Joslyn Williams and the Metro DC Labor Council

by Kurt Stand

Reposted from the Washington Socialist, April 2016

joslyn williams

After nearly 30 years, Joslyn Williams is stepping down as president of Metro Washington Council, AFL-CIO.  He is succeeded by two people – Jackie Jeter, president of Amalgamated Transit Workers Local 689, will serve as Council President (the first woman elected to that position), and Carlos Jimenez, most recently field organizer for Jobs with Justice, will take on the new position of Executive Director.  Each embraces the social unionism – unionism that connects workplace rights to workers’ democratic and civic rights – Williams espoused.

In order to fully appreciate the meaning of this moment when the torch is being passed to a new generation of leaders, it is worthwhile to look back upon the tradition of struggle within which Williams played such an important role.

Labor Council History

Or perhaps we should say pre-history.   Unions in Washington DC and nearby Maryland and Virginia have a much richer, albeit deeply conflicted, past than is often recalled. By the late 19th century, craft unions developed real strength at a time when light industry and small manufacturing were a central part of the local economy.  Later, during the New Deal years, federal workers and other public employees unions experienced a surge of growth, coinciding with the growth of the federal workforce.  Those unions had a left perspective and with that a focus on racial justice – twin concerns that led to McCarthy-era purges and blacklisting that undermined their strength and progressive perspective.

As to the more traditional craft unions, most in the Washington DC area accepted (and reinforced) the segregation which was fixed in the local economy of DC as well as throughout Virginia and Maryland.  Thus by the mid-1960s local labor was particularly conservative in outlook and – apart from pockets of strengths in skilled trades – weak in its bargaining power.  The sea change brought about by the civil rights movement’s challenge to racism built into law, custom, industry and government, was to have a profound impact on our region, bringing to the fore people who saw the connection between the need to build labor the labor movement by changing the labor movement and thereby participate in changing our political environment.  And this brings us to Joslyn Williams.

Born in Jamaica, he moved to Washington DC when he was 16 and later studied at Howard University.  After graduation and working a variety of jobs such as a taxi cab driver (common in an era when most professional doors were closed to blacks no matter what their educational credentials), Williams gained employment at the Library of Congress.  Like many federal agencies at the time, it was an institution which suffered from control by a federal government that even in the era of Kennedy and Johnson still acceded to the power of Dixiecrats in Congress (i.e. white southern Democratic representatives in the House and Senate who were unapologetic in their advocacy of racism as public policy).

Thus black workers could not advance, no matter what their credentials, no matter what degrees they earned, no matter what their seniority – a situation that the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) had accepted.  Williams did not, serving first as a shop steward and, from 1970, as president of the local, he led a militant workplace campaign to push for institutional change at the Library of Congress.

Social Justice Unionism

The change in the air stimulated by 1960s activism led to other upheavals in unions, including a challenge to the particularly conservative leadership of the local labor council.  Robert Peterson of the Typographical Union (printing having been an important industry in the DC area) organized that challenge helping to bring more militant and progressive views to the Council when he was elected as president in 1975.  Williams was later elected as his assistant, and then in 1982 as Council President in his own right – the first time an African American was elected to that post, though blacks have formed the majority of the city’s population (and certainly the majority of the working class) of DC and the broader metropolitan area since the AFL had first chartered a Council in 1896.

But this is a story of change – the old guard leadership that opposed the civil rights movement came from ATU Local 689, Jeter’s union and today one of the most militant and progressive locals on the Council.  Subsequent to Williams’s election, UFCW Local 400 and HERE Local 25 used disputes over small policy issues as a reason to disaffiliate, though such disputes had not led locals to disaffiliate in previous years, when Council officers were all white.

Both Locals eventually reaffiliated and played an important role in organizing campaigns and in supporting the direction Labor Council policy was to take thereafter.  And showing the complexity of the process, construction unions in the region, though often a bulwark of labor conservatism in other cities, and sometimes disagreeing with Williams’ progressive initiatives, remained affiliated and supported the revival of unionism that was taking place under his leadership.  As testament to the path of internal unity, today nearly 200 locals with a combined membership of over 150,000 —   the vast majority of eligible locals — are affiliates.

Growth like that was possible only because of the policies adopted: Quickly after assuming office, Williams took initiatives in support of the fight for pay equity for women workers, to improve workers health and safety conditions, reduce health costs and maintain rent control.  Deeply engaged in the political process, the Council supported pro-labor, progressive candidates for local office.  Yet that support was never unconditional; Williams was always ready to criticize those in public office when they narrowed their vision or compromised their commitment to working people.  And by that, he meant all working people.  As, for example in 1991, street fighting erupted in Mt. Pleasant after a Latino was shot by a policewoman.

In this complex moment in DC’s history, Williams issued a statement calling on city leaders to address the underlying conditions that led to the violence and chiding those city leaders who condemned the violence while forgetting the causes by reminding them of their own roots in the social movements of a then still very recent past.  That past included the call for DC statehood, a call and a goal which Williams always supported, unlike others with jurisdictions that included parts of Maryland and Virginia as well as our nation’s capital.

In a sense this is what social justice unionism is all about.  The Council has (to name just several of many instances) supported organizing drives for parking lot attendants and taxi cab drivers, supported local unions negotiating campaigns at hotels, warehouses and grocery stores, supported municipal, state and federal workers whenever their rights have been threatened.  Affiliates and activists also mobilized under the Council’s banner in solidarity for workers engaged in local labor disputes that took on a national character as when pilots, flight attendants, and baggage handlers struck at Eastern Airlines in 1989; National Airport – the union-busting which took place there perhaps the only reason later renaming it for Reagan is apt – being one of the focal points of the struggle.  So too, solidarity was simultaneously built on behalf of miners during the Pittston strike in southern Virginia and West Virginia.

Workers’ struggles, however, extend beyond those that can be resolved by bargaining, as evidenced by the Council’s engagement in the successful fight for a minimum wage hike indexed to inflation in DC in 2015, and to similar campaigns for a living wage in Maryland’s Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties and for paid sick leave and just hours across our region.  These campaigns all speak to Williams’ willingness to connect issues, equally reflected in his role in the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Jobs with Justice, Labor Campaign for Single Payer Health Care, Alliance for Retired Americans.  His engagement with these and other such bodies expresses in practice his commitment to an expansive solidarity.  This means supporting the struggles and needs of non-union as well as unionized workers, premised on the understanding that the mutuality at the heart of labor is about giving as well as receiving support – and it is about meeting workers needs off the job as well as well as on it.

No institution built up under Williams’ leadership embodies that as much as the Community Services Agency – which has established a pre-apprenticeship program to help young people gain the reading, math and other skills they need for full apprenticeship opportunities.  CSA also helps families deal with job loss, health crisis, substance abuse, sudden unemployment.  The importance of the Agency’s work stems from the Council’s recognition that the role of the labor movement is to be there for working people 24 hours a day – whether on a picket line, participating in an election, or taking part in a charitable drive.

With this framework, Williams was already acting in the spirit of Union Cities, initiated when John Sweeney was elected AFL-CIO president in 1995.  It was a program to breathe new life in the labor movement by rebuilding central labor councils as vibrant organizations that speak to labor’s entire program – on and off the job, building union unity within while building union-unity with community, civic, political, and faith-based organizations that engage in social justice advocacy.

Many labor councils failed to act on the possibilities this created, but it fit within the vision and initiatives long a part of Metro DC unionism.  One further aspect of this commitment to labor touching all aspects of workers’ lives has been the Labor Film Fest, which has developed into LaborFest –  bringing music, film, poetry, art that address union heritage, contemporary issues and possibilities of the future to working people in venues across the metropolitan area.  All this speaks to a broader understanding of what trade unionism can be at its best.  And it validates Williams dual perspective – not only do unions need to change to better defend the rights of all workers, they are capable of changing and a commitment to that process, is a necessary component of all struggles for democracy, civic rights and economic justice.

Peace and Global Solidarity

This often means navigating among differing and conflicting points of view.  Metropolitan labor councils, organs of the AFL-CIO, and responsible to the parent federation.  As membership organizations, they are responsible to affiliates who elect leadership and pay dues.  And they also stand apart as the most recognizable local voice of unionism to the public and to politicians within their jurisdiction.  Such multiple layers of responsibility can be paralyzing, but they also create opportunities for leadership to lead by providing linkages across lines of division.  But such a possibility can only succeeded if premised on the view of the long haul implicit in the concept of changing within and without that guided Williams throughout his tenure – including when looking out upon the world.

As noted, when Williams began his tenure at the Library of Congress, he was a member of AFGE.  Through the years, AFGE had evolved into a union that fights for its members and so while defending the necessary role of federal programs and federal workers in maintaining the quality of our collective life, it has been vocal when needed in criticizing its employer – that same federal government.  But that wasn’t always the case, for in its early history AFGE was weak and insecure and so particularly unwilling to challenge its employer – the Executive Branch – on non-workplace issues.  And therefore, its leadership in the 1960s-early 70s was adamant in its support of the war in Vietnam (as was the then-leadership of the AFL-CIO).   AFGE’s leadership, at that time, put in trusteeship and expelled locals that passed anti-war resolutions – including the one at the Library of Congress.  Williams, however, among those opposed to that war, protected his Local’s assets and played a key role in the ability of those federal worker locals to remain intact by joining AFSCME – whose president Jerry Wurf spoke out early against the carnage being launched from our shores.  So when Williams was elected Council President he was Executive Director of its local council of federal workers (AFSCME Council 26).

Williams’ opposition to war abroad and commitment to global solidarity have continued through to the present.  One manifestation of this was the space and support he gave to the Central American Labor solidarity movement – a movement which brought together locals opposed to US policy in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua during the civil wars in those countries in the 1980’s notwithstanding official AFL-CIO policy at the time that supported Reagan’s foreign policy even while being punished by his domestic policy (with AFGE by then a leader of the peace movement nationally alongside the Machinists, and the Clothing Workers – one of the  predecessor unions of UNITE-HERE).  He also opposed US invasions of Iraq, gave support to ousted Haitian president Jean-Bernard Aristede and stood as a supporter of Michael Manley, the socialist head of state in his native Jamaica.

Most outstanding, however, was Williams’s deep engagement in the movement to end South African apartheid, taking steps far in advance of the AFL-CIO.  In fact, he was one of the first AFL-CIO leaders to call for freedom for Nelson Mandela, doing so at a public rally in the early 1980s at a time when the Federation’s national leadership was too willing to accept the State Department’s definition of the ANC as a “terrorist” and a “communist” organization.  Thereafter, Williams worked closely with the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists in the creation of local union anti-apartheid committees, led the Council to give support for the Auto Workers campaign to free imprisoned unionist Moses Mayekiso and committed major resources on behalf of the Mine Workers campaign to boycott Shell because of its support for the racist South African government.  This solidarity escaped the sight and memory of many in US union circles, but not the South Africans.  When Mandela gained his freedom and did a triumphal tour through the United States, it was Jos Williams who was the AFL-CIO leader who introduced him to the thousands who came to celebrate at the Convention Center.

In the years since, Williams has worked to oppose all those free trade deals that rob workers here and abroad in the name of global capital, and has worked with the Solidarity Center in support of workers fighting for justice in all corners of the world.  This is the arena in which he plans to continue to engage in the future.  As he told a reporter from the Washington Informer:

“Workers of the world are not separated anymore by boundaries or by sea …  There are companies with employees in third world countries where they go to find cheap labor and our survival in this country depends on what we do to those businesses who flee to seek cheaper markets.

“By doing that, those companies have driven down the quality of life in our own country so we’ve got to follow them. We’ve got to organize our brothers and sisters elsewhere to make sure that their quality of life is raised … [and] stop the exploitation of workers by pitting workers here against workers abroad.”

Moving Forward

This is the legacy left to the Metropolitan Labor Council’s new leadership.  Jeter’s work as ATU Local 689 president and leadership in the fight for the rights of their members and the safety of passengers, testifies to her ability to build upon the linkages made under William’s leadership as well as to forge new ones.  So too Jimenez’ experiences at Jobs with Justice will serve him well in building coalitions and connecting issues that are essential to labor’s ability to continually renew itself as new challenges are posed.

As a parting thought it is well to recall Williams’s introduction of Mandela on that day in DC now more than 20 years ago.  He recited the lines of Solidarity Forever, giving new meaning to an old song, by paying tribute to the worldwide struggle for freedom that is the true meaning of trade unionism:

When the Union’s Inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run,

There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun.

Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one?

But the Union makes us strong.

They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn,

But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.

We can break their haughty power gain our freedom when we learn

That the Union makes us strong.

In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold;

Greater than the might of armies magnified a thousand-fold.

We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old.

For the Union makes us strong.

 

Solidarity forever!

 

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