“It's very important that we unite and come together and have conversations and talk about [topics that] none of us should be afraid to talk about,” said Antwon Gibson, Local 610, speaking on the resolution “Fight Racism.” That resolution, along with resolutions on the rights of women, immigrants, and LGBTQ+ people, passed by overwhelming majorities. The resolutions inspired dozens of delegates to share their experiences and thoughts about the many ways that bosses use differences in skin color, gender, sexual orientation and national origin to divide working people, and how best to fight for working-class unity.
Gibson said that talking about “controversial topics” like racism “is very important to the progress of all workers, specifically African-American workers who have struggled over 400 years and have been oppressed, not just by slavery, but by Jim Crow and redistricting and gentrification.
“It’s important for all of us to unite together and understand the struggles that African Americans face each and every day in our workplaces and around this country.” He also warned that “we have to make sure we hold each party accountable” for its actions, citing corporate Democrat Joe Biden’s role in passing a crime bill in the 1990s that led to disproportionate incarceration of Black men.
Racism: “the greatest illness and sickness of our society”
Erica Collins, Local 119, called racism “the greatest illness and sickness of our society,” citing the disproportionate effects that the COVID-19 pandemic had on Black and brown people and the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the summer of 2020. She said that fighting racism strengthens the fight for “better health care, Medicare for All, equal rights, [and] collective bargaining.”
Eastern Region President George Waksmunski declared that racism is “a cancer to our movement. It's the tool of the boss. It just gets in a way of everything that we're trying to do, so we need to stamp it out.” He also pointed out that “Immigrants, regardless of how they got here, they work hard, they do their best, they contribute to society, and they should not be discriminated against in any way, they should not be persecuted.
“We're all God's children, we should care for one another, and ... we should recognize our brother and sister immigrant workers as we do our own.”
Sekia Royall, Local 150 said that it is “a shame that we have to keep talking about racism and making it a [convention] resolution in order for people to pay attention.” Brookli Potts, Local 119, urged delegates to consider and recognize the specific historical challenges faced by those Americans who are descendents of enslaved Africans.
General President Carl Rosen pointed out that fighting racism “is a fundamental challenge facing the workers’ movement throughout our history in the United States,” and said that the labor movement, including UE, needs to “step it up further” in this fight.
Many delegates also pointed out that the fight for collective bargaining in the South is a key part of the fight against racism. “Fifty-eight percent of Black people live in the South,” said Ramone Johnson, Local 150, declaring that the denial of collective bargaining to public-sector workers in North Carolina and other Southern states is “a direct form of racism.” Nichel Dunlap, Local 150, declared that “it's been six decades they've had their boots on our neck,” referring to the 1959 passage of North Carolina’s anti-union General Statute 95-98. Raymond Sanders, Local 150, pointed out that anti-union laws from North Carolina have “infiltrated” other states, such as Wisconsin and Iowa, that used to have strong laws providing collective bargaining rights in the public sector.
“More courageous women leaders”
After the resolution on women’s rights was read, Thayer Reed, Local 1186, explained why the UE Women’s Caucus (which drafted the resolution) included details about a recent Department of Labor report that detailed how women have been forced to leave the workforce by the COVID-19 pandemic. The report, Reed said, “underscores the inequalities, not only in our workplaces, but also endemic in our society. I ask all of us to redouble our efforts to raise up women wherever, whenever and however we can, to turn back this horrific trend.”
Margaret Dabrowski, Local 222, declared “I'm really tired that we have to still discuss this issue, that this has not been fixed, is not resolved, after all these years, after all the hard work of women for hundreds of years.”
Marie Lausch, Local 222, denounced the new Texas abortion law which encourages “bounty hunters ... to make gain off of women who are obviously in distress.” Lausch stated forthrightly that “It's a woman's choice what to do with her body, just like it's a man's choice what to do with his.”
Becky Dawes, Local 893, said, “Quite frankly I'm appalled by everything that's going on and the attack on women.” She pointed out that defunding of Planned Parenthood closes off “the avenues that the women have in order to get the health care that they need,” pointing out that Planned Parenthood clinics provide important health services to women including birth control and mammograms.
Western Region President Charlene Winchell also decried attacks on women’s ability to control their own bodies, and pointed out that “we need more courageous women leaders at all levels.”
Erica Collins, Local 119, described how many mothers have been facing “the hard decisions of sending their unvaccinated children to schools or losing jobs and wages by staying home or working in unhealthy and unsafe questionable environments.” She also described the difficulties faced by “a sandwich generation of women caring for their children and elderly family members” simultaneously.
Elizabeth Jesdale, Local 255, said “I'm really proud of a lot of the work that we've done, including the anti-harassment document which was done by the fledgling Women's Caucus several years ago.” She also urged delegates to take a look at the model contract language that UE’s Canadian sister union Unifor bargains on domestic violence, which provides for leave “so folks can keep their jobs and feel safe and secure getting the help that they need to get out of domestic violence situations.”
“Unions have a unique power”
Jessica Van Eman, Local 1477, described herself as “a proud lesbian woman,” but told delegates about how a railroad worker “literally looked me in the face and said, ‘you are going to hell’” after Van Eman told him that her wife was also a rail crew driver for Hallcon.
“This cannot happen,” declared Van Eman. “This is not okay ... not just for the lesbian and LGBTQ+ community, but any discrimination.”
Alexandra Smith, Local 203, shared that “It's been a really difficult year for me personally, seeing all the legislation and backlash to the advances trans people have made in the past couple of years ... but one thing that's been really amazing has been being part of a union local where we have many queer and trans people in our leadership and in our stewards’ network.”
She pointed out that “Even in a state like Vermont where we have far more legal protections then a lot of the rest of the country,” many working-class trans people can’t take advantage of the laws that supposedly protect them.
“That's why we need strong unions,” Smith continued. “Even if there are laws that protect our theoretical right to access health care, if we don't actually have health care plans that working-class people can afford … it doesn't do anything, so I think unions have a unique power to support the queer and trans community.”
New Leadership and Staff Development Program
To take concrete action to address some of these issues within UE’s own ranks, the General Executive Board initiated, and convention delegates endorsed, a new Leadership and Staff Development program for UE members from racial and ethnic backgrounds which are currently underrepresented in UE leadership or on UE staff.
Larry Hopkins, Local 1177, said “It's about time that is happening. I want this program to be successful, and I would like to see it done fairly,” noting that “there must be accountability in place.” Antwon Gibson, Local 610 added, “We need people to step up and be encouraged.” Sekia Royall, Local 150, said she is glad the program is “creating space for people that did not have space before.”
The first meeting of the Leadership and Staff Development Program, originally scheduled immediately prior to the convention had it been held in-person, took place on October 21 and 22.