Black History Month
February 22, 2017
One of the greatest moments of the Civil Rights era was the March on Washington in 1963–one of the largest non-violent protests to ever occur in America. The March on Washington brought thousands of people of all races together, in the name of equal rights for everyone–whether they were black or white, rich or poor, Muslim or Christian. Dr. Marin Luther King, Jr. made one of his most inspiring and famous speeches at the march, which culminated on the National mall.
But history has often overlooked the man who was the driving force behind this monumental event–a man named Bayard Rustin. Rustin was the one who organized the march, bringing methods used by Gandhi as well as the Quaker religion to Washington to ensure peace, but also impact. It was Rustin who helped shape Dr. King into the iconic symbol of peace he is remembered as.
As a young adult, Rustin worked with many kinds of people who influenced his activism, including ministers and labor organizers. During World War II, Rustin fought against racial discrimination in war-related hiring, and was later jailed for two years after refusing to enter the draft. Then, after protesting segregated transit systems, he was sentenced to work on a chain gang for several weeks.
Despite being punished for his beliefs, Rustin continued to work towards changing things for the better. In 1953, Bayard Rustin arrived in Montgomery, Alabama to partake in the famous bus boycott that kicked off after Rosa Parks was arrested after refusing to give up her seat on the bus for a white man. The boycott brought many civil rights leaders to the area, including a young Dr. Martin Luther King, who had not yet embraced non-violence. But Rustin taught many who were partaking in the boycott how Gandhi had used peaceful tactics to bring change in India, and people saw the importance of these tactics, and began to embrace them, focusing on direct protest.
Rustin was also a champion of workers rights. In 1965, Rustin and his mentor A. Philip Randolph co-founded the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a labor organization for African-American trade union members. Much of his work emphasized that labor rights were an integral part of the civil rights movement.
Although Bayard Rustin was a tireless activist, his life achievements are unknown to many, and he has even been called the “lost prophet” of the civil rights movement. This is largely because not only was Rustin silenced and threatened like many others were for being a black man speaking out for equal rights, but also because he was openly gay in a time when homophobia and bigotry was rampant. Rustin continued his life as an openly gay man, even after being incarcerated for it, and is seen as a champion of the LGBT movement still today. Despite being beaten, arrested, jailed, and fired from various leadership positions, Rustin overcame and made a huge impact on the civil and economic rights movements.
America has a long way to go before Rustin’s dreams of equal human rights for all are achieved, but without him, we perhaps would not be where we are today. Today, we have a black president, more women in leadership positions, and more of legislation in the states overturning old and outdated laws barring gay couples from marrying. These are just a few examples of the progress our country has made since Rustin’s time, and working people will continue to work so that ALL people have equal rights–at work and at home.
March 18, 2016
Women’s History Month gives us an opportunity to pay tribute to Addie Wyatt, who fought for workers’ rights during the height of the American Feminist Movement and changed the face of organized labor.
Addie Loraine Cameron, better known as Addie L. Wyatt (1924 –2012), was born in Mississippi and moved to Chicago with her family in 1930. When she was 17 years old, she married Claude S. Wyatt, Jr.
She began working in the meatpacking industry in 1941. Although she applied for a job as a typist for Armour and Company, African American women were barred from holding clerical positions and she was sent to the canning department to pack stew in cans for the army. Due to a contract between Armour and the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA), she earned more working on the packinghouse floor canning stew than she would have made working as a typist, and joined the UPWA after learning that the union did not discriminate against its members.
In 1953, she was elected vice president of UPWA Local 56. In 1954, she became the first woman president of the local, and was soon tapped to serve as an international representative. She held this position through the 1968 merger of UPWA and the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen until 1974, when she became director of the newly formed Women’s Affairs Department. In 1970s, she became the first female international vice president in the history of the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen and later served as director of its Human Rights and Women’s Affairs and Civil Rights Departments. She served as the first female African American international vice president of the UFCW after Amalgamated and the Retail Clerks International Union merged in 1979.
She and her husband were ordained ministers and founded the Vernon Park Church of God in Chicago. She played an integral role in the civil rights movement, and joined Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in major civil rights marches, including the March on Washington, the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and the demonstration in Chicago. She was one of the founders of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, the country’s only national organization for union women. She was also a founding member of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and the National Organization of Women.
In 1984, Addie Wyatt retired from the labor movement as one of its highest ranked and most prominent African American and female officials. In honor of her work, she was named one of Time magazine′s Women of the Year in 1975, and one of Ebony magazine′s 100 most influential black Americans from 1980 to 1984. The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists established the Addie L. Wyatt Award in 1987. She was inducted into the Department of Labor’s Hall of Honor in 2012.
March 5, 2016
Women’s History Month is celebrated in order to promote the significant contributions women have made to the labor movement and beyond, that are often left out of the history lessons taught in our classrooms or promoted in society.
The following women are just some of the major players who have had a major role in the fight for equal rights, who made (and are still making) history by exposing horrible labor conditions and acted to change them, and inspired a generation of activists and leaders today. But before you take a look, we know that all the women in our union family are making a difference today too, and we want to share your stories. Tell us about your union story here, and we might feature it on our blog!
*the following is adapted from the Zinn Education Project*
Photographer Louise Boyle is best known for the images she captured, documenting the devastating effects of the Great Depression on American workers. In 1937, at the height of a wave of labor militancy, Ms. Boyle was invited to photograph the living and working conditions of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union members from several Arkansas communities. Her provocative recording depicted courageous people linking their futures together despite devastating poverty, physical hardship, and brutal police-endorsed reprisals. Most portray African American farmers in their homes, at union meetings and rallies, or at work with their families picking cotton. Boyle returned in 1982 to rephotograph some of the people and places she had documented earlier.
A Las Vegas transplant in rural Alabama, legendary African American unionist Hattie Canty was one of the greatest strike leaders in U.S. history. Her patient leadership helped knit together a labor union made up of members from 84 nations. During her time as an activist, she saw first hand how the labor and civil rights movements were intrinsically linked: “Coming from Alabama, this seemed like the civil rights struggle…the labor movement and the civil rights movement, you cannot separate the two of them.”
In 1982, May Chen helped organize and lead the New York Chinatown strike of 1982, one of the largest Asian American worker strikes with about 20,000 garment factory workers marching the streets of Lower Manhattan demanding work contracts. “The Chinatown community then had more and more small garment factories,” she recalled. “And the Chinese employers thought they could play on ethnic loyalties to get the workers to turn away from the union. They were very, very badly mistaken.” Most of the protests included demands for higher wages, improved working conditions and for management to observe the Confucian principles of fairness and respect. By many accounts, the workers won. The strike caused the employers to hold back on wage cuts and withdraw their demand that workers give up their holidays and some benefits. It paved the way for better working conditions such as hiring bilingual staff to interpret for workers and management, initiation of English-language classes and van services for workers.
A field worker since the age of five, Jessie knew poverty, harsh working conditions, and the exploitation of Mexicans and all poor people. Her response was to take a stand. She joined the United Farm Workers union in 1965 and, at Cesar Chavez’s request, became its first woman recruiter. She also participated in strikes, helped ban the crippling short-handle hoe, became a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, testified before the Senate, and met with the Pope. She continued to be a political activist until her death in 2013, at the age of 93.
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn once said, “I will devote my life to the wage earner. My sole aim in life is to do all in my power to right the wrongs and lighten the burdens of the laboring class.” In 1907, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn became a full-time organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World and in 1912 traveled to Lawrence, MA during the Great Textile Strike. She became “the strike’s leading lady.”
In 1886, year after her arrival from Lithuania, Emma Goldman was shocked by the trial, conviction, and execution of labor activists falsely accused of a bombing in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, which she later described as “the events that had inspired my spiritual birth and growth.” A born propagandist and organizer, Emma Goldman championed women’s equality, free love, workers’ rights, free universal education regardless of race or gender, and anarchism. For more than thirty years, she defined the limits of dissent and free speech in Progressive Era America. Goldman died on May 14, 1940, and buried in Forest Park, Illinois amongst the labor activists that first sparked her life’s work as an activist. Throughout her career, she fought against the corporate powers that tried to dehumanize the people that worked for them: “Still more fatal is the crime of turning the producer into a mere particle of a machine, with less will and decision than his master of steel and iron. Man is being robbed not merely of the products of his labor, but of the power of free initiative, of originality, and the interest in, or desire for, the things he is making.”
Velma Hopkins helped mobilize 10,000 workers into the streets of Winston-Salem, NC, as part of an attempt to bring unions to R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. The union, Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers of America-CIO, was integrated and led primarily by African American women. They pushed the boundaries of economic, racial and gender equality. In the 1940s, they organized a labor campaign and a strike for better working conditions, pay, and equal rights under the law. It was the only time in the history of Reynolds Tobacco that it had a union. Before Local 22 faced set-backs from red-baiting and the power of Reynolds’ anti-unionism, it gained national attention for its vision of an equal society. This vision garnered the scrutiny of powerful enemies such as Richard Nixon and captured the attention of allies such as actor Paul Robeson and songwriter Woody Guthrie. While it represented the workers, the union influenced a generation of civil rights activists.
Before becoming a labor organizer, Dolores Huerta was a grammar school teacher, but soon quit after becoming distraught at the sight of children coming to school hungry or without proper clothing. “I couldn’t stand seeing kids come to class hungry and needing shoes. I thought I could do more by organizing farm workers than by trying to teach their hungry children.” In 1955, Huerta launched her career in labor organizing by helping Fred Ross train organizers in Stockton, California, and five years later, founded the Agricultural Workers Association before organizing the United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez in 1962. Some of her early victories included lobbying for voting rights for Mexican Americans as well as for the right of every American to take the written driver’s test in their native language. A champion of labor rights, women’s rights, racial equality and other civil rights causes, Huerta remains an unrelenting figure in the farm workers’ movement.
Marry Harris “Mother” Jones made it her mission to stand up for the rights of the children who worked in factories and mills under horrible conditions in the early 1900’s. “I asked the newspaper men why they didn’t publish the facts about child labor in Pennsylvania. They said they couldn’t because the mill owners had stock in the papers.” “Well, I’ve got stock in these little children,” said I,” and I’ll arrange a little publicity.” On July 7, 1903, Jones began the “March of the Mill Children” from Philadelphia to President Theodore Roosevelt’s Long Island summer home in Oyster Bay, NY, to publicize the harsh conditions of child labor and to demand a 55-hour work-week. During this march she delivered her famed “The Wail of the Children” speech, even though Roosevelt refused to see them.
“Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street.” These words, which eerily echo some sentiments today, were spoken more than 120 years ago by Mary Lease, a powerful voice of the agrarian crusade and the best-known orator of the era, first gaining national attention battling Wall Street during the 1890 Populist campaign. As a spokesperson for the “people’s party,” she hoped that by appealing directly to the heart and soul of the nation’s farmers, she could motivate them to political action to protect their own interests not only in Kansas but throughout the United States. “You may call me an anarchist, a socialist, or a communist, I care not, but I hold to the theory that if one man as not enough to eat three times a day and another man has $25,000,000, that last man has something that belongs to the first.” Mary spent most of her life speaking out in favor of social justice causes including women’s suffrage and temperance, and her work reflected the multifaceted nature of late nineteenth-century politics in the United States. Many female leaders today, such as Elizabeth Warren, still fight against Wall Street and the 1% as inequality has reached exorbitant levels.
“I have listened to all the speakers, and I have no further patience for talk. I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike. I make a motion that we go out in a general strike.” These were the words of Clara Lemlich, a firebrand who led several strikes of shirtwaist makers and challenged the mostly male leadership of the union to organize women garment workers. With support from the National Women’s Trade Union League (NWTUL) in 1909 she lead the New York shirtwaist strike, also known as the “Uprising of the 20,000”. It was the largest strike of women at that point in U.S. history. The strike was followed a year later by the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire that exposed the continued plight of immigrant women working in dangerous and difficult conditions.
Luisa Moreno, a Guatemalan immigrant, first got involved in labor activism in 1930 at in Zelgreen’s Cafeteria in New York City, when she and her co-worker protested the employer’s exploitation of its workers with long hours, constant sexual harassment, and the threat, should anyone object, of dismissal. Hearing that workers would picket the cafeteria, police formed a line on the sidewalk that allowed customers to pass through. Luisa, in a fur collar coat, strolled through the cordon of policemen as if she was going to enter the cafeteria. When she was directly in front of the door she pulled a picket sign from under her coat and thrust it in plain view, yelling, “Strike!” Two burly policemen grabbed her by the elbows. They lifted her off the sidewalk and hustled her into the entrance way of a nearby building. She came out with her face bleeding and considered herself fortunate that she was not disfigured. Moreno spent the next 20 years organizing workers across the country. Her story serves as a reminder of just how dangerous the conditions were in those days to simply make one’s voice heard, but her bravery helped change those conditions for the better.
“Any new method which the company sought to put into effect and disturb our work routine seemed to inflame the deep indignation already burning inside us. Thus, when a procedure was suggested for subdividing our work, so that each operator would do a smaller part of each glove, and thus perhaps increase the overall production—but also increase the monotony of the work, and perhaps also decrease our rate of pay—we began to think of fighting back.” This reminiscence by Nestor described how the oppressive conditions of the glove factory pushed her to take a leading role in a successful strike of female glove workers in 1898. Soon she became president of her glove workers local and later a leader of the International Glove Workers Union. She also took a leading role in the Women’s Trade Union League, serving as president of the Chicago branch from 1913 to 1948.
Pauline Newman, a Russian immigrant, began working at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1903 when she was thirteen years old. Finding that many of her co-workers could not read, she organized an evening study group where they also discussed labor issues and politics. Newman was active in the shirtwaist strike and the Women’s Trade Union League. She became a union organizer for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) and director of the ILGWU Health Center. “All we knew was the bitter fact that after working 70 or 80 hours in a seven-day week, we did not earn enough to keep body and soul together,” she said.
On May 1, 1886, Lucy Parsons helped launched the world’s first May Day and the demand for the eight-hour work day. Along with her husband, anarchist and activist Albert Parsons, and their two children, they led 80,000 working people down the Chicago streets and more than 100,000 also marched in other U.S. cities. A new international holiday was born. Parsons went on to help found the International Workers of the World, continued to give speeches, and worked tirelessly for equality throughout the rest of her life until her death in 1942.
On March 4, 1933, Frances Perkins became the U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945, and the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet. Having personally witnessed workers jump to their death during the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, Perkins promoted and helped passed strong labor laws to try to prevent such atrocities from ever occurring again.
When Rose Pesotta arrived in Los Angeles in 1933 to organize employees in the garment industry, the workforce of which was 75% Latina, the local leadership of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), consisting of mostly white men, had no interest in organizing female dressmakers, feeling that most would either leave the industry to raise their families or shouldn’t be working in the first place. On October 12, 1933, a month after Rose Pesotta arrived, 4,000 workers walked off the job and went on strike. Their demands included union recognition, 35-hour work weeks, being paid the minimum wage, no take home work or time card regulation, and for disputes to be handled through arbitration. The strike ended on Nov. 6 with mixed results, but the workers gained a 35-hour workweek and received the minimum wage. Although not a complete victory, the message sent was a powerful one. What Rose Pesotta knew all along was now clear to the garment bosses and her male union counterparts; women, specifically women of color, should not be discounted. When it came to the demands of dignity and respect, these workers would not be ignored.
When Poo started organizing domestic workers in 2000, many thought she was taking on an impossible task. Domestic workers were too dispersed–spread out over too many homes. Even Poo had described the world of domestic work as the “Wild West.” Poo’s first big breakthrough with the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) happened on July 1, 2010, when the New York state legislature passed the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. The bill legitimized domestic workers and gave them the same lawful rights as any other employee, such as vacation time and overtime pay. The bill was considered a major victory, and the NDWA expanded operations to include 17 cities and 11 states.
Florence Reece was an activist, poet, and songwriter. She was the wife of one of the strikers and union organizers, Sam Reece, in the Harlan County miners strike in Kentucky. In an attempt to intimidate her family, the sheriff and company guards shot at their house while Reece and her children were inside (Sam had been warned they were coming and escaped). During the attack, she wrote the lyrics to Which Side Are You On?, a song that would become a popular ballad of the labor movement.
CHORUS: Which side are you on? (4x)
My daddy was a miner/And I’m a miner’s son/And I’ll stick with the union/‘Til every battle’s won [Chorus]
They say in Harlan County/There are no neutrals there/You’ll either be a union man/Or a thug for JH Blair [Chorus]
Oh workers can you stand it?/Oh tell me how you can/Will you be a lousy scab/Or will you be a man? [Chorus]
Don’t scab for the bosses/Don’t listen to their lies/Us poor folks haven’t got a chance/Unless we organize [Chorus]
At the age of 10, Harriet Hanson Robinson got a job in textile Mills of Lowell, Massachusetts to help support her family. When mill owners dropped wages and sped up the pace of work, Harriet and others participated in the 1836 Lowell Mill Strike. Later as an adult, Harriet became an activist for women’s suffrage and would recount her mill work experience in Loom and Spindle or Life Among the Early Mill Girls. In her book, Harriet concludes: “Such is the brief story of the life of every-day working-girls; such as it was then, so it might be to-day. Undoubtedly there might have been another side to this picture, but I give the side I knew best–the bright side!”
Fannie Sellins was known as an exceptional organizer that also made her “a thorn in the side of the Allegheny Valley coal operators.” The operators openly threatened to “get her.” After being an organizer in St. Louis for the United Garment Workers local and in the West Virginia coal fields, in 1916 Sellins moved to Pennsylvania, where her work with the miners’ wives proved to be an effective way to organize workers across ethnic barriers. She also recruited black workers, who originally came north as strikebreakers, into the United Mine Workers America. During a tense confrontation between townspeople and armed company guards outside the Allegheny Coal and Coke company mine in Brackenridge on August 26, 1919, Fannie Sellins and miner Joseph Strzelecki were brutally gunned down. A coroner’s jury and a trial in 1923 ended in the acquittal of two men accused of her murder. She is remembered for her perseverance and bravery.
“When I look back now, I really think we had a lot of guts. But I didn’t even stop to think about it at the time. It was just something that had to be done. We had a goal. That’s what we felt had to be done, and we did it,” said “Stella Nowicki”, the assumed name of Vicki Starr, an activist who participated in the campaign to organize unions in the meatpacking factories of Chicago in the 1930’s and ‘40s.
“I was arrested a number of times. I never thought in terms of fear. I thought in terms of justice,” said Emma Tenayuca, born in San Antonio, Texas on Dec. 21, 1916. Later, she would become to be known as “La Pasionaria de Texas” through her work as an educator, speaker, and labor organizer. From 1934–1948, she supported almost every strike in the city, writing leaflets, visiting homes of strikers, and joining them on picket lines. She joined the Communist Party and the Workers Alliance (WA) in 1936. Tenayuca and WA demanded that Mexican workers could strike without fear of deportation or a minimum wage law. In 1938 she was unanimously elected strike leader of 12,000 pecan shellers. Due to anti-Mexican, anti-Communist, and anti-union hysteria Tenayuca fled San Antonio for her safety but later returned as a teacher.
On Jan. 28, 1917, 17-year-old Carmelita Torres led the Bath Riots at the Juarez/El Paso border, refusing the toxic “bath” imposed on all workers crossing the border. Here is what the El Paso Times reported the next day: “When refused permission to enter El Paso without complying with the regulations the women collected in an angry crowd at the center of the bridge. By 8 o’clock the throng, consisting in large part of servant girls employed in El Paso, had grown until it packed the bridge half way across. “Led by Carmelita Torres, an auburn-haired young woman of 17, they kept up a continuous volley of language aimed at the immigration and health officers, civilians, sentries and any other visible American.”
Ella Mae Wiggins was an organizer, speaker, and balladeer, known for expressed her faith in the union, the only organized force she had encountered that promised her a better life. On Sept. 14, 1929, during the Loray Mill strike in Gastonia, NC, Textile Workers Union members were ambushed by local vigilantes and a sheriff’s deputy. The vigilantes and deputy forced Ella Mae Wiggins’ pickup truck off the road, and murdered the 29 year-old mother of nine. Though there were 50 witnesses during the assault and five of the attackers were arrested, all were acquitted of her murder. After her death, the AFL-CIO expanded Wiggins’ grave marker in 1979, to include the phrase, “She died carrying the torch of social justice.” Also a song-writer, her best-known song, A Mill Mother’s Lament, was recorded by Pete Seeger, among others.
Sue Cowan Williams represented African-American teachers in the Little Rock School District as the plaintiff in the case challenging the rate of salaries allotted to teachers in the district based solely on skin color. The suit, Morris v. Williams, was filed on Feb. 28, 1942, and followed a March 1941 petition filed with the Little Rock School Board requesting equalization of salaries between black and white teachers. She lost the case, but then won in a 1943 appeal.
February 29, 2016
As the UFCW continues to honor Black History Month and reinforces its commitment to racial and economic justice, we’re asking members why these issues matter to them. Hidi Frazier of Local 1996 has worked for Kroger in Georgia for 15 years. As a Deli Manager, she oversees both the deli and bakery, trains new associates, takes inventory, and makes orders.
[aesop_quote type=”pull” background=”#282828″ text=”#ffffff” width=”30%” align=”right” size=”2″ quote=”A lot of issues affects us all in one way or another. We all want fair wages, good health benefits and good pensions. We all have to continue to stand together and keep working families strong.” cite=”Hidi Frazier, UFCW Local 1996″ parallax=”on” direction=”left”]
Hidi says that to her, “Black History Month … is about honoring and remembering those who made a difference and paved the way for people like me. Without their sacrifice and determination to want and fight for change, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Hidi first became active in her union seven years ago when a fellow member asked if she’d like to volunteer with phone banking to ask fellow members to vote and help get labor-friendly candidates elected in her state who will make a difference for working families. She agreed, and has been an active member ever since.
During her time volunteering, Hidi was inspired by Mary Lou Romaine-Waymer, who leads and organizes the phone banks and other political activities for the local: “She does a great job. Mary Lou Wagner is a leader for UFCW. She keeps the members well informed in local and state politics. Mary Lou reminds us that these races are the most important because they affect our everyday lives as citizens of Georgia.”
After seeing first-hand just how much of a difference being part of union family makes in her life, Hidi wants to spread the word. As a manager, she’s in a unique position to help explain to her fellow coworkers what the union is all about. “I would advise everyone, not just African Americans, to become involved. A lot of issues affects us all in one way or another. We all want fair wages, good health benefits and good pensions. We all have to continue to stand together and keep working families strong,” she says
[aesop_quote type=”pull” background=”#282828″ text=”#ffffff” width=”30%” align=”left” size=”2″ quote=”When union members, community members, and other working people come together, we are more powerful.” parallax=”on” direction=”left”]
Hidi also stresses the importance of solidarity. “We have the AFL-CIO, where all the unions come together to keep the fight going for working families,” she says. “When union members, community members, and other working people come together, we are more powerful. Labor and civil rights intersect by continuing the fight on issues that affect working families. We will continue to rally and lobby together to make sure that we all have the same opportunities as everyone else. We have to have more training and workshops so that minorities can compete in the workplace. Lastly, we have to make our unions stronger than ever.”
February 24, 2016
As the UFCW continues to honor Black History Month and reinforces its commitment to racial and economic justice, we’re asking members why these issues matter to them. David Montgomery has been with UFCW Local 655 in St. Louis, Missouri for 15 years. David spends his days as the floral warehouse supervisor, coordinating various arrangements to be delivered to Schnucks grocery stores around the city.
[aesop_quote type=”pull” background=”#282828″ text=”#ffffff” width=”30%” align=”right” size=”2″ quote=”My father was always a big union guy and he always told me that it was good to help yourself, but it is great to be able to help others.” cite=”David Montgomery, UFCW Local 655″ parallax=”on” direction=”left”]
David says the value of Black History Month lies in its ability to continue to educate the average American, even himself.
“It’s a time of year to celebrate and acknowledge the wonderful achievements and advancements that have been introduced to most of the world by Black people that many don’t even know about. I still learn something new every February,” David said.
David’s family has union roots, which is what first got David interested not only in a union job, but the labor movement as a whole.
“My father was always a big union guy and he always told me that it was good to help yourself, but it is great to be able to help others,” he said. “I started last year getting really involved, especially in the Fight for 15 rallies. I’ve seen how people from all over can come together for a great purpose.”
For other black workers interested in the labor movement, David has a simple piece of advice.
“Just do it. Just know you are continuing the same fight as legendary leaders that have come before us and you’re helping lay a stronger foundation for generations to come,” he said. “It’s a feeling you can’t put into words.”
David believes that civil rights and labor go hand-in-hand, because without strong union support, workers are open to having their rights violated. The 33-year-old father of three says labor can build lasting positive change in race relations by “building an inclusive and diverse workforce.”
“Labor and civil rights intersect all over the place,” he said.
February 23, 2016
As part of our ongoing celebration of Black History Month, we sat down with UFCW International Vice President and Director of the Civil Rights and Community Action Department Robin Williams to talk about the important relationship of the labor movement and the achievements and contributions made by African Americans.
What does Black History Month mean to you and why is it so important?
Black History Month is about celebrating and being proud of being Black in America. It is a time where we celebrate the contributions that African Americans, past and present, have made in our society. Our country’s rich history has been deeply impacted by so many groups and it’s important we celebrate everyone’s contributions in order to create a tradition of acknowledgement, inclusion and community engagement. By remembering and celebrating our history, we can build awareness on the struggles and challenges that African Americans have faced and inspire a new generation of civil rights and social justice leaders.
How and why did you become involved with the labor movement?
I was born in 1964 in Washington, D.C. and the labor movement, like the civil rights movement, has been a huge part of my family’s history. My father was a minister and supporter of Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. During the 1970’s, he worked for Raleigh’s Clothing Store and Woodward & Lothrop Department Store, which were both represented by The Retail Clerks Local 400, which later became UFCW Local 400. I remember my dad talking about the union organizing campaign and how solidarity and joining the union was so important for the advancement of Black people. It was because of his union job that my father was able to purchase a home and raise his family in a middle class neighborhood in Washington, D.C.
The 1970s in Washington, D.C. was a time where African Americans were gaining more opportunities to land full-time jobs in local and federal government, as well as in healthcare and other public and private sector jobs. With the increase of union organizing in these sectors, worker solidarity and union membership had quickly become the greatest pathway to the middle class for African American workers.
By the time I was hired as a part-time food clerk for Georgetown Safeway Food Store in Washington, D.C. in the early 1980s, the labor movement was a part of me. I got involved in my union, UFCW Local 400, after organizing a delegation of part-time employees to meet with store management in a demand for fair scheduling. I went on to become an assistant shop steward and then I joined Local 400 as a full-time organizer and led the healthcare team in organizing hundreds of healthcare workers in Southern Maryland and Virginia. I joined the UFCW International staff as Associate Director of Civil Rights and Community Action in 2005.
What suggestions do you have for other African Americans who want to become more involved in the labor movement?
I am grounded in my faith, my family, and in my union. My faith teaches me that the most important thing in life is love. My family keeps me connected to who I am and my culture and my union allows me to be in solidarity with mankind and to serve others.
I am proud to be union–UFCW Union! I am proud to be an advocate for workers’ rights. Unions need more active African American union members, organizers, leaders and advocates to get involved in the labor movement. The labor movement remains one of the greatest avenues for economic freedom for African Americans. If you have passion to fight for justice, if you want to work to create a more equitable society–the labor movement could be the place for you.
There are many ways to get involved. If you are a union member, you can start by attending membership meetings and learning more about the activities of your union. You can also volunteer for union organizing campaigns, workplace actions, social media campaigns, participate in Get Out the Vote campaigns, run for union shop steward or run to serve on your contract bargaining team.
If you are not a member of a union, you can get involved in the labor movement by joining a living wage, fair scheduling, sick leave, or other social and economic justice campaigns–apply for intern opportunities, seek out job opportunities. African Americans that desire to get involved in the labor movement can also seek out volunteer, internships and job opportunities with organizations that are in partnership with labor and civil rights organizations, voter engagement, community organizing, LGBTQ organizations, immigration and workers’ right organizations.
In the 60s, activists like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Bayard Rustin, and Malcolm X led the Civil Rights movement, which also advocated for expanded workers’ rights. In your opinion, what groups or leaders stand out as being at forefront in the fight for equality and justice now?
Leaders like Reverend William Barber, President of the North Carolina NAACP and founder of the “Forward Together Movement,” the Advancement Project, DEMOS, and many African American labor activists, like myself, are now at the forefront in the fight for equality and justice. Through the Labor Commission on Race and Economic Justice, UFCW International President Marc Perrone and Fred Redmon, Vice President of the United Steelworkers, are at the forefront in leading the conversation and work to dismantle racism within the labor movement.
Also, in today’s era of social media, movements like Color of Change, Not One More Deportation, Black Lives Matter, Black Youth Project 100, and the Dream Defenders have sparked a new generation of advocates for racial and social equality. Many of these young leaders are also leading in the labor movement. Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter is Special Projects Director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Carmen Berkley, cofounder of Black Youth Project 100, is Human, Civil and Women’s Rights Director for the AFL-CIO, and Greg Cendana is a young, openly gay Asian American activist and Executive Director of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance.
Through their civil rights, community and union activity, these millennials are leading the charge to expose and dismantle a racist system that disenfranchises communities of color.
The labor movement has a rich tradition of fighting inequities that extend beyond the workplace. In what way do labor and civil rights intersect and how can unions help narrow the income and equality divide that disproportionately affect African Americans and other minorities?
In a speech entitled “if the Negro Wins, Labor Wins,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said:
Negroes in the United States read this history of labor and find it mirrors their own experience. We are confronted by powerful forces telling us to rely on the good will and understanding of those who profit by exploiting us…. They are shocked that action organizations, sit-ins, civil disobedience, and protests are becoming our everyday tools, just as strikes, demonstrations and union organization became yours to insure that bargaining power genuinely existed on both sides of the table… Our needs are identical with labor’s needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, and health and welfare measures… That is why Negroes support labor’s demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.
These words stand true even today: the success of the civil rights movement as well as the labor movement is the ability to work together in order to move a vigorous agenda that addresses institutional and generational racism, worker exploitation, and social and economic inequality.
Just as Black Lives Matter and today’s Black Liberation movement share agendas that include workers’ rights and union protections, the labor movement must adopt and move a robust civil rights agenda that includes the voices of Black, Latino, Women, Asian, and LGBTQ workers. It must be an agenda that moves campaigns to declare that all workers can earn a better wage, regardless of the level of their education. All workers have a right to paid sick leave and paid family leave. An agenda that works to protect all workers against discrimination based on the color of their skin, their nationality, their self-identity or sexual orientation, or past incarceration or criminal record. Labor should move an agenda that promotes equal pay for all workers regardless of gender, their place of employment or past criminal record. Labor should move an agenda that works with the civil rights movement to protect the right to vote for all people.
The work of the Labor Commission on Race and Economic Justice is only the beginning of a process to address discrimination. Labor can no longer be silent about the attacks on Black communities. Labor must become true allies of the civil rights movement. For the enemies of the labor movement are the same enemies of the civil rights movement, and neither movement can win without the other…
With cases like Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association and expansion of Right to Work, labor cannot withstand the attacks on the movement without joining a greater movement for social and economic justice. The two movements must show up for each other, “For in the End, we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends”…words of Dr. Martin King, Jr.
February 22, 2016
As our UFCW family continues to celebrate Black History Month, we’re asking members why it’s important to them. Daniel Garescher, who is Haitian/Caribbean-American, is a Local 1208 steward at Smithfield Foods in Tar Heel, North Carolina.
To Daniel, Black History Month is important because it sheds light on the history of black Americans, something that “schools and textbooks do not always cover.”
“When the history and culture of black people in America is excluded, African-Americans can feel oppressed–we want to have pride about who we are,” Daniel says. “Without education about all that people of color are and can be–and what contributions they have made–we are reinforcing racism. Black History Month is a small effort to resolve this and counter negative images of black people that were perpetuated in the media and society for so much of our country’s history, and still persist today.”
Daniel got involved in the union because he saw first-hand how being part of a union family improved people’s quality of life, and fought for the rights of all workers, including people of color.
“My mother was working at Smithfield when I was in high school, and I was working as an interpreter for both Smithfield and the union. I started working at the plant myself after high school. I had already seen the value of having a voice at the plant through the union,” he says.
As a steward, Daniel fights every day for his coworkers and urges them to get more involved. His advice to his other union brothers and sisters is to “Sign up! Become a steward. Learn as much as you can and go to any trainings that you can go to. It will help you both at work and outside of work in your future. The union has helped me, a Haitian man, become more of a leader, more of a man.”
Daniel notes that the labor movement has a unique responsibility and is in the position to fight inequalities that extend beyond the workplace: “Workplace education and power is the best way to reduce the income divide. The labor movement can always do more to highlight and promote leaders of color to reduce discrimination–that’s why it’s so important that we not just continue to celebrate Black History Month, but continue to fight for civil rights in our daily work and lives.”
February 16, 2016
“Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” —Fannie Lou Hamer
Black History Month provides us with an opportunity to pay tribute to Fannie Lou Hamer, a voting and civil rights activist who was instrumental in organizing Mississippi’s Freedom Summer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and drawing national attention to the civil rights struggle in Mississippi at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
Born to a family of sharecroppers in Mississippi in 1917, Fannie Lou Townsend started working in the cotton fields at the age of six. In 1944, she married Perry “Pap” Hamer, and the couple struggled to get by in rural Mississippi.
In 1962, her life changed when she decided to attend a protest meeting, where she met civil rights activists who were in Mississippi to register African Americans to vote. She became active in helping with the voter registration efforts, and became a SNCC field secretary in 1963. That same year, she attended a citizenship training school sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Charleston, South Carolina. On the bus trip back home, after stopping in Winona, Mississippi, Hamer was arrested with other activists after trying to be served at a cafe. She was brutally beaten in jail, and needed almost a month to recover from her near fatal injuries after her release.
In 1964, Hamer worked with the SNCC to organize the Freedom Summer voter registration drive in Mississippi. Later that year, Hamer and other civil rights activists established the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in order to fight for fair representation at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. NAACP activist Aaron Henry headed the MFDP delegation, and Hamer served as vice chair.
At the convention, the MFDP lined up witnesses, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to testify before the convention’s credentials committee in order to gain seats at the convention. Hamer also testified and her testimony gained national attention. Hubert Humphrey, who would become the party’s candidate for Vice President, served as the liaison for President Johnson. Humphrey offered the MFDP delegates only two seats, and the delegates rejected the compromise.
That same year, Hamer ran for Congress in Mississippi, but she was unsuccessful in her bid. In 1968, the Democratic Party seated Hamer as a delegate at its convention in Chicago. Along with her political activism, Hamer helped the poor and families in need in Mississippi. She died of cancer in 1977.
February 12, 2016
One of the most significant events in our country’s history was the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. From the March on Washington in 1963, where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his inspirational “I Have a Dream” speech, to the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, the movement showed that people of all races and religions can come together to stand against injustice and oppression.
Over 50 years later, the fight against injustice and oppression continues. Today, a new generation of activists is faced with high incarceration and unemployment rates in the African American community, along with a growing divide between the rich and poor, a shrinking middle class, stagnant wages, high student debt, job and housing discrimination, and under-served communities that are struggling with increasing inequality, racial profiling and social unrest. From the Making Change at Walmart and the Fight for $15 campaigns to Black Lives Matter to the fight for LGBT equality to the fight to change our broken immigration system, activists have taken the lead in tackling these issues and pushed income inequality, social justice and gender equality into the national conversation.
Civil rights and labor leader A. Philip Randolph, who organized the March on Washington, once said that “A community is democratic only when the humblest and weakest person can enjoy the highest civil, economic, and social rights that the biggest and most powerful possess.”
The UFCW is proud to stand with today’s activists as they continue the fight for social and economic justice.
February 1, 2016
Every year in February, we take part in celebrating Black History Month. Throughout the next four weeks, we will highlight and celebrate the rich history of African Americans, the achievements of the civil rights movement, and the impact that various civil rights leaders, labor leaders, and union members have had on the fight for civil and labor rights throughout history, and today.
Black History Month’s origins began in 1926, after historian Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African Americans dedicated the second week in February as “Negro History Week” to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. In 1976, the celebration was officially recognized and expanded to span the entire month, and every U.S. president since then has celebrated Black History Month during the month of February.
Paying tribute to African American leaders and community members who have fought for fair wages, dignity in the workplace, and the freedom to organize is still important today–despite the progress that many civil rights leaders made in spite of considerable barriers in the 1960’s, our country still faces threats to the Voting Rights Act, racial discrimination in our cities, and many other setbacks to this progress. Even during the ongoing 2016 Presidential campaign, we have seen race-baiting and other derogatory rhetoric from the likes of Donald Trump. The ideas being put forth by many of the Republican presidential nominees do not represent the America that Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed of–we must continue to honor his and and many others’ significant contributions to the labor movement as we fight for equality in the workplace and beyond, for people of all races and backgrounds.