By Mark Esters and Pat White
The labor movement has been fighting for decades to maintain the recognition of all working families by advocating for all who seek a better life. It is the principle under which we have been advocating for real improvements like an increase in the minimum wage, paid sick days and other ways that enable families to prosper. We fight for the rights of working people, civil rights, voting rights, and laws and policies that protect our nation and all its people.
The labor movement today finds itself facing concerted attacks by the far right, attacks funded by billionaires who have a narrow and greed-driven agenda that would roll back many of the life-improving achievements that working people have won in years gone by. These include attacks on collective bargaining rights like a so-called “right to work” law, a repeal of prevailing wage laws, and the elimination of worker protections that safeguard our health, our dignity and our ability to sustain a family. Working people are standing up and fighting these attacks, and here in America, the power and dignity of working people will always win — as long as we stay united.
The question of unity brings up a hard subject: the subject of race in America and what that means for our communities, our movement and our nation. We must face this subject with courage and with a genuine willingness to listen to each other. In doing so, we can get about the business of addressing some of the economic and social problems that underlie the very real issue of inequality in America.
Acknowledging the staggering racial disparity that exists in our society is an important first step in this undertaking. Minority unemployment is twice that of whites in the St. Louis region. Minorities are likely to earn significantly less than their white counterparts. Huge disparities exist in health care, education and the quality of our neighborhoods. The labor movement was made to address problems such as these and can and will do so in the years and decades to come. But it will be anything but easy.
The labor movement can use its collective voice and organizing capability to help reduce the employment gap. Incorporating the voices of low-wage workers and young people will be an essential part of this work to bring about tangible results in the lives of all who work for a living. In our fight for education equality, the working men and women of our movement have sought to preserve a strong system of public education as our number one tool to provide all people with a pathway toward a better life.
There are very recent examples of how this can and should be conducted. Indeed, this August, a minimum wage increase was approved in the city of St. Louis — a very important improvement in the lives of countless working people who deserve to be paid for the work they do. The labor movement has been a driving force behind this and a number of other wage-raising initiatives in Missouri and around the country. Organizing more minority and low-wage workers will empower working people and further enable our efforts to combat inequality across the board.
Some may question what the appropriate role for labor should be as we, as a nation, grapple with the complex and important struggles with regard to race relations today. When National AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka came to Missouri last year to deliver a powerful and inspirational speech on the subject, he asked “How can we not be involved?” While discussing the Michael Brown tragedy, he said: “Union members’ lives have been profoundly damaged in ways that cannot be fixed. Lesley McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother who works in a grocery store, is our sister, an AFL-CIO union member. And Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown, is a union member too and he is our brother,” he said. “Our brother killed our sister’s son, and we do not have to wait for the judgment of prosecutors or courts to tell us how terrible this is.”
President Trumka hit the nail on the head. We find ourselves at a critical juncture on very important matters of inequality that impact us all. Issues of civil rights and workers’ rights can and will be addressed by a unified movement of working men and women, white and black, union and nonunion. This pursuit necessitates that our movement be as inclusive as possible, founded on the principles of fairness, justice and family that will guide our way toward economic stability for all. Joined together as a movement, working people are empowered to fight back against well-funded and concerted attacks from the far right. We can only do so if we stand tall, stand proud and stand together in speaking up for each other as we continue this long, united journey.
Mark Esters is president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unions St. Louis Metro Region. Pat White is president of the Greater St. Louis Labor Council, AFL-CIO.