reps for each school, but at the June meeting many rank-and-file members attended as well. Many spoke passionately in favor of the resolution, highlighting the impact of the school to prison pipeline in their communities, the need for the union to engage in racial justice issues, and their own experiences as teachers of color.
The resolution had opposition. Lea Serena, a second-grade teacher and building representative for her school, attended the membership meeting and explained that some of the opposition came from teachers who believe police officers provide necessary safety. There is also racism and internalized racism among teachers, particularly in how they see students. Still others have police officers in their family and worried about the impact of the resolution on school officers. Lea has two family members who are cops so she is sympathetic to this concern, but she supported the resolution.
The resolution passed, but opponents were not satisfied and called for a recount. After much debate and prodding, they got their recount and the resolution passed again.
In addition to condemning police murders and calling for justice for victims, and endorsing specific community campaigns, the resolution has specific action steps for the union. This includes removing all police from schools and investing that money into mental health services and restorative justice practices, providing a minimum of 10 hours of anti-racist training for BTU members, and to make mandatory racial justice training a contract priority in bargaining.
The resolution also calls for the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation committee of members “to begin a year long process of reflection on the ways in which white supremacy and racism have been upheld in the union and the lasting impact this has had on both educators, students, and communities of color.” This is a powerful step for a union in the notoriously segregated city of Boston, where the teacher’s union has not always played a positive role.
Those who drafted the resolution are not calling for a new organization. The effort was truly a coalition, and their goal is to continue to support the ongoing work of existing committees within the union and community organizations already doing the work, under the leadership of people of color.
Black Lives Matter at school
Some of those existing efforts have been going on for a while. For example, for the past three years, Lea Serena has been active in Black Lives Matter at School, a national effort aimed at getting schools to hire more Black teachers, mandating Black history and ethnic studies curriculum, and funding counselors not police in the schools. Each year Lea helps organize the Black Lives Matter at School Week, sharing materials and resources, planning events, and holding conversations. In her classroom, she has kids read Something Happened in Our Town and they make a Black Lives Matter bulletin board together. The school has school-wide events, including a day when everyone wears black, and sessions where kids’ families can participate.
Lea says that many in the union have been supportive of Black Lives Matter at School. The union has a committee that works on the week, and they print up pins and shirts. The union has provided 100 or 200 copies of the book How to be An Antiracist to members, and there are several internal committees and book clubs within the union where teachers are working on racial justice. The level of participation in Black Lives Matter at School varies from school to school. At her last school, Lea was only one of two teachers of color and there was not much participation in the week. Now she is at a school with a lot of teachers of color and participation is higher.
But Lea was there for the contentious debate over the resolution. She knows the conversation is not over. “We won’t give up,” she says. “We need to do a lot of organizing.”
Maryclare realizes that passing a resolution is one thing; getting it implemented is another. She thinks many in the leadership are generally supportive, but the resolution will only become real as long as lots of rank-and-file teachers are organized and behind it. Rank-and-file teachers will have to hold the leadership accountable.
To do this, teachers known they have a lot of work to do. Lea advises teachers to just keep pushing and not be afraid to have conversations with co-workers. “It might be hard to start it at first,” she says. “Sometimes I feel I am the only one who feels a certain way but it is not true: you will always find someone who wants to talk with you and support you. The more you break down your own barriers to having the conversations the easier it will be.”
The process of writing the resolution as a coalition and getting it passed was a great experience for Maryclare. Some teachers are not able to attend rallies and protests now due to Covid-19 concerns and working on the resolution has been a great way for them to be involved in the broader struggle. The process also helped teachers get to know each other and form tighter bonds. This level of rank-and-file organization is especially important as Boston considers what to do about re-opening schools in the fall. Rank-and-file teachers need to be part of that conversation, and the more organized they are, the better.
Communication Workers of America (CWA) District 1
CWA also participated in the national Walkout for Black Lives on June 11, 2020. Telecom workers across the country stopped their trucks and put down their tools, took a knee in their AT&T Mobility stores, stepped outside their health care facilities, and stopped work for 8 minutes and 46 seconds to commemorate George Floyd’s death and express support for Black Lives Matter.
Pam Galpern, a Verizon field technician and shop steward in CWA Local 1101 in Manhattan, says that CWA was one of the first unions to put out a statement after the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor murders, and District 1 leaders fully embraced it, calling on members to take photos of themselves holding a sign of solidarity to post on the District facebook page.
CWA has been running an internal political education program since 2015 called Reversing Runaway Inequality (based on the book ‘Runaway Inequality’ by Les Leopold). The curriculum explores massive inequality in the US and directly addresses institutional racism as one of the key tactics used by employers to keep workers down and divided. It examines the legacy of slavery, and shares data on the racial gap in wealth and incarceration. It also creates a space for the multiracial union membership to share stories with one another.
District 1 has trained members to conduct the trainings, where workers from different workplaces and locals come together for the day-long interactive session. When the protests against police brutality erupted this year the union had already built some foundation and was quick to act. District 1 began a series of webinars on racism for their political activist members. They joined with a few other New York unions and issued a press release on Saturday, June 7 when the curfew was in effect, calling on Cuomo, De Blasio and Police Commissioner Shea to stop police brutality. (The curfew was lifted that night, a day early). The Walkout for Black Lives took place later that week. Locals distributed information to members on where to download ‘CWA Against Racism’ and ‘CWA for Black Lives’ signs in preparation for the June 11 Walkout.
Galpern said given the pandemic people are not dispatching from the same location or congregating before work so it’s hard to know how many people participated in the Walkout. Quite a few members sent photos of solidarity with downloaded signs, including some people who have not traditionally been active in the union. She thinks the fact that CWA was so visible in its support of Black Lives Matter created more space for dialogue among members, including with those who disagree with the message, especially the critiques of the police. “Having conversations with co-workers who disagree with part or all of the message isn’t easy, but it’s important. And the union’s public stance in support of Black Lives Matter created more space for members to initiate those conversations.”
That’s why the Reversing Runaway Inequality training is so important,” she says. “It brings together members from different racial backgrounds and different political perspectives and gets them talking. It addresses not only growing inequality, but how we got here, and it makes clear the role that institutional racism has had in the wage gap, housing, education and other disparities.”
In 2016, 62 percent of white men voted for Trump. Certainly a number of Galpern’s co-workers did as well. But research shows that belonging to a union reduces the likelihood that white voters will vote conservatively. Galpern says this makes sense: when you’re in a union, and in a racially diverse workplace, you have an on-going relationship with co-workers of different races. It means that you’re constantly engaging with one another, know more about each other’s lives and histories, and hearing other perspectives. It doesn’t break down all the racial barriers, but it forces people away from generalizations and encourages dialogue.
Galpern says that the union leadership has been forthright in saying that confronting racism has to be about more than just resolutions. The Reversing Runaway Inequality workshops have been one way to put those politics into practice. Building a union culture that emphasizes on-going dialogue and respect for co-workers is another. Institutional racism has been in place in this country for over 400 years, and it will take a lot of work to dismantle it.
CWA will continue the fight. In late June, members from CWA Locals 1102 and 1180 participated in the Staten Island People’s Caravan of Conscience & Commitment to End Systemic Racism. On July 20th, CWA will join in the July 20th National Strike/Day of Action for Black Lives.