Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Labor holds strong, but color is missing

Arise member Ruben Santiago
When I was a kid, I happened across a copy of Irving Stone's Clarence Darrow for the Defense, and I was fascinated and inspired.  I learned about the Pullman strikes, Pinkerton thugs, Big Bill Haywood, the Haymarket Square bombing and Eugene V. Debs.  It was not hard for me, given my family's history, to identify as working class and to become a supporter of organized labor.  I know I idealized unions, much as I did other fighters and movements for freedom and justice, and had to temper that idealism later with the more complex realities of building a movement out of flesh and blood people struggling within large political and economic structures.  But still-- I have a lot of heroes, and I'm saddened by knowing that most people under 40 don't know their names and their stories.

Central Labor Council President Rick Brown
Myself, I've never been in a union.  The factory, clerical and agricultural jobs I've held were unorganized by labor.  But I remain a union supporter.  I understand that the line unions draw in the sand protects the wages even of the non-unionized.

Yesterday's Springfield rally in solidarity with the Wisconsin workers was big by our city's standards-- I'd estimate more than 400 people.  I stood at the steps of City Hall with other Arise members as speaker after speaker explained why the Wisconsin fight was also our fight.

Friend and Arise member Holly Patterson couldn't get to the rally until about quarter after four.  She stood behind me for a while, and then asked me a question.

Bank Tenant Association member Candia Pink
"Have all the speakers so far been white men?"
"No, there's been a woman."
"A white woman?"

And sure enough, as the rally progressed, every single speaker was white, and only two women among more than a dozen men.  The only speaker of color was City Council President Jose Tosado, who is running for mayor this year.  (Mayor Sarno spoke later in the rally.) I left a little after 5 pm., when the speakers got repetitive and I felt the rally was close to winding down, so I can't tell you for sure that no people of color spoke after that-- but if they did, they were certainly not given top billing.

 Council President Jose Tosado, JwJ Coordinator Jon Weissman, SEA President Tim Collins
So: if I were to inquire (which I will) as to why color was so lacking among the rally's speakers, I imagine it would go pretty much like the discussion about why there are no actors, directors or screenplay writers of color among any of the Academy Award nominations this year.  You can't draw speakers of color from the union leadership if they're not in leadership positions in the first place. Keep asking "Why?" to that answer, and the next series of answers, and you get to the unpleasant current situation.   Still, one would think that the organizers might have been aware of the lack of representation of people of color among leadership, and would have made some effort to compensate.  But you have to be aware of the lack to compensate for it, and if the organizers are entirely white (my assumption), it's easier not to even notice. 

What the organized labor movement is likely to look like in the coming years, I don't know.  I can only hope it finds a way to embrace the rest of us.  Solidarity has to be a two-way street to flourish. Print Friendly and PDF

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