Skip to content Skip to footer

Unions Take Up the Fight for Racial Justice

Article published:
NNU members carrying signs reading Black Lives Matter and Racism Is a Public Health Crisis.

Unions are taking a range of approaches – from educating members to shifting bargaining strategies – to address racial justice.

The labor movement will not survive at all, let alone build power, without a serious racial analysis and making racial justice key to their core mission.

Last summer, the U.S. saw perhaps its largest uprising in its history, as people took to the streets to demand justice for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and support for the Movement for Black Lives. “After months of isolation, I think people wanted to be together with other folks,” says Lauren Jacobs, executive director of the Partnership for Working Families. “The lesson from Black Lives Matter and this uprising happening in small towns that nobody had ever seen a protest in is there are many people who felt and took action because, ‘I don’t want to be in a world with racist inequality and racist violence.’”

Labor organizations are taking up the fight for racial justice in many ways. They’re developing in-depth member education on racial capitalism. They’re using bargaining to address structural racism and developing new leadership.

Much has already been written about the work done by teachers unions, particularly in Chicago and Los Angeles. The Milwaukee Teachers Union also has centered racial justice in its core mission, which helped them keep the union strong even after Governor Scott Walker stripped them of many of their rights. Teachers unions in many other cities have bargained over racial justice issues and supported the Black Lives Matter at School initiative.

Your inbox needs more left. Sign up for our newsletter.

This article will look at a few other promising approaches.

Nurses on the front lines

The nursing profession is disproportionately white, but several nurses’ unions are out in front on integrating a racial justice orientation into their work, including the New York State Nurses Association (the subject of a forthcoming article), and National Nurses United (NNU).

NNU has had a history of leaders who have framed workplace issues in a broader political economy context, understanding the role of labor within capitalism. In recent years NNU leaders are more explicitly naming the system of racial capitalism.

Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, president of the California Nurses Association and National Nurses United, explains: “Our union, just like our communities, is not homogenous and we don’t all experience injustice in the same way—even at work.  But we are an organization that is dedicated to fighting for a healthy and just world for all people, which requires that we build unity across our differences and work together to change conditions that cause poor health for our patients and the communities we serve.”

The union has integrated a racial and social justice perspective in their education work. Nurses must take regular coursework to maintain their licenses and NNU offers members continuing education classes and workshops on a wide range of issues that help them stay current in their knowledge and provide better care. Racial and economic justice themes are woven throughout the classes, so that when nurses learn about how the industry functions, or issues like health and safety practices or vaccines, they learn within a context of a racialized system. Other courses in NNU’s Social Justice and Equity Program focus on topics  such as “Confronting Institutionalized Racism in Health Care.”

Members see the way structural racism impacts patient care, and the ways in which management uses race as a way to keep the workforce divided. Some health care employers have attempted to address racial justice by running trainings on “helping nurses address their implicit bias” but members and the NNU have pushed for deeper education that acknowledges racism is more than just individual actions but based in deeper structural factors and racial capitalism.

In addition to the continuing education courses, the education staff has created a racial justice education program for NNU staff and leaders. Last year NNU expanded their curriculum and created a two-day workshop on the history of racial capitalism and the way in which it impacts nursing and health care. This program is very explicit about mapping the ways that racial justice intersects with gender justice.  It covers big picture history as well as the very concrete, such as how racial capitalism is relevant to the way nurses get to select their shifts, or the demands that might go into the next round of bargaining.

This work is the result of organic demands from NNU members emerging from the escalation of material attacks on workers’ rights before and during the Trump administration—from union-busting bosses to unchecked white supremacy and xenophobia.  Under the broad and expansive leadership of executive director Bonnie Castillo, the union has passed racial and gender justice resolutions and is devoting resources to factoring racial and gender justice into every level of their work.

“Nurses are healers,” says Triunfo-Cortez. “Putting a band-aid or a slogan over injustice is not enough.  We need to identify concrete actions we can take collectively to undo structural racism from the roots.”

Last month NNU launched a new division, Social Justice and Equity, that will provide a more robust infrastructure for operationalizing social justice political education into collective action. The Division is dedicated to coordinating and supporting the integration for this work across different departments. Triunfo-Cortez has just been named Equity Ambassador for the union and is tasked with representing the NNU’s efforts to address the pervasive structural racism in U.S. healthcare.

NNU also has provided open and strong support for racial justice protests. They provide members posters to take to protests or use as zoom backdrops, and they produced a resource, “Guidelines for mitigating health risks while protesting in a pandemic.”

Bargaining for racial justice

I have written about the ways that SEIU 1199 New England has used a Bargaining for the Common Good approach to build relationships and common demands with racial justice organizations. The union, which represents 29,000 healthcare workers in Connecticut and Rhode Island, has a history of rank-and-file leadership in organizing and bargaining.

KB Brower, Organizing Director at Bargaining for the Common Good, explained, “1199 members sat down with member leaders and staff of community organizations that represent incarcerated folks, that represent communities of color, and began to develop some demands together. And what they came up with is pretty transformative.”

Their demands include more money for mobile crisis units to assist people having a mental health crisis and for group homes and assisted living facilities where people can go after leaving the prison system, as well as healthcare, especially mental health care, after re-entry.

The coalition is also demanding an increase in resources for diversion programs. When someone is arrested, a judge can send them to a program rather than to jail. But as Brower explains, “There are not enough diversion programs and it’s not funded fully, so judges are actually recommending at a higher rate that people enter into these alternative programs than there are resources and positions in those alternative programs. So people are being unnecessarily sent to jail.”

Becky Simonson, vice president at 1199NE, explained in a webinar that seven demands were developed using the following three questions for guidance:  How does this demand address a gap in services? How does this demand advance racial equity? And how does the fight for this demand grow the power of the union and our community allies?

Union leaders have made a conscious decision to pursue bargaining with an explicit racial justice lens. “Not all members are going to agree with this, but 1199 is committed to a process of engagement and education with their members to talk about why this is important and why we need to fight for this,” Brower says. It is particularly noteworthy because SEIU represents cops in Connecticut.

Learning from history

Some might say this is easier for 1199NE, given the racial composition of its membership and its history of militant member engagement, where members have an active role in the bargaining process. But what about unions that don’t have that history? Or where the majority of members are white?

To deepen racial justice work, unions have to confront labor history and take on difficult issues such as the ways in which Black workers and Chinese workers, among others, were excluded from many labor unions.

Darlene Lombos, President of the Boston Central Labor Council (CLC), says, “I’m a big believer in ongoing political education that creates space for real, honest dialogue and learning from each other.” The CLC is developing a curriculum that is rooted in building multiracial working-class solidarity. Members share stories about their own experiences with racial tension, and their own understanding of local movement history. The curriculum is geared towards letting “people actually talk about race and share their stories in relationship to unions, social justice movements, and race locally” and highlights certain cases of multi-racial solidarity in the labor movement.

Longtime union organizer Bill Fletcher and Washington State AFL-CIO Secretary -Treasurer April Sims developed a curriculum for union members to learn about and discuss racism and develop ways to organize against it. Bianca Cunningham from Labor Notes worked with Sims and Fletcher to build a “Race and Labor: Let’s Talk About It!” workshop that has been offered to hundreds of union members around the country, through Labor Notes conferences and Troublemakers Schools.

Labor Notes is also working in a more sustained way with particular unions, such as the Amalgamated Transit Union and the Madison Teachers Inc. union.

Cunningham speaks about the work with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. On the one hand, there has been tremendous interest in the workshop: the rooms are packed and there is an energy in the air for having the conversation. “I could see right away that the type of conversations that this material started were going to be really useful,” says Cunningham. “People were walking away with a better sense of how recent racism manifests and what concretely we can do as unionists to combat that.”

Having a diverse group of people in the room helps make clear that no group is a monolith, and that means it is imperative that discussions are honest and go deep. “I feel super inspired every single time I do this work,” says Cunningham. “There’s always a tense point and then a breakthrough.”

Labor Notes began running workshops in 2019 but according to Cunningham, a lot of unions would say, “we need to have this conversation but it’s hard to navigate and nobody wants to kick up this dust right now.” But after the 2020 uprisings, Labor Notes was inundated with requests. They decided they had to use resources wisely and prioritize working with unions who were serious about having honest conversations, changing their union culture and making systemic change. Capacity is a real challenge.

There are other challenges, such as who should even do this kind of work? On the one hand, some people of color say it is a burden for them to have to educate white people about racism. On the other hand, can white people be trusted to do racial justice training on their own? And who should have ownership over the racial justice work that groups like Labor Notes are doing? Facilitating these kinds of conversations is difficult work in any context, but doing so in a way that is sensitive to union dynamics and aware of labor issues is even harder.

Despite the challenges, Cunningham is excited that people are ready to have these conversations. “I think that us breaking this open allows for us to have a larger, more vibrant, more inclusive labor movement,” she says. “Being able to address the elephant in the room allows us to get to the meat of the matter, which is solidarity.”

Developing new strategists

Jobs with Justice has launched the Advancing Black Strategists Initiative with Morehouse College and the Institute for Policy Studies in an effort to help support and develop Black strategists in the economic justice and labor movements.

Erica Smiley, Executive Director of Jobs with Justice, explains why she was motivated to help build the initiative: “When I was Organizing Director, I was attempting to hire an organizer and didn’t have a problem with reaching a large pool of organizers of color but when I started interviewing, I realized that while many had perhaps more years in the field than I did, a lot of the Black folks I talked to never had the ability or agency of developing strategy. They had just for many years been the implementers of someone else’s strategy – oftentimes someone else that was not Black.”

Through internships, fellowships, conferences and more, the initiative will “create a cohort of black economic justice and labor-focused strategists committed to leading, developing, and advancing policies and campaigns that support the collective power-building of working people, particularly in the South.”

New leaders emerging

Several of the people I spoke with were hopeful about a new model of leadership growing within the movements, particularly as there are more women, Black and Latinx, and rank-and-file members coming into leadership positions. Lauren Jacobs of the Partnership for Working Families spoke of how when she was coming into the labor movement, “the view was that we needed somebody strong and charismatic at the head to pull people together.” But now, she says, “I’m so happy to see for so many this myth is exploding and there’s a real vision of what a leader-full movement in which people are both stepping up and then stepping back can look like.” That is not to discount leaders, she says. “We need leaders. But we need multi-racial leadership, feminist leadership who are committed to their members and to the communities in which they work and live.”

Darlene Lombos is the first woman and the first person of color to head the Boston Central Labor Council, and is excited about emerging leaders: “There is a growing number of women of color that are in leadership positions now in labor councils and state feds, like Vonda McDaniel in Tennessee, April Sims in Washington State, Montserrat Garibay in Texas; they’re all rank and file women who stuck by the labor movement for more than 20 or 30 years and now bring a very unique intersectional perspective to their new leadership positions.” These leaders know that racial and gender justice are not just “add-ons” but integral to the heart of the labor movement. Unions will not survive if they don’t deal with workers as whole human beings.