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I am very blessed to be the national organizing director for 1199, the union headed by legendary African-American labor leader, organizer, and icon of struggle President Henry Nicholas. I just talked with him about the civil rights movement and economic justice.
Henry said, “There wouldn’t be economic justice for African-Americans if it hadn’t been for the civil rights movement. That’s why Dr. King asked why there wasn’t anyone in the leadership of the labor movement who looked like him. The labor movement and the civil rights movement were united by struggle not by vision.”
For those of us who have focused our adult lives on uniting people across artificial lines of difference, that is a most important lesson. Real unity is achieved through common struggle, not by intellectual activity.
Nicholas continued, “I knew A. Philip Randolph. I knew Bayard Rustin. I knew all those who were trying to connect the labor movement with the civil rights movement.”
A. Philip Randolph had founded the first national union of African-American workers, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. He was the most powerful African-American leader between 1925 and 1955. Bayard Rustin was his assistant—the first openly gay Black union organizer, perhaps the first openly gay union organizer in American history. “Those who were trying to connect organized labor and civil rights were the unions on the Left ideologically and those on the right side of justice. Jerry Wurf, National President of AFSCME, was on the right side of justice. Out of Wurf’s efforts came Bill Lucy, who was the organizer assigned to the Memphis sanitation strike and founder of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists as well as longtime Secretary-Treasurer of AFSCME.”
“The power structure reacted in an ugly way when there was an effort to create an entity to give us any clout at all. Since I was free and independent, I was welcome to all the forums and meetings designed to create a voice for African-Americans in the trade union movement. I was a member of a Left union (1199). I got the benefit of a movement on the Left and a struggle coming right up the middle of American society. There was the Left ideology and there was struggle that gave rise to my involvement and vision. My vision was to connect Black people and the poor.”
That is what the labor movement at its best seeks to do every day.
Photo source: (ED HILLE / Philadelphia Enquirer Staff Photographer)