Labor, civil rights leaders call for solidarity

The Rev. William Barber and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka outlined a vision Wednesday of civil rights and labor organizations working together to advance social justice, create economic opportunity and defend the rights of workers, people of color, women and other groups that have been left behind.

The Rev. William Barber speaks while William Morris, left, and Richard Trumka listen.

The Rev. William Barber speaks while William Morris, left, and Richard Trumka listen. (Photo by Max Tortoriello).

“It works if we believe America is ready for a grown-up conversation,” Barber told an IU Bloomington audience at Presidents Hall in Franklin Hall.

Barber, leader of the North Carolina NAACP and organizer of that state’s widely acclaimed Moral Mondays movement, and Trumka, president of the nation’s largest labor organization, spoke at the IU College of Arts and Sciences’ signature Themester event titled “Labor and Civil Rights: Bold Legacies and New Directions.” William Morris of the Bloomington Human Rights Commission moderated.

A video of the discussion is available online.

Both Barber and Trumka drew on history – their own and their organizations’ – to make the case that organizations are more powerful when working together than when acting separately.

Trumka, who has led the AFL-CIO since 2009, cited the 1890 founding of his own union, the United Mine Workers of America, as a multiracial and multiethnic organization that included a ban on discrimination by race, creed or national origin in its first constitution.

Unions also supported and helped organize the 1963 March for Jobs and Justice at which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech, he reminded the audience. But many union members moved away from supporting racial justice and focused on their own economic interests.

Now, he said, the AFL-CIO is reaching out to and partnering with those with common interests, including civil rights organizations and groups representing domestic workers and immigrants.

“We have remembered what we knew in 1890 but what we had forgotten,” he said. “When they can discriminate against any of us, they can discriminate against all of us. When we allow ourselves to be divided, we can be defeated by echelon.”

Richard Trumka gestures from the podium. (Photo by Max Tortoriello).

Richard Trumka gestures from the podium. (Photo by Max Tortoriello).

Trumka said a key message is that the economy is not a zero-sum game in which gains for one group must be offset by losses for another.

“The economy is not like the weather,” he said. “The economy is nothing but a set of rules. These rules decide winners and losers, and these rules are made by people.”

Barber said the nation is “in the embryonic stages of a third Reconstruction,” a movement for justice that mirrors the era following the Civil War and the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and ‘60s. And just as with the previous advances, there is political resistance.

“Extremists have figured out just how powerful the labor and civil rights movements can be if we come together,” he said.

He cited the surprising success of the Moral Mondays movement in organizing marches around the idea that justice is a moral cause – and opposing cuts in health care, education, unemployment and other programs – in areas of North Carolina that are nearly all white and heavily Republican.

“The first goal of any movement,” he said, “must be to transform the imagination. To say what is possible and what must be.”

Barber decried attacks on voting rights, including decisions by North Carolina and other states to restrict early voting and require voter IDs and a Supreme Court decision that struck down part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Defending voting rights and increasing voter turnout are essential, he said.

“If we vote,” he said, “they can’t win.”

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