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Black Equality Doesn’t End in February

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carmen_aflcioBlack History Month is more than just acknowledgement in a newspaper or a special program at your children’s school. It’s an opportunity to reflect on how far black people in the United States have come in their struggle for justice and equal rights, while not forgetting the scores of women and men whose lives have been destroyed by our biased judicial system. The mass criminalization of millions of men and women, mostly people of color who are imprisoned for small infractions, creates a group of second-class citizens who are unable to rebuild a life for themselves even after serving their time.

In 2013, the labor movement passed a resolution recognizing that mass incarceration has become a big business whose product is low wages and ruined lives, and we decided that it’s time for labor to join forces with our allies in the criminal justice community and fight back. Together we are working toward achieving a reformed criminal justice system that offers formerly imprisoned people an economic path forward and restores voting rights—and we are already winning battles. Last year, California passed Prop. 47, a ballot measure that reduced the classification of some low-level nonviolent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. The crimes covered by the proposal include things like minor drug possession and petty theft, minor offenses that should not define or destroy an individual’s life.

Mass incarceration is not only a civil rights issue, it’s an economics issue. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka traveled to Los Angeles before Prop. 47 passed to shed some light on the situation. He noted that one-third of African American men will serve time in federal prison during their lifetime. That’s an incarceration rate five times greater than that for white men, even though studies have shown that white men and black men commit crimes at roughly the same rates. Once those men and women get out of prison, they have a harder time finding employment and housing due to their arrest records.

The labor movement is a movement of second chances and firmly believes our criminal justice system needs to offer people another chance to contribute to our society. The AFL-CIO staunchly opposes harmful policies like mandatory sentences for nonviolent crimes and we support programs that help people reintegrate into their communities, such as job training, education, probation and parole. If we are going to raise wages for all workers, we have to ensure that everyone has a fair shot at earning a wage.

Black History Month might be coming to an end, but the struggle to ensure that African Americans have a fair shot lasts until there is equity in our criminal justice system. Let’s focus on ensuring that every member of our communities has a shot at charting his or her own path forward. It’s time for us to wake up, come together and strive to create a criminal justice system that works.

This article originally appeared at The Huffington Post, and reposted at AFL-CIO.org March 3, 2015.

About the author: Carmen Berkley is the Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Director at the AFL-CIO. She also serves as a Principal Consultant at Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, LLC , Lead Trainer for Campus Camp Wellstone, and is a proud member of the Black Youth Project 100.


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A Legacy Remembered

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Gebre

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.


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From the Archives: Celebrating SEIU’s African-American Leaders

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seiu-org-logoAs I reviewed the SEIU archives for photographs and records featuring African-Americans to celebrate this Black History Month, I noticed that when it came to leadership at the International level, the year 1980 stood out. Although African-Americans served as International Officers and on the International Executive Board in previous years, never before had so many African Americans been represented in positions of leadership at the International level. As SEIU grew, so did the diversity of its membership, and it is inspiring to see that this was also reflected in its leadership. Below are photographs of several African American members of SEIU’s 1980 International Executive Board.

 

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PHOTO: International Executive Board Member Walter Backstrom speaking during the 1984 SEIU International Convention. Walter started as a refuse collector and helped build a union that remains a strong voice for working men and women in the City of Los Angeles.

In addition to his work at SEIU Local 347, Walter was Executive Director of SEIU Local 99. In all of his roles he fought tirelessly for the right of public employees to bargain collectively with their employers over wages and working conditions. CREDIT: Photographer Unknown. Photographer Unknown

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PHOTO: International Executive Board member Ophelia McFadden is seen here listening during a conference. McFadden became the first Black woman to be elected as Vice President of SEIU in 1984. She was also the first Black woman to serve on the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor Executive Council. For more than 30 years, Ophelia was an extraordinary SEIU leader, organizer, and political activist.

Her signature achievement was persevering through an 11-years long campaign to help lead 74,000 Los Angeles County Homecare Workers to win their battle to unite in SEIU to help improve their lives. It was among the biggest union organizing victories of the 20th century. Photographer Unknown

This article was originally printed on SEIU on February 10, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

Author: Alexandra Orchard, SEIU Archivist 


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Black History Month: Celebrating Our Unsung Heroes

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seiu-org-logoFebruary is Black History Month. It’s an opportunity for all Americans to remember our past and learn about the ongoing legacy of struggle for equal rights and justice for all.

SEIU leaders and members are a part of this rich history. They are the local “unsung heroes” who toil every day to improve the lives of working people in our country.

They’re the activists fighting each and every day for those who are marginalized because of their citizenship status or lack of access to healthcare, the educators and child care providers who shape young minds to be the leaders of tomorrow and the public workers who enrich our everyday lives through quality services.

You many know an unsung hero who is fighting for income equality — retirement security for all — immigration reform — or fighting to ensure our voting rights. We don’t talk about these people too often, but we should. That’s why we want to hear from you.

During Black History Month, we want to recognize and celebrate the achievements and contributions of African-Americans who don’t often find their names in the spotlight.

Recognize a person in your life for the SEIU Unsung Labor Heroes campaign.

Do you know an SEIU member or leader who goes above and beyond, helping his or her family, community, and country truly thrive? Tell us his or her story, so we can share it with the world.

http://action.seiu.org/page/s/2014-unsung-heroes

This article was originally printed on SEIU on February 1, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

Author: SEIU Communications


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