Black Unionists Need Independent Voice in Debate

The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) convention in Phoenix, Arizona threw me back to a different year.

In many ways the labor movement is still back in 1972. Then, AFL-CIO President George Meany was ignoring the voice of black trade unionists. The federation’s executive council was taking a neutral position in the Presidential election between Richard Nixon and George McGovern. Unemployment, frozen wages, high prices, and Nixon’s appointment of conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices who would be insensitive to workers rights, minorities, and the poor all meant a difficult time ahead for black workers.

CBTU came into being in September 1972. At its founding in Chicago were 1,200 black union officials and rank-and-file members, representing 37 different international and national unions, who met to discuss the role of black trade unionists in the labor movement.

Thirty-three years later, much of this sounds familiar. The fiercely independent voice of black workers that was supposed to be the CBTU still hasn’t reached its full potential.


At this year’s convention the controversies and debate over labor’s future weren’t up for discussion.

It was obvious to me that the ties between CBTU’s leadership and AFSCME had a lot to do with this lack of openness. CBTU President Bill Lucy is an AFSCME international vice-president. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney spoke at the convention, but there was no representative from SEIU. AFSCME has been Sweeney’s strongest supporter of late.

CBTU’s leadership seemed to be more worried about losing 13 of the 51 AFL-CIO executive council seats than in having an open democratic debate. (They fear that under SEIU’s proposal, the council seats set aside for people of color would be eliminated.)


As part of these AFL-CIO debates, a “Unity Statement” was issued by the federation’s six constituency organizations: A. Philip Randolph Institute, Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Coalition of Labor Union Women, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, and Pride at Work.

The Unity Points are:

Full Participation: This point stresses the need for diversity at all levels, and voices concerns about the proposal to reduce the size of the AFL-CIO executive council.

Organizing: The central challenge facing labor is to organize the unorganized; the most successful organizing campaigns have involved people of color and women.



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Legislative and Political Action: Any effort to block or dilute political participation among communities of color must be aggressively opposed. Efforts to demonize or scapegoat people of color, women, immigrants, or lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered workers must be exposed and resisted.

Civil, Human, and Women’s Rights: The labor movement must defend and expand an agenda for civil, human, and women’s rights; demand an end to racial and gender discrimination; defend affirmative action; support pay equity; call for an end to violence against women; demand full labor rights, legalization, and immigration reform for all immigrants; and demand access to all rights and protections of civil society for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered workers.

Globalization: We must call for an end to policies of free trade and corporate-dominated globalization.

Surely, these are legitimate points, especially the one about “full participation.” The current leadership of the AFL-CIO is dominated by white men; this has led to an avoidance of fights around race, gender, and/or sexual orientation.


But as a trade unionist for over 30 years and a member of CBTU for over 15 years, I believe our problems are deeper than just who our leaders are. We must also look deeply at the issues affecting black labor.

We as black workers are not monolithic; our class affects how we view the world, our government, and what we aspire to be.

It’s not enough just to talk and pass resolutions against Wal-Mart and the privatization of Social Security. CBTU needs to move towards real grassroots action among workers.

CBTU’s high point was back in 1984 when Bill Lucy was one of the founders of the “Free South Africa Movement.” At that point, CBTU played a big role in Nelson Mandela’s 11-day visit to the United States.

Today, on the chapter level in New York City, we have more discussions about dues and fundraisers than about the labor movement.

It’s a shame that 34 years after its founding, CBTU’s number of convention delegates has barely grown. This is reflected in the age of CBTU members—the average member is 50-plus years old. At this year’s convention there were only 1,292 delegates (a low point in recent years).

Activist work and a broader vision for social justice must be at the heart of CBTU if our movement is to grow.

Lester Muata Greene is an EMS worker with the New York Fire Department and a 20-year member of AFSCME Local 2507. He is past president of CBTU’s New York chapter and currently is Labor Liaison for Local 2507. He sits on the executive board of the NAACP’s New York City Housing Authority Branch.