“Claiming Our Power, Protecting Our Democracy.” That was the theme of this year’s AFL-CIO Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Civil and Human Rights Conference in Washington, D.C., and an impressive lineup of speakers showed exactly how it’s done. From young union workers describing how they “claim their power” at Starbucks and Amazon, to workshops on how to “protect our democracy” from voter suppression, the conference inspired hundreds of unionists to learn about and act on building a stronger union and a better world.
Unions and civil rights together
The 1963 March on Washington, when Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, had another, longer name: The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Those two pillars are “intrinsically linked,” said AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler. “Good jobs, union jobs, help create the economic freedom to have real opportunity and real equality for everyone.”
Not every union supported the civil rights movement; the AFL-CIO itself declined to support the march. But things have clearly shifted. “All our work must be done through the lens of racial justice,” said Shuler, adding that she and AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Fred Redmond have prioritized that work. “We have to inculcate that racial justice work in every aspect of our federation every single day.”
“Dr. King knew that a good union job protected workers from discrimination and that union workers had higher wages, better healthcare and safer jobs,” said Redmond. “A good union job was often the first step in reversing an unequal system that has caused generations of damage.”
For members of a union like the AFT, attending the MLK conference was a “natural fit,” said Nandi Riley, a member of the AFT’s civil and human rights committee—which met the day before the conference. “It’s part of our work,” said Riley, who is secretary-treasurer of the Florida Education Association.
“Education itself is a civil rights issue,” agreed Eric Rader, a member of the AFT civil and human rights committee and of the AFT’s LGBTQIA+ Task Force. As a political science professor in Michigan, Rader was especially interested in learning more about how unions can help protect voting rights. “It’s easy to get demoralized” as those rights are threatened more and more each day, he said, but the conference energized him.
After a warm welcome from Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser, leader after leader exhorted the hundreds of union members in attendance—from steelworkers to machinists, autoworkers, teachers, nurses and musicians—to continue King’s fight for justice.
Noting the growing chasm between rich and poor, protests against the deaths of unarmed Black people and the refusal to work at abusive jobs, Cindy Estrada, AFL-CIO chief organizer, said this is our time. “Working people aren’t taking it anymore. They’re rising up in every industry and every job. … I’ve never seen a moment like this.”
Dyana Forester, president of the Metropolitan Washington Labor Council, talked about how far we’ve come, from a world “where I was told to stay in my lane, be seen and not heard,” to a world where her 14-year-old daughter, born the year Barack Obama was elected president, knows a world full of “firsts,” including Obama, Vice President Kamala Harris and Supreme Court Judge Ketanji Brown. Donna Edwards, president of the Maryland State and D.C. AFL-CIO, celebrated a few of these recently: the state’s first Black governor, Wes Moore; its first woman of color and immigrant lieutenant governor, Aruna Miller; and its first woman comptroller, Brooke Lierman. “We made history in Maryland,” she said, but added, “Does that make everything good for labor? No. It means we have to work like hell.”
Maya Wiley, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, framed the fight in positive terms. Rather than ask how bad elections might be—as many did before the midterms—“The powerful, better question is, ‘What history do we want to make?’” She acknowledged the grim picture of deteriorating voting rights: “We haven’t seen this level of keeping people from the polls since Jim Crow,” she said. But rather than warn voters about the deterrents, organizers can tell them how powerful their vote can be toward shaping change in their communities. She quoted King: “We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.”
Many agreed that there is much work to be done. Matt Morrison, executive director of Working America, reminded conference participants that millions of members of his organization have not had a chance to join a union on their job. He continues to organize them, though, helping worker-friendly candidates win elections, securing income for workers during the pandemic and securing affordable broadband where it hasn’t existed for years. “There’s strength in numbers,” he said.
In the thick of it
When young unionists from Starbucks, Amazon and the Pratt library in Baltimore walked on stage, their stories about abusive working conditions drove home the need to continue the struggle. “They are such an inspiration to me,” said AFT Vice President Kathy Chavez, who is co-chair of the AFT civil and human rights committee and president of the Albuquerque Educational Assistants Association. Though she is still contributing her years of experience to the movement, she says, “I feel like I’m leaving it in good hands.”
Conference attendees were rapt as Sadatu Mamah-Trawill described “boiling hot” conditions at the Alabama Amazon worksite, where workers were docked “timeout taxes” for leaving their workstations, even if it was to assist colleagues who had collapsed from the heat. There have been numerous deaths at Amazon facilities.
She said Amazon-paid police intimidated a largely Black and Latino workforce, even arresting workers for minor “infractions” like dress code violations. Adam Obernauer, also representing Amazon workers, described required union-busting meetings, workers filmed on the picket line and managers interrupting union conversations.
At Starbucks, Aleah Bacetti endured racist remarks and abuse from customers as well as managers who refused to stand up for her. She was unjustly fired, she says, “for co-organizing a union to stop the repeated harassment and mistreatment I received for the color of my skin.” Managers told her they wanted to give customers the benefit of the doubt, even when they used the most egregious racial slurs.
“Starbucks proclaims as its values and mission statement that you have to create a culture of warmth and belonging where everyone is welcome,” said Starbucks Workers United member Samantha Shields, but its resistance to the union has disproportionately affected Black people and people of color.
At the Pratt library in Baltimore, librarian Nate Esekale said worker pay and promotions reflect inequities across a range of positions, from custodians to research librarians. During the height of the pandemic, when protocols were unclear and workers felt unsafe, “We came to the conclusion that unionizing is the only way to get the bosses to know that we’re serious.”
Widening the labor story beyond AFT members to include the broad expanse of AFL-CIO unions like these was especially meaningful for Marcela Chagoya, a special education teacher and a member of the AFT civil and human rights committee. “The struggles are the same whether you are a blue-collar worker or white collar,” she said, and the stories she heard will help her better connect with her students’ families, many of whom are working-class people. She plans to bring back all she learned to her community organizing in Los Angeles.
Another group grounding the conference in the present was a contingent from North Carolina, a “right to work” state that has required a lot of creative organizing. “What we lack in union density we are making up for in … strong relationships with other organizations,” said MaryBe McMillan, president of the North Carolina State AFL-CIO.
With her was Melvin Montford, executive director of the North Carolina A. Philip Randolph Institute, who said organizers can’t just “parachute in” during campaigns. Trust, he said, is built over time, and working with communities means sustained mutual support. NCAPRI has set up food pantries, distributed school supplies and taken people to get vaccinated against COVID-19. “That’s how the community knows who we are,” he said.
“We go to places where nobody goes,” added Denicia Williams, NCAPRI associate executive director, referring to communities that are neglected and undervalued because they do not vote. Why don’t they vote? They told her: “No one ever told me how much power I have. They only told me what I couldn’t do.”
Rounding out the first full day of the conference, AFT Secretary-Treasurer Fedrick Ingram joined Michael-Sean Spence, senior director of community services for Everytown for Gun Safety. “We in America have a gun problem,” said Ingram. And it is connected to labor, he said, because gun violence is in our schools and affects American workers. “Kids are dead,” he said. “Teachers are dead. Staff are dead. For no reason. They went to work.”
Spence described the joint proposal Everytown issued with the AFT and the National Education Association—designed to make not just schools but churches, supermarkets and street corners safe. He described the “historical rise” in gun purchases—20 million in 2020, the most on record in this nation—and the rise in unregulated ghost guns. Everytown attacks the problem on many levels, including with grants for “criminally under-resourced” communities to conduct proven programs that reduce gun violence.
After the inspiring speaker lineup, conference participants fanned out into the Washington, D.C., community for a day of service, making meals for families at the Ronald McDonald House, packing essentials to distribute to chronically unhoused people and lending a hand at soup kitchens, a school improvement organization and an immigrant/refugee help center.
At conference workshops, participants were immersed in a range of timely topics, getting hands-on resources like toolkits to help protect immigrant workers, practicing new approaches to canvassing, learning how to join organizations that lift barriers for people with past arrest or conviction records, and learning how to run issues-based union campaigns. They learned about the history and current practice of voter suppression and brainstormed solutions.
It all proved Redmond’s earlier remarks. “We have the momentum,” he said. “The masses are with this movement. And we cannot afford to ease up. Let’s keep up the determined pressure to advance civil and human rights, to advance social and economic justice, together, the labor movement and the civil rights movement working as one. That’s the legacy of Dr. King and that’s why we’re here this weekend.”