Art Pulaski: Unions Must Be on the Front Lines of Fight against Racial, Economic Injustice

by Art Pulaski

Labor Day is both a celebration of American workers and an important reminder of the role unions play in giving working people power to address not only their issues at the workplace, but larger societal ills that have a cascading effect on everyone.

This Labor Day, it’s never been clearer that America needs strong unions. That’s because some of our most cherished ideals are threatened.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. warned us of the major social evils that he considered a threat to basic freedoms around the world. He spoke eloquently about evils of economic injustice and racial injustice. And importantly, how the two are inextricably linked. Dr. King also spoke forcefully about the need for workers to stand together in unions to tackle both of those social evils simultaneously.

We all watched in horror as white supremacists with emblazoned torches marched on Charlottesville several weeks ago in a sick display that has no place in society. The forces of hate and evil, emboldened by a president who refuses to call out systemic racism, are no longer operating in the shadows or even beneath hoods. They’re trying to go mainstream with their message, actively recruiting people to their twisted cause.

Let’s make one thing clear. Unions must be on the front lines to fight racism and all the horrific outcomes it creates. The California labor movement is united in our resolve to fight racism wherever and whenever it rears its ugly head. Standing up to hate is part of the labor movement’s DNA. It’s core to our mission to improve the lives of all working people, no matter their color, gender, religion, sexual orientation or country of origin.

We also have to acknowledge that racism against blacks, Latinos and all people of color doesn’t just exist in the twisted minds of Neo-Nazis. Every day, people of color experience systemic economic discrimination, the other evil Dr. King spoke of.

The racist playbook has always included getting rid of unions. It was true in Nazi Germany and it’s true of anti-union laws here like so-called “right to work.” That’s no coincidence.

A union contract is the surest way for people of color to get ahead and receive equal treatment on the job. For African-American workers, the union difference is about $9,000 per year. For Latinos, it’s $11,000. That’s because when workers have the freedom to stand together, we can tackle discrimination, racism, misogyny and all other forms of oppression. We can stand up for each other and stand up to those oppressing us. A union is the great equalizer. Union representation means that if an employer discriminates against a worker, she has someone behind her to make sure the boss is held accountable. Equal opportunity is within reach and the American Dream becomes possible.

In the 1960s, unions stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Dr. King. The labor movement was an important ally with the freedom fighters who demanded America put an end to its relationship to racism and segregation.

This Labor Day, America is still struggling with many of the same issues of oppression. It may take many forms — some subtle, some overt — but there’s no question racial injustice is alive and well. Charlottesville was a chilling reminder. It reminded us of how far we still have to go. And more importantly, it reminds us that we can’t get there going it alone.

This is the labor movement’s fight. We can never have justice in this country when so many of our brothers and sisters are systematically discriminated against.

Until every worker has an equal shot at the American Dream, the labor movement will not rest.

This Labor Day, let’s recommit to doing more than ever to fight racism, discrimination and oppression, and give all workers the freedom to stand together in a union.