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Tell Me Somethin’ Good

Kim Diehl
Date Published: 
February 01, 2007

One year ago in September, seven unions formed the Change to Win coalition and split from the AFL-CIO. During this past year the conversations about the future of organized labor, particularly black labor, shifted from a loud buzz to a hoarse whisper. Like a Hollywood divorce, news coverage of the split made headlines, with spokespersons on both sides arguing over details most of us on the outside knew little about.

During the split, I worked for the Service Employees International Union, the union that led the charge from the AFL-CIO. My job as communications staff allowed me the opportunity to get a behind the scenes view of that historic and heavily-charged moment. Citing a difference in strategy, these seven key unions chose to reject the AFL-CIO’s proposal to invest more money in creating political change and charged forward with an ambitious organizing drive to increase union density. The devil is in the details, of course, and that’s where things get heated. Some say Change to Win wants to build union density by making nice with management through industry-wide agreements, and others say the AFL-CIO wants to put all its eggs in the Democratic Party’s basket and watch it float away.

I listened to animated voices of SEIU leaders on conference calls, distributed press releases to the media and talking points to members. After work, I read the flurry of critiques marching through cyberspace and had worried discussions with friends and family. Throughout it all, I wondered, what about black labor, especially in the South? What’s to become of the gains people of color have made throughout this last century to move from a source of heavily-exploited labor to a growing force to be reckoned with? The silence from both sides on that topic was deafening.

According to a February 24, 2005 issue of The Black Commentator, an estimated 55 percent of the union jobs lost in 2004 were held by black workers and black women held a whopping 70 percent of the union jobs lost by women in that same year. Personally, I wondered about the futures of young southern activists like myself who won’t have the opportunity for a movement upbringing influenced by black rank and file labor leaders because they simply won’t exist. Given the bleak scenario, I took to the streets down south to hear from folks who know something about the black labor movement to tell me somethin’ good.

My first stop was Jobs with Justice. I spoke with southern regional field director, Treston Faulkner, whose work takes him around the southern US supporting organizing campaigns that bring community and organized labor together to build a stronger voice for the working class.

KD: What impact have you seen on the ground since the Change to Win coalition formed last year, specifically with black workers?

TF: I haven’t seen a marked difference, but one year is not a long time. Not a lot of black workers are rocking Change to Win and I think that has more to do with overall feelings of frustration about the present state of labor. But despite the challenges we’re facing, some good campaigns are going on. The Wake Up Wal-Mart campaign (led by United Food and Commercial Workers who are members of the Change to Win coalition), for example, has raised a lot of awareness about how Wal-Mart mistreats its workers.

KD: So, what do we have to work with? What are the strengths you see right now in terms of black labor?

TF: In the South, I see a lot of work around policy, not necessarily union organizing. There have been some big wins that raised state-wide minimum wages and recently in Kentucky, workers won a local living wage ordinance that raised city workers’ wages to $11.25 an hour.

KD: How is labor involved in these fights?

TF: Well, it depends on the union. The ones who tap their leadership and build strong locals often get involved in community fights. In Atlanta, there were key members of SEIU Local 1985 who helped form the Transit Riders Union that challenged the direction of transit funding. These are the struggles that get to the heart of the issue like the location of housing and jobs as well as budget allocation. These are struggles that directly impact black unions and black communities because if people aren’t mobile, then they can’t work. It’s interesting, because the people I see most impacted are black women and they make shit happen. They are often the heart and soul of these organizations.

Transit Riders Organizing

My next stop was Jamisina Brown, a member leader and staff person at Atlanta’s SEIU Local 1985, and one of the key leaders of the Transit Riders Union. I talked with her about how being a union member brought her into the center of community activism.

KD: How did you get involved in the transportation struggle?

JB: I heard about the changes happening with the MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Transit Authority) transit system and found out through discussions at my union that people were coming together to do something about it. I was 100% dependent on MARTA and I knew that a lot of individuals were being impacted by changes in transit. I was like, “This could really work if we got people involved.”

KD: How did being a union member impact your decision to get involved?

JB: I work on staff at Local 1985, so on a day-to-day basis I feel the struggles African-Americans experience trying to move issues forward. My experiences at the union helped me understand that if you take away people’s transportation you’re taking away their right to work.

KD: Tell me somethin’ good. What have you all won?

JB: Well, MARTA laid off hundreds of employees and started cutting routes and dropping Sunday service. It was taking people up to an hour to walk to their connecting route. Senior citizens, Georgia State University students, and other people who rode the bus started meeting at a local church. The Amalgamated Transit Union got involved and soon riders and bus drivers started talking about forming solutions so we formed a Transit Riders Union.

We organized a plan and started protesting on the buses and talked to the press. We went to the MARTA hearings and expressed our frustration about not having transportation to go to work. We spoke out and told MARTA to put a rider and bus driver on its board because we know what’s going on. We’re the ones that use it the most.

Two key routes that rode through the nucleus of DeKalb and Fulton Counties were cut, but we fought for them to be restored and we won! Other routes were scaled back and people couldn’t ride on Sundays, which was devastating. We pushed to get those back and we did. It’s a grassroots effort and we got ourselves heard. To me, transportation is a human right, not a luxury, just like food, clothing and shelter.

Public Sector Impacts

Talking with Jamison reminded me of the strategic importance of building power among black workers in the public sector, like transit workers. So, my next stop on the Tell Me Somethin’ Good Tour was a visit with Ajamu Dillahunt, former president of the APWU Local 1078 in Raleigh, North Carolina and member of Black Workers for Justice (BWFJ), a 25-year-old community and workplace-based organization in the southeastern United States, which has provided support to the UE (United Electric Engineers) 150 Public Service Workers Union in North Carolina since 1996.

KD: Ajamu, it’s been a year since the AFL-CIO split and what impact do you think it has made on rank and file black workers?

AD: Since the majority of black unionized workers are in the public sector and the Change to Win coalition’s membership is mostly in the private sector, I haven’t seen it make a significant impact. Change to Win’s reforms, on the whole, do not address the industries and workforces where black workers are concentrated.

KD: Tell me something good about black workers organizing in the public sector.

AD: This September, sanitation workers in Raleigh went on strike for two days and won some great improvements. This is a majority black sector that was being forced to work overtime without pay. Instead of paying them, the city made them accrue comp time, but since they were working so much, the workers couldn’t utilize the comp time and were essentially working for free. There were also other issues, like employing people as temp. workers for a year without converting them to permanent.

KD: How did the community respond to the strike?

AD: There was a groundswell of support from the community, especially from black folks. Even higher income white residents tied an orange string to their garbage cans in solidarity with the workers. UE 150 members from different sectors supported the workers by helping them negotiate for better conditions. Since state law prohibits public employees from collective bargaining, they asked for and won a meet and confer system. This allows the workers to sit at the same table and make demands for improvements.

KD: What else did they win?

AD: Because they had so much support from the community and UE 150 represents over 80 percent of the sanitation workers, the city had to deal with the issues. So far, they converted the temporary employees to permanent and workers are compensated for working overtime. There are still more improvements to be made and the sanitation workers have shown that they are a strong force.

It goes without saying that we live in bleak times and changes must be made. Only eight percent of the workforce is unionized—the lowest in US history. In the last 25 years, the public sector has been intentionally eroded under various presidential administrations’ programs with names like “trickle-down theory” (Reagan), “contract with America” (Clinton), and “compassionate conservatism” (Bush). And if we aren’t snarling and gnashing our teeth already, people of color earn 18 cents for every dollar a white person earns, according to United for a Fair Economy.

If I had t-shirts made for my, “Tell Me Somethin’ Good Tour,” the following would be on the back:


    1. To be made more effective in the workplace, black workers must have power at the local level, which means building community solidarity with worker struggles.
    2. By building stronger community structures, we will build stronger political power and that is required in order for unionism to exist, especially in the southern US.
    3. Create worker schools targeted to black labor that include, among other things, tips on how to avoid tripping over wedge issues like homophobia, sexism, imperialism, and classism, because opposition forces are armed to the teeth with them.
    4. Intentionally invest time, energy and space to create powerful black women leaders, because like Treston said, “We make shit happen.”