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National Labor Leader Says Unions, Like The Nation, Must Confront Racism


National AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka says that the unrest in Ferguson illustrates the need for a more vigorous national discussion on race and racism.

And labor unions, which have had their racial problems, must be part of the conversation, he acknowledged.

“We have to be willing to look at ourselves critically,’’ Trumka told reporters Monday. “If we have things that need to change, we need to change them. We’re not perfect. We’re trying to get better every single day. But we’re not perfect.”

Trumka was interviewed after he had addressed Missouri labor leaders at a convention at the downtown Crowne Plaza hotel.

In his speech, which was closed to the press, Trumka noted the labor connections on both sides of the unrest, which began with the shooting death of an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, by a Ferguson police officer.

“Union members’ lives have been profoundly damaged in ways that cannot be fixed,” Trumka said, according to a transcript released later. “Lesley McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother, who works in a grocery store, is our sister, an AFL-CIO union member, and Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown, is a union member, too, and he is our brother. 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.”

Trumka emphasized that he was not taking sides on the particulars of the case. “We cannot wash our hands of the issues raised by Michael Brown’s death. That does not mean we prejudge the specifics of Michael Brown’s death or deny Officer Darren Wilson — or any other officer — his or her rights on the job or in the courts,” he said.  

“But it does demand that we clearly and openly discuss the reality of racism in American life. We must take responsibility for the past. Racism is part of our inheritance as Americans. Every city, every state and every region of this country has its own deep history with racism. And so does the labor movement.”

Labor's role in region's bloody 1917 racial incident

Trumka recalled St. Louis labor’s regrettable involvement in a racial incident almost 100 years ago that killed hundreds of area African-Americans.

“Here in St. Louis, in 1917, powerful corporations replaced white strikers with African-American workers recruited from the Mississippi Delta with offers of wages far higher than anyone could make sharecropping,” Trumka recalled. “In response, the St. Louis labor movement helped lead a blood bath against the African-American community in East St. Louis. No one knows how many men, women and children were killed and how many houses and businesses were burned. 

“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.”

Says corporate leaders use race to divide workers

In his speech and in the interview, Trumka tied the nation’s longstanding racial troubles to what he viewed as corporate greed and “playing the race card over and over and over again.”

“For years, the very elite and those in control want us to believe that the economy is like the weather,’’ he said. “That no matter what happens, you can’t change it…The economy is not like the weather. The economy is nothing but a set of rules. Those rules decide who wins and who loses.”

“Quite frankly, working people have been losing for years,’’ Trumka added.

The chief recourse working people have, he went on, is to show up at the polls and vote. “Those rules are made by the men and women we elect,” he said.

Trumka said that labor will be working hard for the candidates it supports, most of whom are Democrats.

He had harsh words for Republicans, especially congressional leaders. “They’ll obstruct anything that’s good for workers or the country,’’ Trumka said. “They don’t have a clue how to go forward. We know everything they’re against, but nothing that they’re for.”

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., disagreed with that characterization during a news conference later Monday in Clayton. Blunt emphasized that the the two major parties have differences when it comes to economic issues.

"I don't think there's a federal solution to every problem,'' Blunt said. "I think what we ought to be concerned about getting people to work.... Private sector jobs are an important part of the solution to so many problems we face in our country and in our state."

Ties minimum wage fight to Illinois contest for governor

Trumka, meanwhile, linked some of the nation's economic turmoil -- and the widening income gap between the wealthiest Americans and everybody else -- to the battles over immigration.

"We have a broken system and that's being used to drive down the wages of every American out there,'' the labor leader said.

Calls for some Republicans to eliminate the minimum wage are part of that same effort, Trumka said. He cited, for example, the views of the Illinois Republican nominee for governor, Bruce Rauner, who is a critic of the minimum wage.

"He is a multimillionaire. Of course, he wants people to work for less,'' Trumka said. "When they work for less, he makes more."

Trumka said labor is strongly behind Illinois' Democratic incumbent, Gov. Pat Quinn. "Pat Quinn stands with the working people,'' he said. "His opponent wants to destroy their voice."

Chris McDaniel of St. Louis Public Radio contributed to this article.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.