How to Start Talking about Race in Your Union

A new committee of AFSCME 3299 members wants the union to aid social movements for racial justice. But the group's first step is more modest: starting one-on-one conversations. At the New York City Troublemakers School in March, panelists spoke about connecting racial justice fights with the labor movement. Photo: Alexandra Bradbury

Tensions over whether unions should join, oppose, or sit out the Black Lives Matter movement are drawing long-overdue attention to the simmering racial divides inside labor.

“Our brother killed our sister’s son,” AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka said last summer after police officer Darren Wilson shot teenager Michael Brown, son of a Food and Commercial Workers member in Ferguson, Missouri. “How can we not be involved?”

But involved how? It’s an issue where union members are far from united. In a logical first step, several unions are launching national programs to get members talking to one another—and more important, listening to one another—about race.

One local that’s already gotten the ball rolling is AFSCME 3299, which represents 22,000 campus and hospital workers in the University of California system.

Executive board member Luster Howard, a truck driver for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is one of the most active members of the union’s new Racial Justice Working Group.

Ultimately he hopes the group will help the union contribute to a social movement for racial justice—and tackle on-the-job discrimination too.

But as a first step, he says, the group quickly realized “before we could mobilize, we had to clean up our own house.”


Tips for Useful Conversations

  • Get people talking. Howard says what made his workshop effective was people were interacting with each other, not listening to a lecture.
  • Ask about feelings first. In one workshop people reacted to a film, and in the other they reacted to events in the news. Pitts and Howard asked people to start with their emotions, then talk about the values behind them.
  • Make it personal. When the topic is abstract, people withdraw to their corners. But hearing firsthand stories can break down barriers.
  • Tell your own stories. In the workshop, Howard described how, five times in six months, he got pulled over during his morning commute without doing anything wrong, just for being a Black man driving through an affluent neighborhood. “People were like ‘Ooooh.’ They’re starting to get it,” he said.
  • Draw connections. “Do you drive?” Howard asked me, and then told the story of how Sandra Bland was pulled over for a minor traffic violation and it escalated into her suicide. “That’s something, as a female driver, that you could understand. You build bridges, you find common ground, you try to make it closer to home.”
         In another workshop, Pitts drew the analogy between African Americans who migrated out of the Jim Crow South and Mexican immigrants who cross the Rio Grande today. “The whole point was, we used to be them,” Howard said. “They’re not taking your job—they’re trying to feed their families just like you are.”

In fact, when the racial justice group formed, the first response from some union members was, “Why are we doing this?” Howard says.

“It’s funny: a lot of people are uncomfortable speaking about racism. Even at the mention of Black Lives Matter, you see them recoil.”

Some countered that “all lives matter.” “Well, all lives do matter,” Howard says. “If you’re doing a breast cancer walk, that’s not to say that your uncle’s throat cancer doesn’t matter. But this is a breast cancer walk.

“Maybe I’m wrong,” he adds wryly, “but I thought in a union, what affects one person affects us all.”

So the group’s first action was to invite Dr. Steven Pitts, a UC Berkeley labor professor who focuses on issues affecting Black workers, to lead the executive board in a workshop on “Making Our Union Stronger: What Does Black Lives Matter Activism Mean to Us?”

Pitts showed the film “At the River I Stand,” which shows Dr. Martin Luther King’s last battle alongside Black sanitation workers in Memphis.

“The hashtag now is Black Lives Matter,” Howard says. “Back in 1968, they didn’t have hashtags, but if they did, the hashtag would have been ‘I Am a Man.’ All they were saying was, ‘We matter. We want fair pay for fair work.’”

It’s an affecting film; tears were shed. Pitts opened the conversation by asking how it made everyone feel. People talked about prejudices.

It was a starting place, not an endpoint. Howard says he looked around and noticed many people weren’t participating. But in the months since, they’ve started to come around.


The next step was a Black Lives Matter workshop at the local’s July conference for member activists. Howard and Pitts worked together to plan a curriculum that would encourage people to open up and share personal stories.



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The workshop drew a diverse crowd of 50-60, standing room only. To begin the conversation, Howard asked people to respond to events in the news, the killings in Charleston, Ferguson, Oakland, and Texas.

Participants broke into groups of five or six to discuss three questions:

  1. How did you feel when you heard of that event?
  2. What part of your moral compass did it trigger?
  3. What personal experiences shaped that part of your moral compass?

“That’s how you start to get people to open up and talk about their feelings,” Howard says. “When you bring up the topic, people automatically go to their sides…. The bottom line, it’s divide and conquer.”

Members of the Racial Justice Working Group walked around among the groups to listen and answer questions. Though he’s been in the union for 15 years, Howard says, “I learned a lot about people who I thought I knew.”

One woman described how her sister in Florida had suffered a beating so severe she was hospitalized, and only her mother had stopped her from going out to seek violent revenge.

Another man told how he called police to his house, but when they arrived, they beat him up and arrested him, putting him into the hospital and then in jail.

“You could have heard a pin drop in the room,” Howard said. “That was my whole point. You see this person. This isn’t somebody on the news…. It’s not just the Michael Browns, the Freddie Grays, the Oscar Grants, or the Trayvon Martins.

“It’s happening in your backyard. It’s a little different when it’s your brother or sister.”


Next, workshop participants role-played how to get these conversations going back at their own workplaces.

“When you have your union meeting, your local campus meeting, you could start there,” Howard says. Another way is talking one-on-one with co-workers, as he’s been doing with his fellow truck drivers.

“When you spend that much time with a guy or girl in a truck, you do have time to talk,” he said. “So rather than talk about how the Warriors are doing or who’s your favorite quarterback in the football season, you talk about this.”

The immediate goal is for people to go back to their campuses and get five people to tell their own stories. Participants were hungry for next steps.

So the Racial Justice Working Group, which has met by phone so far—its eight members span hundreds of miles, from Sacramento to San Diego—will soon hold its first in-person meeting to talk about what’s next.

“I want to see where we’re at in January,” Howard says. “Six months from now, have we made any progress? Where are we at? I’ll still be Black when Black Lives Matter is no longer a hashtag, when it’s not popular or the ‘in’ thing….

“We’ve seen Ferguson, Oakland, people marching in the street. Now what? We lit the fire. What are we going to cook with this fire?”

How is your local union or worker center engaging members in protest or education on racial justice issues? Write to Labor Notes Editor Alexandra Bradbury, al[at]labornotes[dot]org.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #438, September 2015. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.
Alexandra Bradbury is the editor of Labor


AndrewTS | 09/27/15

Guidance for how to start discussing race is a helpful start, but such a microscopic tip of the iceberg. The true objective for unions must be to dive in full-force to fighting racial inequality; mobilizing members, investing resources in anti-racist activism, intensive political education, etc. Thanks for broaching a typically ignored subject; here's hoping that this article will be followed up with similar suggestions for how unions can get involved in that decisive work.