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WHY IMMEDIATE AND LONG-TERM UNEMPLOYMENT REFORM IS A MATTER OF RACIAL AND GENDER JUSTICE

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The expanded pandemic unemployment programs have been a critical lifeline for tens of millions of workers during the pandemic, but their necessity and success highlight the gaping holes and longstanding inequities in an intentionally under-resourced unemployment insurance system.

Government has a responsibility to provide economic security for people, beyond times of crisis, and it has to listen and be accountable when people organize and advocate for needed reforms that grant this security. When the pandemic hit, the unemployment insurance system in the US was in dire need of immediate reforms that would address the needs of those most impacted. In March 2020, far too many jobless workers fell into a woefully neglected unemployment system that was ill-equipped to meet their needs. As a result, Congress passed temporary programs to address the biggest gaps in the program, including coverage for app-based and part-time workers and those with caregiving responsibilities, expanded benefit duration and increased weekly benefit amounts. And as a result of jobless workers organizing to hold their government accountable, Congress extended these crucial programs twice.

In 2021 alone, the unemployment insurance system has served as a vital lifeline for over 53 million workers and injected almost $800 billion into the economy. At the height of the pandemic, nearly 16 million workers simultaneously relied on these federal pandemic programs and would otherwise have been shut out of the unemployment program entirely. Now with these temporary programs ending on Labor Day, an estimated 7.5 million people will lose their unemployment benefits entirely.

The US labor market and unemployment insurance program were designed to prioritize white male workers. As a result, Black workers and other workers of color have faced racist hiring and firing practices, longer periods of unemployment, and over-representation among unemployment claimants.

Ending the temporary programs that addressed some of the gaps that kept Black unemployed workers and other jobless workers of color from acquiring unemployment insurance will have devastating impacts on these communities. Currently, Black workers experience 8.2 percent unemployment and Latinx workers experience 6.6 percent, compared to 4.8 percent unemployment for white workers.

Similarly, with the continued rise of the Delta variant as the federal programs end, people with generational caregiving responsibilities and school age children are left with impossible choices, and women who in particular do more care work, will be left with no support as they attempt to care for their families and return to work. Mothers across the country were forced from work to care for children and their ongoing caregiving responsibilities continue to stop them from being able to return to the labor force. The change in labor force participation is particularly dramatic for single mothers: by June 2021, the labor force participation rate of single mothers in their prime working years was still 5 percentage points lower than it had been in January 2020. The pandemic unemployment programs provided temporary support for these women, but with benefits expiring they again will be shut out of our outdated unemployment system that simply does not serve their needs.

Disabled and immunocompromised workers and their family members who are unable to return to work due to health and safety concerns will also face the same fate – being left with no support as delta surges. These workers faced some of the greatest challenges during this pandemic and our system should not shut them out, especially as emergency rooms and ICUs continue to be overwhelmed.

We cannot afford to continue to rely on temporary fixes that expire based on arbitrary dates rather than worker and economic needs. Rather, we must transform the unemployment insurance system to serve all workers at all times, whether the country is in a public health or economic crisis or not. As Congress enters the reconciliation process, we must continue to demand that elected leaders lay the groundwork for this transformation by enacting bold, structural UI reform including expanded coverage, increased minimum benefit duration and increased benefit amounts that are in line with basic living expenses. Without these measures, we cannot have an equitable recovery.

About the Author: Jenna Gerry, as a senior staff attorney with the National Employment Law Project, supports NELP’s efforts to end systemic racism in our social insurance system by providing legal and technical assistance to grassroots organizing groups and reformers to develop new worker informed and centered strategies to improve state and federal policies, build worker power, and improve jobless workers’ access to unemployment insurance Jenna is a proud member of the NELP Staff Association, NOLSW, UAW, LOCAL 2320.

This blog originally appeared at NELP on August 31, 2021. Reprinted with permission.


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Jobs Report: Despite Job Growth, as Benefit Cliff Approaches, Renewing and Reforming Unemployment Insurance Is an Urgent Racial Justice Matter

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Home - National Employment Law Project

This month’s jobs report released today by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, continues to tell the story of an uneven labor market recovery rife with longstanding inequities.  In this context, the National Employment Law Project (NELP) is dedicated to transforming the system and paving the way for a more just economy that meets the need of those most impacted today and historically: Black workers and in particular Black women, who through racist policies, have been segregated into systemically low-paying industries, making it difficult to build up savings over time and be economically stable.  

 According to today’s BLS report: 

  • The economy added 943,000 jobs in July, and the unemployment rate dipped 0.5 percentage point to 5.4 percent.  
  • The jobless rates for teenagers (9.6 percent) and Asians (5.3percent) showed little change over the month. 
  • The unemployment rates declined in July for adult men (5.4 percent), adult women (5.0 percent), and white people (4.8 percent).  
  • A marginal 1 percentage point unemployment rate decline for Black and .8 percent for Latinx workers, continues to show a stark disparity. The still-too-high numbers 8.2 percent for Black workers, and 6.6 percent for Latinx workers, point to high unemployment prior to the pandemic, and the beginning of yet another an unjust economic recovery cycle unless major racial equity interventions are made.  
  • More Black workers were driven out of the workforce this month. This drop can be attributed to longstanding systemic racism and the absence of systemic support in integrating Black job seekers back into the labor market, which can result in Black workers being considered by BLS to be disconnected from the labor force. (1)
  • Today’s job report reveals one of the largest job gains since last August, but we are still far below pre-pandemic levels with 8.7 million people still unemployed and the economy still down 5.7 million jobs.   

“An uneven recovery is not a just recovery because the UI system was grafted onto the structurally racist foundation that undergirded much of the New Deal programs. Our solutions on unemployment must be structural and transformative, intentionally bringing in underpaid Black and Latinx workers, permanently and not just on a temporary basis in times of crisis,” said Rebecca Dixon, executive director of the National Employment Law Project. 

Today’s job report continues to demonstrate that as NELP, workers, and our partners have pointed out, unemployment insurance programs have been a lifeline throughout this crisis in supporting people to meet basic needs while searching for work and in stimulating the nation’s economic recovery by supporting consumer spending.   

As vaccine rates lag, COVID-19 variants rise, and the job market steadily improves, the looming benefit shutoff on Labor Day, September 6th, leaves an estimated 7.5 million workers without support and leaves millions of others at the mercy of an uneven patchwork of state coverage. Notably, in July, 1.6 million workers were prevented from looking for work due to the pandemic.  

With the looming expiration of successful pandemic unemployment programs and as Congress approaches the reconciliation process and infrastructure bill, Congressmembers must remember that investing in workers is a vital infrastructure investment. NELP, workers, and allies are calling on Congress to enact bold, structural UI reform beginning with expanded coverage, minimum benefit duration that aligns with the needs of every worker, and increased benefit amounts that are in line with basic living expenses.   

Workers need bold reform that will lay the groundwork for an equitable unemployment insurance system and labor market making it possible for all workers and communities to thrive.   

ENDNOTES

  1. According to Table A–2, the Black employment to population ratio declined by .1 percentage point to 55.8 and the labor force participation rate declined from 61.6 to 60.8. 

This post originally appeared at NELP on August 7, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The National Employment Law Project is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts research and advocates on issues affecting underpaid and unemployed workers.


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When These Workers Unionized, Their Cafe Was Put Up for Sale—So They Bought It

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PROVIDENCE, R.I.?—?Five former White Electric Coffee workers gather at the Dexter Training Grounds next to the Providence Armory, slightly stunned. Earlier that morning, April 14, they signed the purchase agreement to own the café. In just 10 months, this small group of baristas went from forming a union to creating a workers cooperative to buying the business for around half a million dollars. 

“If somebody had told me, ?‘One day, you’re going to run that business across the street,’ I would’ve said, ?‘Yeah, sure. OK, buddy,’ ” says Danny Cordova, 27, a barista at White Electric since 2019 who used to eat at the café a decade ago when he attended nearby Central High School. 

These White Electric workers started organizing soon after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. They sent a letter to owner Thomas Toupin with demands to ?“go beyond slogans and window dressing” in achieving racial justice at the café. The letter, which was signed by 39 current and former staff, called for Toupin to hire more people of color, enroll in anti-oppression training, increase wages and make the café wheelchair accessible, among other demands. 

“They weren’t actually things we thought would happen,” says Chloe Chassaing, 44, who has worked at White Electric for 16 years?—?even before Toupin bought it in 2006. ?“They were dreams, but they are fully all happening.”

The coffee shop, which reopened May 1, is one of Rhode Island’s few worker co-ops.

Even before the pandemic eliminated many food-service jobs, opportunities for workers to organize for better conditions at small restaurants were rare. Union membership was only 1.2% industrywide in 2020. While co-ops are becoming more popular, there are only around 500 operating around the country, according to Shevanthi Daniel-Rabkin, senior program director at the Democracy at Work Institute, a nonprofit that tracks and supports co-ops. 

Many of the White Electric workers say summer 2020’s national uprising over police killings of Black Americans made clear the need to push for a stronger commitment to racial justice at the café. ?“That’s what set everything off,” says Amanda Soule, 36, who started working at the café in 2013 and helped draft the letter. 

Toupin tells In These Times the letter is ?“untruthful and misleading” and disputes its characterization of him. “[Its description] wasn’t the situation at all,” he says. After receiving the letter, he says he closed White Electric for July 2020 to meet with the workers and a mediator. (The café closed again in late 2020 because of the pandemic, then reopened in January until the sale in April.) 

The workers, however, claim the five active employees who signed the letter were laid off, while the two who didn’t sign were kept on to train replacements, as described in a public petition following the letter’s release. The petition adds that the fired employees were offered their jobs back, but they still were publicly appealing for community support to ?“prevent another episode of retaliation.”

Following the advice of a labor lawyer, the group realized they could form an independent labor union, which they named the Collaborative Union of Providence Service-Workers (CUPS). Unlike many other unions and co-ops, CUPS is not affiliated with any larger union, has no support staff and requires no dues, but still gives workers the ability to collectively negotiate a contract. After creating union cards, the workers requested Toupin voluntarily recognize CUPS, which he did Sept. 8, 2020.

The very night they formed the union, the workers say, they received notice that Toupin was selling. (Toupin tells In These Times that he had been looking to sell for months, but records indicate it was first listed Sept. 9, 2020.)

Toupin offered the first opportunity to buy the café to the workers, who realized they could turn it into a worker-owned co-op. They raised $25,000 through a GoFundMe campaign, held fundraisers at a farmers’ market and raffled off merchandise to accumulate a $55,000 down payment.

“It’s been all community driven,” Cordova says. ?“People are excited to see a place where workplace democracy can thrive.”

Now the worker-owners are focused on the challenge of running the café. The shop has no managers, and profits are distributed based on hours worked, Chassaing says. Employees have to invest a $1,000 member buy-in, which can be paid with a $100 deposit and $10 installments from each paycheck, Chassaing says. She adds that, while workers are still in the process of meeting their goals around racial justice, ?“our intention is do all of those things that are our demands.”

Their broader vision extends beyond the walls of a single coffee shop. That’s why, Chassaing says, their union name is so general; the door is wide open for other area service workers to reach out and form CUPS union locals.

“The union’s intention all along,” Chassaing says, ?“has been not only to fight for ourselves and our workplace, but to also serve as an advocate and resource for other workers and workplaces.”

This blog originally appeared on In These Times at May 27, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Harry August is an independent reporter in New York.


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Celebrating Juneteenth, Labor Finds Its Voice for Racial Justice

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In work stoppages, rallies, motorcades and a spectacular West Coast port shutdown, labor tied itself to the movement in the streets.

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—The enormous white stone arch in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza is a memorial to the Union’s victory in the Civil War. Confederate monuments are toppling across the country, but the arch is only getting more popular. At 11:30 on a hot Juneteenth morning, Kyle Bragg stands in its shade, wearing a red T-shirt, a New York Knicks-branded face mask, and a purple hat with the logo of 32BJ SEIU, the 175,000-member union that he leads.

“My son is 25, and my daughter is 29. I worry every single time they’re out of the house,” says Bragg, a Black man who has spent decades as a labor leader. “The most important conversation I had with them when they were young was not about sex or drugs. It was about how to deal with the police.” 

The uprisings that have swept America this month are spontaneous, massive and often leaderless, and the structured world of unions initially seemed puzzled as to how to react. The burning of the AFL-CIO’s headquarters in the early days of the protests was symbolic of the disconnect between organized labor and the streets. But as the days went by, labor rallied to the cause. In the week leading up to Juneteeth, the June 19 holiday commemorating the end of slavery, it seemed unions found their voice.

The ILWU, the longshoremen’s union, spectacularly shut down West Coast ports on Juneteenth. United Auto Workers nationwide stopped work for eight minutes and 46 seconds in honor of George Floyd. The AFL-CIO’s headquarters, boarded up but newly festooned with “Black Lives Matter” banners, became a staging ground for marches and rallies. The labor federation organized a set of coordinated “Workers First Caravan” events across the country on Wednesday, June 17, with union members driving around in cars covered in signs demanding racial and economic justice.

It was not quite the socialist dream of melding labor’s class war with the movement for racial justice into one big, huge, perfect revolution, but it was something. It was an effort by organized labor to publicly tie its fate to that of the people marching in the streets, many of whom have no connection to unions. It was a start. 

And in New York City, 32BJ—a union whose purple shirts and hats and banners are familiar to anyone who has been to any protest for economic justice in the city in the past decade—held protests for the entire week. On Tuesday, union members took a collective knee near Rockefeller Center, in honor of the 30th anniversary of SEIU’s “Justice for Janitors” strike in which Los Angeles police infamously beat and injured workers. And on Friday, Juneteenth itself, 32BJ gathered in Brooklyn for a motorcade that would wind through the city, all the way up to the Bronx, a purple river flowing through a landscape of anti-racism rallies citywide. 

The pre-motorcade rally began just before noon at the Grand Army Plaza arch. Three children were assigned to hold up a green banner reading “JUNETEENTH DRIVE TO JUSTICE,” which kept drooping in the middle as the kids’ attention strayed. Assorted local officials had shown up to pay homage to the day, and to the union, and to the assembled media. The twist-the-knife ethos of New York City politics has been heightened by the weeks of uprisings, and the politicians who consider themselves the philosophical brethren of the protesters are enjoying their sudden moment of advantage against the entrenched powers. Jumaane Williams, the public advocate, gave an obligatory nod to the city’s new ban on police chokeholds, but made a point of not crediting city leaders.

“The only reason that’s happening is because the streets have been hot,” he said. “I know the governor said you won and you don’t have to protest any more. Nothing could be further from the truth!”

When 32BJ president Kyle Bragg’s turn came at the podium, he pulled his Knicks mask down to his chin. “It’s our mission to provide economic justice—but there is no economic justice without social justice,” he said. “There’s a triple threat. There’s an economic crisis. There’s a pandemic. And now there’s a racial crisis.” 

As he was speaking, the microphone abruptly cut off; despite frantic effort, it could not be revived. All fell silent. But after a moment, someone handed Bragg a megaphone. He held it up to his mouth, and carried on.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.


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The Most Radical Union in the U.S. Is Shutting Down the Ports on Juneteenth

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Outrage over the police murder of George Floyd launched Black Lives Matter protests across the country and world. Most actions are being organized by young black people. While many are working-class and at least some are anti-capitalist, few protests are formally part of the labor movement.

That may change this Friday when the most radical union in the United States shuts down the country’s gateway to the world, West Coast ports, in solidarity with Black Lives Matter on the day commemorating the end of slavery. As Clarence Thomas, a long-time dockworker activist for black equality and socialism, noted recently, “It will be the first time that an international union has ever taken off from work for the purpose of commemorating Juneteenth.”

Thomas, an African American from Oakland, is a proud, third-generation member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). Arguably, no union has fought longer and harder for black equality. As Willie Adams, the union’s first black International President, recently declared: “Our union has a long history of confronting racism on the job, in our communities and around the world.”

By contrast, most unions—hypothetically, the collective voice of working people—seem hesitant to take action. While perhaps by mistake, the trashing of the AFL-CIO headquarters, located near the White House, exemplified the yawning divide separating black and youth protesters and “organized labor.” Yet, consider that the AFL-CIO, however weak it may seem, still represents 12,500,000 workers. There is no larger movement of ordinary people than unions. Despite their potential, unions are issuing nicely worded statements but providing little tangible support to the current protests, the largest working-class uprising in two generations.

Some unions, such as the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) are actively challenging racism, police brutality, and other reactionary policies with progressive, forward-thinking actions. Such militancy and radicalism, not coincidentally, have emerged in unions with larger numbers of black and brown, immigrant, and female members. Still, the ILWU’s Juneteenth action raises the bar for what worker solidarity with Black Lives Matter looks like.

The breadth and depth of this union’s radical commitment to equality may shock those who stereotype unions as liberal or even conservative. Harry Bridges, the ILWU’s first and long-time president, once declared in the 1940s, “If things reached a point where only two men were left on the waterfront, if he had anything to say about it, one would be a black man.” Himself an Australian immigrant and anti-capitalist, Bridges made this claim when this union was more than 90% white.

Zack Pattin, a white, rank-and-file activist in ILWU Local 23 (Tacoma), proudly recounted to this writer some of his union’s history: “We pass down stories about integrating the waterfront and our union in the 30s and 40s, opposition to Japanese internment, Harry’s deportation trials and the fight for immigrant rights, support for Dr. King and the civil rights movement, support for Cesar Chavez and the Delano Grape Strike, refusing to handle South African cargo to protest Apartheid, and resistance to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

ILWU members also understand the role of police in undermining social movements. Pattin made this connection by highlighting the Big Strike of 1934, out of which his union was born. “It’s not lost to us that the formative moment in our history—Bloody Thursday—was a police murder [of two strikers] right outside the San Francisco union hall on July 5, 1934,” he said.

That’s why Jack Heyman, a veteran Local 10 activist and white anti-racist, recently told The Nation, “if you look at ILWU locals’ bylaws, many of them explicitly ban police from membership. That’s because the police have been always been used as tools in the fight against the working people.”

Local 10, the only black-majority longshore branch, and its companion Local 34, have led the way in condemning racist, police brutality. In 2010, the unions shut down the Port of Oakland after local law enforcement killed Oscar Grant. They did so again on May Day, in 2015, to protest the police murder of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man in South Carolina.

After George Floyd’s murder, the country’s leading social justice union once more is playing a major role. Last Tuesday, the ILWU downed tools for nine minutes during Floyd’s funeral. This Friday, Juneteenth, the ILWU will shut down all twenty-nine ports it controls—from San Diego to Bellingham, Washington—for the entire, eight-hour day shift.

Dockworkers intend to use their labor power to send a message. As Local 10 President Trent Willis, an African American, declared at an SEIU-led protest in Berkeley on June 13, “We’re sending a clear statement to the powers that be, our government. We’re sending a clear statement to these corporate bosses that we intend to use our labor, put our labor where our mouth is. We intend to take economic action if our demands are not met.” Willis was referring to the demand to end racist policing.

When taking this political stand, dockworkers appreciate that their strategic locations at hubs of global transport give them tremendous power. The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping corporations, explained in a June 8 statement why that matters: “West Coast ports handle a majority of the maritime cargo that helps fuel the U.S. economy, brings vital goods and medical supplies to local communities, and supports millions of American jobs.” Clarence Thomas put itsuccinctly: “Longshore workers probably understand capitalism better than anyone else…If the cargo doesn’t come off the ship, that’s merchandise not sold. Stopping work…is not a symbol; it’s an act that demonstrates the leverage of the working class.”

Willis, Thomas, Gabriel Prawl (of Local 52, Seattle), Keith Shanklin (Local 34 president) and others organized this Juneteenth stop-work prior to Trump’s provocation to speak that day, in Tulsa of all places. An ILWU press release explainsthis day’s significance, past and present: “Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. On this date in 1865, Black Slaves in Texas were told of their emancipation from slavery two years after the Emancipation Proclamation became effective…our nation has made progress but the changes necessary to end systemic racism have come slowly or not at all, as the murder of Mr. Floyd on May 25, 2020 demonstrated.”

Shanklin, the first black person elected to head Local 34, summed up at the June 13 protest in Berkeley why the ILWU will conduct this Juneteenth stop-work: “to stand up against systemic police oppression and systemic police brutality. We need to understand one thing. We cannot survive in this world no more with police brutality. It’s time for it to end.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 16, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Peter Cole is a Professor of History at Western Illinois University and Research Associate in the Society, Work and Development Program at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is the author of Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia and the award-winning Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. He also is the founder and co-director of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project (CRR19). He tweets from @ProfPeterCole.


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Executive Council Creates Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice

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Image: Mike Hall“America’s legacy of racism and racial injustice has been and continues to be a fundamental obstacle to workers’ efforts to act together to build better lives for all of us,” says the AFL-CIO Executive Council in a statement announcing the creation of a Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice.

The statement, released today at the council’s winter meeting in Atlanta, acknowledges “an ugly history of racism in our own movement” and adds:

“Yet at the same time the labor movement has a proud history of standing for racial and economic justice. When we have embraced our better selves we have always emerged stronger in every sense. And whenever we have succumbed to the temptation to see some working people as better than others, we have always ended up weaker.”

Pointing to today’s dramatically increasing economic inequality, decreasing union density and growing instability for the majority of Americans, the council says, “The need for all workers to strengthen common interests in achieving economic justice is clear.”

“At the same time our different experiences organized around race, gender identity, ethnicity, disability and sexual orientation often challenge and complicate this shared experience. If we are to succeed as a movement, the full range of working peoples’ voices must be heard in the internal processes of our movement. To be able to stand together we have to understand where all of us are coming from.”

The council points to the unemployment rate for African Americans—10.3%, more than twice as high as that for whites—the criminal justice system and educational inequities that are large parts of a “world divided in many ways by color lines.”

“At the same time working people share a common experience of falling wages and rising economic insecurity. To build a different, better economy we need power that can only come from unity and unity has to begin with having all our voices be heard, on all sides of those color lines. We have to start by acknowledging our own shortcomings and honestly addressing issues that are faced by the communities in which our members live—both the problems and the solutions. We have to find a way to see with each other’s eyes and address the facts and realities.”

The Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice will:

  • Facilitate a broad conversation with local labor leaders around racial and economic disparities and institutional biases, and identify ways to become more inclusive as the new entrants to the labor force diversify;
  • Engage in six to eight labor discussions around the country, with local labor leaders, constituency groups and young workers addressing racial and economic issues impacting the labor movement and offering recommendations for change; and
  • Attempt to create a safe, structured and constructive opportunity for local union leaders to discuss issues pertaining to the persistence of racial injustice today in the workforce and in their communities, and to ensure that the voices of all working people in the labor movement are heard.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on February 25, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log.  He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.


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