It is often said that history will repeat itself. Recently we have seen the ugly specter of racism cast off the shadows they cower in and step into the light of Tiki torches. Of all the moments in American History I would want to experience firsthand, the civil rights movement is not one I would have chosen. Since it is here though, we have the rare opportunity to answer the age old question, “How would you have handled this situation?”
Charlottesville wasn’t an isolated incident. There has been a steady increase in the cold war of racial tension. Non-white resentment is on the rise according to the Pew Research Center. Our criminal justice system is heavily slanted against non-whites, and our businesses have a proven disdain for interviewing people with non-white sounding names. The recent escalation in hate crimes across our communities is an indication that the cancer is spreading, and now is the time for us to act.
Labor has long been on the front lines against racism. Rosa Parks was trained by union organizers on peaceful protest actions before she refused to give up her seat on the bus. Martin Luther King Jr. spent most of his time advocating for the rights of the workers. There is a strong correlation between racism and poverty. To eradicate racism, you must eradicate poverty.
The labor law is outdated. It was written over 80 years ago to address a very different America. Since that time we have seen the spread of laws meant to undermine the universal basic human rights of organized labor. So-called Right to Work laws are structured in such a way to disable labor, and these laws succeed. Where labor is beaten down, racial inequality is allowed to flourish.
A rising tide raises all ships. When we battle for worker’s rights we empower entire groups of people. Unions don’t allow for income inequality to thrive. There are reasons why organized labor is not allowed to gain traction in the deep south, or that conservative lawmakers feel compelled to attack collective bargaining. The strongest weapon against hate is solidarity.
When we have decent wages, fair working conditions, affordable housing, retirement security, health and welfare safety, access to quality free education, then we have a weapon against hate. There is a reason why racists spew anti-union sentiments, for the very rights we champion help eradicate racism.
The labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation and her people, but enlarged it. It was through the rise of labor that we saw the rights of men and women shoot to the forefront of the American conscience. Those who act in hate do not care about the dignity of others. They operate in a void of empathy. They work to undermine that which helps elevate our country.
Often I’ve heard that we have made progress. I do not see the rise of systemic racism as progress. I do not see a White House full of racists as progress. I do not see the deaths of young black men at the hands of those sworn to protect them as progress. I do not see the death of a vibrant, intelligent and powerful young woman as progress. Therefore, I ask you, “How shall we handle this situation?”
Stand with labor in demanding better labor laws. Fight with your brothers and sisters to elevate the lives of all Americans, not just the one percent. Help bring a voice to the voiceless, hope to those that despair, and a light to those who live in darkness.
"The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, government relief for the destitute and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life. "The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome. When in the thirties the wave of union organization crested over the nation, it carried to secure shores not only itself but the whole society." - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
This graph shows how union membership correlates to standard of living. The blue line represents the average relationship between standard of living and union membership.
Ken Schauer is a union electrician in El Paso County serving as treasurer for his local union and the president of the Colorado Springs Area Labor Council – the local branch of the AFL-CIO. Ken comes from a large family of union workers representing the very essence of middle class America. He believes that success comes from helping everyone have better lives and not through the endless pursuit of personal gain at the expense of others.