Every February, people across the country celebrate Black History Month. We honor the heritage and struggle of African Americans in the United States while looking with hope toward the future. This year, I am honored to look back at organizers and activists who inspire me daily in my work as a leader in the labor movement. The history of the modern labor movement, which is positioned to speak, fight and win on behalf of all workers, is filled with strong black figures who fought for civil and economic justice during a time when justice was not guaranteed for all.
When I arrived in the United States at the age of 15 as a refugee of war-torn Ethiopia, I struggled to take care of myself financially while also trying to focus on my academics. When I started college at Cal Poly Pomona on an athletic scholarship, I also got a job as a night shift loader for UPS as a member of Teamsters Local 396. UPS was my first union job, and it opened my eyes to the world of labor and all of the trailblazing African American organizers who had come before me.
People like Bayard Rustin, who persevered in the face of threats and violence in his efforts to organize workers on behalf of the trade unionists. Despite enduring multiple arrests and beatings, Rustin continued in his work and went on to help organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom alongside A. Philip Randolph, another great African American labor leader. The March on Washington was the largest demonstration the United States had ever seen, bringing together hundreds of people in the struggle for better jobs and better lives.
Thanks to the work of activists like Rustin and Randolph, all African Americans have moved closer to achieving the goals of justice and equality set forth by the civil rights movement. Rustin and Randolph are important examples of the positive role unions and collective action play in the African American struggle for economic justice. Today, African American union members earn 28% more than our nonunion peers and are far more likely to have good benefits that help us raise families. But there is still work to be done.
Now more than ever, the struggle for civil rights must include good jobs that raise wages and an economy that works for all. Without good jobs, there is no real freedom. While African American union members are weathering the economic downturn with the aid of collective bargaining, our nonunion brothers and sisters are suffering. Today African Americans have a 10.4% rate of unemployment in the United States, compared to a 4.8% rate for white Americans.
It’s time for the next generation of leaders to take up the torch and work on behalf of all workers. I am grateful for the inspiration that past African American leaders have left behind for me. This proud legacy continues to motivate fellow activists who are fighting for justice today. Let’s get to work and make them proud.
This article originally appeared at The Huffington Post on February 9, 2015. Reprinted with permission from AFL-CIO Now.
About the author: Tefere Gebre is the Executive Vice President of the AFL-CIO.