Each February we celebrate our achievements and take stock of the progress we’ve made on our long march to freedom. From our ancestors’ arrival on our nation’s shores in slave ships to Emancipation, their unpaid labor was the engine that drove U.S. economic growth in the South as well as the North. Slave labor built both the White House and the walls that give the nation’s economic center, Wall Street, its iconic name. In fact, early in the 18th century, officials of New York State established a slave market along Wall Street.
Ours is a history of resistance to unbridled oppression. And since Emancipation, each of our victories on the road to freedom, equality and democracy have not been ours alone. Rather, they have moved our country closer to “the more perfect union” that our nation’s first African-American president so eloquently called us to.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, Reconstruction governments established statewide education systems, and passed laws to protect civil rights as well as the rights of all workers. The Reconstruction amendments set the nation on a new path. But that path has been strewn with obstacles.
The 13th Amendment abolished involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime. That loophole enabled the arrest of poor freedmen and the use of convict leasing. Its legacy is today’s mass incarceration of young African-Americans.
The 14th Amendment not only confers citizenship on all persons born or naturalized in the U.S., but also extends civil rights to all Americans. As such it is the basis of landmark decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education, which outlaws state-sponsored segregation, and Roe v. Wade, which protects a woman’s right to a legal abortion.
The 15th Amendment prohibits federal and state governments from denying a citizen the right to vote based on race, color or previous condition of servitude. It took close to another100 years of struggle before legal barriers were finally outlawed by the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Latinos and other people of color have used the amendment to guarantee ballot access. But the fight against various forms of voter disenfranchisement continues today.
Throughout our history, working people and their organizations have stood at the center of our struggles. Shortly after Emancipation, some 3,000 washerwomen, mostly former slaves but also poor whites, struck in Atlanta, for better wages and a uniform pay rate. That action came on the heels of smaller strikes of washerwomen in Jackson, Miss., and Galveston, Texas.
We made our greatest strides when we were able to join hands with white workers under the leadership of the Knights of Labor. First formed in 1869, the union grew into the first national labor union to organize Black and white workers. Terence V. Powderly, who led the union from 1879 to 1893, said, “In the field of labor and American citizenship we recognize no line of race, creed, politics or color.” For various reasons, including government and corporate repression, the union soon dissolved.
Our nation would not experience such unity among white and African-American workers again until the 1930s with the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which organized workers in industrial unions regardless of job classification, race or ethnicity. The CIO ushered in an era of labor activity and militancy that galvanized the U.S labor movement. Not only did the CIO organize Black workers, but also it worked with organizations such as the National Negro Congress, led by A. Phillip Randolph—then head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters—and other progressive African-American organizations.
Much of the progress made in the 1930s and 1940s was rolled back by Cold War McCarthyism’s assault on labor in the 1950s and subsequent structural changes in the economy. Throughout it all, African-American workers have remained on the front lines of progressive change. African-American labor leaders such as Randolph and Cleveland Robinson of District 65 were among the leadership cadre of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Organizations such as the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and the A. Phillip Randolph Institute remain on the front lines for workers and communities of color—all in the interests of the nation as a whole.
Today working people and our organizations are under siege by a corporate class that has tightened its control of the levers of government. A recent analysis by Americans for Tax Fairness estimates that the Trump-GOP law could save Charles and David Koch and their businesses $1.4 billion in income taxes each year. Meanwhile, the ballooning deficit will serve as the pretense for the deficit hawks to try to shred the social safety net.
But we can stall their agenda and impose ours by continuing to broaden and deepen our progressive coalition and by working tirelessly toward the 2018 elections.
George Gresham is president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the largest union in New York and the largest health care union in the nation.