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AFL-CIO President Trumka speaks hard truths in Ferguson

Jeremy Sprinkle
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Truth, reconciliation, and the meaning of solidarity

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka recently spoke to the Missouri AFL-CIO about the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the need for labor to discuss racism and classism. In his speech, Trumka urges all working people to come together for economic equality, but he begins by directly answering why the labor movement must respond to what happened in Ferguson.

As Trumka points out, Lesley McSpadden, a grocery store worker and the mother of Michael Brown, and Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown, are both union members. "How can we not be involved," Trumka asks.

"Our brother killed our sister’s son and we do not have to wait for the judgment of prosecutors or courts to tell us how terrible this is," says Trumka, in a stunning speech during which he tackles head-on racism in the history of the labor movement.

In 1917 when corporations began to recruit black sharecroppers from the Mississippi delta to replace white strikers on industrial jobs in St. Louis  - jobs that paid more than sharecroppers could ever make on the farm, "the St. Louis labor movement helped lead a blood bath against the African-American community in East St. Louis."

"The NAACP estimated up to 200 died and 6,000 were left homeless. Eugene Debs, the founder of the National Railway Union called the East St. Louis massacre—and I quote—“a foul blot on the American labor movement.

"It was one of the single most violent events in the history of American racism and it scarred this city, our labor movement and our country.

Corporations played the race card repeatedly around the end of the 19th and in the early 20th century to drive a wedge between organized labor and poor, black, and immigrant workers. "But this not just about leaders of the past and tragedies of yesterday," said Trumka.

"We can either live our history or we can change it."

Trumka talks about how he has a son, who he worries may not always obey traffic laws. "But I never worry when he goes for a cross-country road trip or a night on the town that he may be stopped, shot to death by a police officer."

"But for millions of mothers and fathers of young African-American men and boys, men just like my son and boys that were as young as me and my friend Tommy—kids with promising futures in America, it is a constant fear, a constant fear."

Trumka says that fear isn't limited to fatal encounters with police but encounters that result in a disproportionate number of incarcerations for petty drug use by non-white children.

"This is not somebody else’s problem. This is the reality of life for millions of our brothers and sisters. And so it is our problem. That is what solidarity means."

The death of Michael Brown needs to be the beginning of an open-ended conversation about what the labor movement can and should do - about racism, classism, and "the blindness of our nation to the poor of all races and nationalities."

"I know there are no easy answers here. [...] But the answer starts with candor, not firepower. We cannot militarize our police force. A free society," says Trumka, depends on a civilian police force accountable to the community it protects.

"But let’s not forget what our history teaches us: it’s always the employers who want the paramilitary forces, the National Guard, bayonets and armored cars and the weapons always end up pointed at us."

Trumka appeals to union members to remember their hunger for justice and fairness which brought them into the labor movement.

"Justice and fairness just don't happen," says Trumka. "We have to make it happen."

"Because in this country, in the richest nation on earth, at the richest time in our history, fairness and justice are not too much to ask whatever the color of our skin, whoever we love, no matter our gender, our religion or anything else, because we are the workers of America: from the hotel to the high schools, we lay the foundations. We teach the classes. We drive the buses. We build the roads. Brothers and sisters, we lift the loads and answer the call. We do what it takes no matter the cost. We wake our country up every single day and we tuck her into bed at night. We won’t be turned aside. We won’t be divided."

You really ought to watch this speech - or at least read it: