The status of minorities in the American labor movement became clear to Bill Fletcher Jr. while he was riding a Boston bus in 1985.
Fletcher, a graduate of Harvard who went to work on the shipyards in Quincy, Massachusetts, had become a union organizer in the Beantown area. But his experience was spoiled by institutional racism and elitism.
He found himself riding that bus and reading a local AFL-CIO newsletter celebrating the 50th anniversary of America's most well-known union. As he read, he detected a distinct lack of diversity in the story being presented by the newsletter. It was an omission with which he had become all too familiar.
"I knew there was a story that was different from what the AFL-CIO was telling us," he told a group of Rochester labor leaders during a visit in late February.
That awareness had been building in him for some time and eventually led to what he calls his purging from the Boston labor movement. "I hit a glass ceiling," he said during his talk at the Rochester United Teachers Building. He was purged, he said, "for asking too many questions."
The experience helped motivate him to write The Indispensable Ally: Black Workers and the Formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, 1934-1941, a pictorial booklet published in 1987.
It also formed a crucial underpinning for his Rochester talk, "Race, Class and the Future of the Labor Movement," sponsored by the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and Cornell Labor Programs.
Despite his troubles in Boston, Fletcher managed to rise through the ranks of the AFL-CIO, serving as education director and assistant to the union's president. He now serves as the president and CEO of the Trans Africa Forum, a non-profit created to educate the public about the impact of US foreign policy on Africa and the African Diaspora.
Such cumulative experience added weight to his Rochester lecture, especially when he described how the concepts of race and socioeconomics continue to splinter the American labor movement.
Too frequently, he said, the largely white leadership of modern unions is separated from its base of support --- a base often made up of lower- to middle-class African Americans, Latinos, and other minorities. While union leaders enjoy the social and financial perks of their positions, he said, they often ignore the needs of the rank-and-file membership they were elected to represent.
Fletcher's solution: to change the goals of the labor movement. The ultimate objective --- and one long absent from union agendas --- should be reclaiming labor's rightful place in society.
"How do we gain power?" he asked. "I don't hear that [being discussed] in the AFL-CIO. I don't hear it from any union in the United States. Until we have that discussion, everything else is a joke. The reason many of our members disengage is because they know it's a joke. They know we're bullshitting them."
Disenchantment among the rank and file has deeper implications. Throughout history, Fletcher said, capitalists have used race and gender to splinter labor movements by turning workers against each other. He said globalization is only the most recent example of such tactics.
"Capital wants the annihilation of the union movement," he said. "The rich are engaging in a class war in the United States, and our leaders don't want to engage it. Instead, they want us to roll over and play dead."
Union members need to look beyond details like overtime grievances and contract campaigns to create a vision for all working people, Fletcher said. "We must look at power for all workers, not just one bargaining unit," he said, adding that unions "are part of the equation, but not the only part."
The rank and file, he said, must not place their fate in the hands of complacent leaders, and they must find ways to incorporate the rest of society into the movement: "We have to change the way we look at community organizations and the community as a whole. That's when you start talking about real, achievable power."
Fletcher touched a nerve with local labor leaders, many of whom responded with pointed thoughts of their own. Jim Bertolone, president of the Rochester & Genesee Valley Labor Federation, said the labor movement still has the power to make concrete changes in workers' lives; he pointed to the successful living-wage campaign in Rochester as proof. "The social agenda," he said, "is there."
But those efforts are barely portrayed by corporate-dominated media, Bertolone said, and therefore go largely unseen. He also said unions sometimes "are victims of our own success" because union leaders often make so much money that "they identify more with... doctors and lawyers" more than their membership.
Gloria Lawton, a caseworker for the International Federation of Social Workers, echoed that thought, noting union leadership often leads to collusion with employers. "Half of [union leaders] are in bed with employers anyway," she said.
Meanwhile, Dan Thomas, a long-time member of the United Auto Workers, agreed with Fletcher, saying that race plays a crucial and negative role within unions. White members and leaders, he said, like having authority and aren't too keen on giving it up.
"They're in a state of bliss," he said. "As long as the situation continues, they'll keep going along with it."
Racial division must be overcome if labor has any chance of regaining power, Fletcher said. "Can we ignore race," he posed, "and appeal to our common economic interests?"
He added that minority workers must be proactive, "step forward and initiate change" instead of playing supporting roles. Karen Spotford, a council leader for the Public Employees Federation, urged union members to learn all they can about their union and its efforts. "Revolution," she said, "involves knowledge."
With such education and effort, Fletcher said, it would be possible to create a united, inclusive, and potent force of workers. In his words: "a total labor movement."