Here’s What You Said: Building a Stronger Labor Movement for People of Color

In our [AFL-CIO’s] second online discussion on how to build a stronger movement for working people, Dr. Steven Pitts, labor policy specialist at the University of California, Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, asked you: “Union density is higher among black workers than it is for any other racial or ethnic group of workers. How can the labor movement use this to build a stronger movement for social change?”

The question generated a thoughtful and lively discussion that will help us prepare for the 2013 AFL-CIO Convention that will focus on how the labor movement should change and what we can do together to improve the future of all working people.

Below are excerpts from some of your answers. Go to our discussion page to see the entire dialogue.


It’s extremely important that the labor movement make a concerted effort to grow leaders that are younger & of color. The labor movement has been at the forefront of many a progressive cause, but the perception is that regardless of what the rank & file look like, white men continue to dominate the upper ranks. A stronger movement, to me, is actively cultivating the leadership of the next generation so that it reflects the changing times. I think the AFL-CIO has really tried to do this with the emphasis on the Next Up groups, but it’s a work in progress. For the labor movement to be welcoming, unions cannot be seen as another institution with glass ceilings.

Renaye Manley

It is important to recognize that outreach to the Black community is a process not a onetime event. Those barbershops, beauty shops, churches and schools are engaged with workers every day. We have to build relationships that are not transactional but a real collaboration and with a sincere element of reciprocity for each other’s struggles (solidarity).

Verlene Jones-Davis

We have had many conversation about this issues. As you know the issues we face are institutional within our unions and require an internal cultural change that really brakes down the barriers to full participation from all people of color in our unions. Before we can go out into the community to build relationships we have to build them with in our own house. The community is not blind and they see through our glass house, so when we talk to them about our commitment to working in a diverse community, we have to explain why we have not been able to accomplish this commitment within our own movement.

There is a serious need for more diversity at local and state levels of the labor movement especially in the Building Trades. Some unions are trying to address these problems but much more is needed. The labor movement needs to focus on our slogan “We Are One” and make it a reality.


When hot issues which affect the African American community domestically (and larger African and African/Caribbean communities) are developing, African American labor leaders need to be as visible as other community leaders in taking public stands. Doing so sends a strong message to the African American community about who is their friend. White labor leaders joining in to take public positions on African American issues reinforces labor as a friend of the African American community and broadens support for issues.

Mike Hall is a writer for the AFL-CIO Now blog, where this report originally appeared.

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