Home > Diversity, Progress? > Organized Labor in Post-Racial America: Where’s the Progress?

Organized Labor in Post-Racial America: Where’s the Progress?

May 12, 2010

The civil rights movement and the labor movement are inextricably intertwined because their goals were, and continue to be, essentially the same. 

Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez
United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division
This year on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, during a speech to the AFL-CIO commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-ins, AAG Perez, the chief civil rights officer of the nation, reminded the gathering that Dr. King had once declared, “Our needs are identical with labor’s needs. Decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old‐age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community.” 
Perez speculated that if Dr. King were here today, “He would join with you, and with your fellow workers nationwide, in calling for the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act to ensure workers can stand up for their rights in the workplace.” 
Civil Rights and the Labor Movement 
We know civil rights and the labor movements are intertwined, so why is African American membership in Local 600 no more that 1.7 percent according to a 2004 membership survey? 

I’ve been a union member for over three decades. I believe many of my fraternal brothers and sisters are truly revolted by expressions of white supremacy, misogyny, and sexism. I enjoy honest and deep friendships with union members that have stood strong over decades. Together, we have participated in work on set and still participate in activities outside of work. 

Some of my other fellow union members openly have made it clear that they harbor bigoted views. The best of them, however, see the benefit of leaving such divisive views at home. For them, the workplace is about the work before us and the skills people bring to the job. Thus, at work we all are able to achieve a common goal and prosper because of this “progressive” choice.   
 I recently read “The Glass Is Cracked” in the new Viewfinder Redux. The article was written by a woman assistant and longtime Local 600 member. Her experiences resonated with me; especially when she related how she had been told the “team” needed to hire someone else because the other person had a … mortgage, a child, a home improvement, a … fill in the blank. When something like this occurs in a consistent pattern, it may result in excluding a distinct group of members from gaining employment. Such a selective “assessment of need” shows an absence of union solidarity. 

The author also talks about having to endure or ignore sexual harassment on the job. Harassment similarly changes the rules of the game. It un-levels the playing field. 

Racism on Set in the 21st Century 

Racist or racially insulting. Sexist or sexually offensive. Hostile language and behaviors may change the way a team member feels about her or himself on the job. It willfully undermines the authority and efforts of the Director of Photography (assuming he/she neither knows about nor condones such acts). Experience has shown me that harassing behavior degrades an entire camera department as much as it degrades the intended victim. 

I’m sure I need not waste time reminding readers to imagine what their feelings would be were the victim their own sister, girlfriend, wife, daughter or mother. You probably have enough empathy to understand how wrong this behavior is in any workplace, let alone a union organized one. 

Sexual harassment is more often an expression of perceived power than it is some sad addiction to sex. And it dovetails with the perceived power a person might feel when threatening an African American union member with a cross burning, a lynching postcard, or a noose hung in the workspace. 

Sadly and recently, since the year 2000, all of the above incidents have occurred on “A list” sets under Local 600 jurisdiction. This behavior doesn’t just violate both state and federal law; these divisive acts are also the antithesis of the word “union”. 

Are We on the Same Team Here? 

Personally, I don’t care if a union teammate likes to stomp around his or her backyard in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood. Just leave that type of behavior at home before you come to work. 

In his book Operating Cinematography, the late William E. Hines wrote that media jobs are an “intensely collaborative processes which require a very high degree of respect, interaction and cooperation among the craftspeople.” More to the point, Mr. Hines took the time to add, “Being openly argumentative with or hostile toward one’s superior(s), subordinate(s) or co-workers” and “using one’s position to verbally abuse, or to make unreasonable demands upon one’s subordinate(s)” are “PRACTICES TO BE AVOIDED.” 

I’m convinced the readers here understand what it might mean to an African American union member when a colleague threatens to bring, or actually brings, Ku Klux Klan symbols to work to intimidate or insult. Similarly, you understand what it might mean to a woman assistant when her opinion is dismissed by someone on the camera truck loudly saying, “You’re just having sore p_ _ _ _ day!” These actions and comments are disrespectful, hostile, abusive, uncooperative, and prohibited by law. You clearly understand this. 

What is unclear, however, why our union leaders, who have been told about these incidents, have failed to intervene and act to prevent such abuse. 

How can anyone think that actors, directors, and others on the production team don’t see these abuses when they occur in the Camera Department? All eyes are on us by necessity. 

It’s an insult to the rest of the union when a member presents an unprofessionally sexist or racist face to producers who are paying top-dollar wages for the “finest crews”. This bad behavior may even make the producers legally liable. 

How is this possible in the 21st Century? Where is the progress we’re supposed to have made? 

Where is the Leadership in Our Union? 

Think hard about our leadership … Our current leaders have been reluctant to address sexual and racial harassment that they have been told about. How can this do any good? When leaders do not lead on these issues, it is the membership, all of us, who suffer. 

Union membership today is somewhere around eight percent of the American workforce. It won’t help the cause of labor if leaders won’t address workplace issues that falsely divide members. Racism, sexism, and their cousin “isms” undermine and destroy solidarity, thus weakening the union. For solidarity is the one thing that has enabled working Americans to fight for their fair share. 

In general, tolerance for harassment of any kind weakens labor along fissures that have sadly been thwarting the goals of working Americans ever since Bacon’s Rebellion in 1673. 

While stumping for candidate Barack Obama in 2008, our current AFL-CIO President Richard Trumpka (at the time, he was Secretary-Treasurer) said of racism, 

Those of us who know better can’t afford to sit silently or look the other way while it’s happening. . . . 

There’s no evil that’s inflicted more pain and more suffering than racism — and it’s something we in the labor movement have a special responsibility to challenge. It’s our special responsibility because we know, better than anyone else, how racism is used to divide working people. We’ve seen how companies set worker against worker — how they throw whites a few extra crumbs off the table — and how we all end up losing. 

But we’ve seen something else, too. We’ve seen that when we cross that color line and stand together no one can keep us down. That’s why the CIO was created. That’s why industrial unions were the first to stand up against lynching and segregation. 

We are well into the 21st Century. 

What we need now are leaders that are not afraid to stand up and be heard and who will establish and demonstrate a zero tolerance policy to extinguish this degrading and anti-union kind of behavior. 

— Name Withheld by Request

Categories: Diversity, Progress?