One of the things I love about the Oregon Labor Movement is the collective interest in making the lives of all workers better, not just union-represented workers, on display every single day. There’s no question that at every step of the way in our fight for social and economic justice, an intentional and cynical agenda has been at play by corporations and billionaires to divide the working class by race, religion, sexual orientation, immigration status, and every other wedge they can think of. And sometimes this divide-and-conquer strategy has unfortunately been successful. Our labor movement has been on the wrong side of history at times.
During Black History Month every year, our movement has an important reminder to reflect on our past and prepare for our future. We have an opportunity to recommit ourselves to the struggle for social justice and civil rights at the same time we are preparing to fight for the dignity of the members we represent. And from my perspective, every one of these struggles is interconnected. Whether we’re talking about Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo and Times Up movements, the immigrant rights movement, or the fight for LGBTQ+ rights, every single one centers around justice for the working class. As Trade Unionists, we must never forget the intersectionality of our fights. We must understand and appreciate our interdependence on the broader fabric of organizations and individuals of conscience. Because corporations and the 1% want nothing more than to see us fighting, see us divided, and see us distracted.
We in the Labor Movement also know the life-changing impacts of a union card. With wealth inequality continuing to break records and the constant attacks on working people, strong unions are essential, just as they have always been, to being a check to a profits-over-people economic system.
I spend a lot of time talking about the winners and losers in today’s economy, and there’s no question that workers of color continue to fall further and further behind at far greater rates than white workers. The fact that black women earn just 61 cents on the dollar compared to their white male counterparts, while all women earn 80 cents on the dollar, speaks for itself. Our economy is not working for far too many workers.
To put a finer point on this, and despite what you might have heard during the recent State of the Union address, Black workers are twice as likely to be unemployed as white workers even in the midst of today’s record-breaking unemployment rates. Our economy is not equal, but we know union membership makes a substantial difference and helps even the playing field. That’s why it’s no surprise that Black workers are among the most likely to join unions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
History shows us a tremendous legacy of bravery and leadership from Black unionists: Lucy Parsons, who was known as “more dangerous than a thousand rioters” by the Chicago police department, helped found the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in the early 1900’s. Russell Lasley, President of the United Packinghouse Workers of America fought housing discrimination in Chicago in the 1950s as well. The list goes on, and I encourage us all to continue learning more about the Black union leaders whose fights and fierceness have shaped our Movement.
Our fight for fairness, dignity, respect, and equality will never stop so long as any worker is being left behind. Our work in Oregon as a national leader in tackling income inequality head-on with a focus on racial and gender justice as a guiding value gives me great pride. However, the statistics highlighting workers of color being left behind, particularly Black workers, are a stark reminder to me of the work we must continue year-round.
The Oregon AFL-CIO is a 138,000-member-strong federation of labor unions.