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How to survive ‘gut punch’ of 2020? Unions!

Liz Shuler, Larry Brown open WSLC Convention with inspiring calls to action


(Sept. 24, 2020) — Given the multiple crises facing American this year, 2020 has felt like “an absolute gut punch.” But organized labor was meant for difficult times like these, and by joining together with each other to weather these crises and tackle the problems that caused them, we will win.

That was the message from AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Liz Shuler as she delivered the keynote address Wednesday at the 2020 Constitutional Convention of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO held via Zoom video conferencing. Hundreds of delegates representing unions from across Washington state are gathering online this week for this annual convention of the state’s largest labor organization.

“In times of crisis, coming together as a labor movement is exactly where we need to be,” Shuler said. “This year has felt like an absolute gut punch. One after the other. And we are facing crises on so many different fronts: climate catastrophes, the struggle for racial justice, the COVID-19 pandemic, and an economic crisis with historic levels of unemployment… but what gives me hope is seeing how the labor movement comes together in times like these and I’ll venture to say that unions were meant for this moment.” (Watch her whole speech here, starting at about 54:30.)

As an example, Shuler described the “truly inspirational” story of what happened in the Yakima Valley in May and June. Workers at several different fruit warehouses, who didn’t have the benefit of a union, had the courage to walk off the job because of concerns about their safety and their demands for hazard pay. They were working shoulder to shoulder during a pandemic without proper protective equipment and when their co-workers started getting sick — some of whom tragically lost their lives — they decided enough is enough. They walked out on strike — and they all ended up winning. Some warehouses gave them what they wanted within hours. Others took several long weeks. But the workers won.

“By joining together in solidarity, those workers had power,” Shuler said.

What these strikers might not have expected was the strong dose of solidarity they got from Washington’s labor movement. Donations of food and money came pouring in from all over Washington state. Hundreds of union members from both Eastern and Western Washington showed up on the picket lines to march with them. That took some organizing and Shuler recognized two organizers in particular: Edgar Franks of Familias Unidas por las Justicia and the WSLC’s own Dulce Gutiérrez. She also congratulated worker-leaders from the first strike at the Allan Brothers warehouse — Angie Lara, Maribel Medina and Augustine Lopez — who have since been elected by their co-workers as officers as they organize their new union.

In his opening speech, WSLC President Larry Brown also described the dramatic changes we have all experienced in 2020, but dedicated much of his address to racial justice issues and “what seems like a neverending cycle of police violence perpetrated against unarmed Black people.” (Watch his whole speech here, starting at about 30:30.)

Brown said that all the current crises are intertwined and demand the full attention of organized labor to help resolve. Eventually we will emerge from the pandemic, the economy will recover, and this divisive president will recede into the history books, but “the one crisis we face today that seems to never go away is the scourge of racism,” he said, calling it a “societal disease that has prevented America from achieving its highest ideal.”

“As workers, it harms all of us as we are pitted against one another,” Brown said, directing his comments in particular to union members who are white. “I know this is a hard discussion, but it is not as hard as being one of the millions of Americans that personally feel these impacts (of racism) every day.”

He described the WSLC’s response to recent years’ convention resolutions calling on the council to lead on the issue of racial justice. The WSLC has developed and conducted Race and Labor workshops so hundreds of union leaders and rank-and-file members could share their experiences with racism, and most recently, the WSLC hired its first Director of Racial and Gender Justice, Kasi Perreira, to focus on supporting anti-racist policies internally and externally and to assist in outreach to other social movements.

“But I know that despite what leaders say or do, despite of the work that will be done by Kasi, or the visible placards stating Black Lives Matter, we will not defeat the evils of all the forms of racism until we, the white community, take up this burden fully,” Brown said. “I hope each and every one of us can make a personal commitment to ridding our communities, our movement, and our country of the malignancy of racism.”

TAKE A STAND — Brown urged all convention delegates and others watching the convention to take the AFL-CIO’s 10-point Pledge to Social, Racial and Economic Justice.

Delegates also heard from a panel on “COVID-19 and the Economy” that featured Joan Jones of SEIU State Council and the National LGBTQ Workers Center, Mark Martinez from the Pierce County Building and Construction Trades Council, and Rachel Dorfman of the American Federation of Musicians Local 105. They described the economic impacts and challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic on their constituencies. The panel was moderated by the WSLC Legislative Director Sybill Hyppolite. (Watch the whole panel discussion here, starting at about 1:10:00.)

THURSDAY at the WSLC Convention — The action continues Thursday at 5 p.m. when the convention reconvenes via Zoom and is again broadcast on Facebook Live here. Thursday’s session will feature Governor Jay Inslee, WSLC Secretary Treasurer April Sims, and a panel on “The Work of the WSLC,” followed by a final round of workshops from 6:45 to 8 p.m.:

Clean Energy Transition — A panel with environmental justice and worker voices describing the impacts and future of a low carbon economy. — Presenters: Matthew Hepner, Executive Director of the Certified Electrical Workers of Washington-IBEW; Lauren Breynaert, Coalition Director of the Climate Alliance; Oskar Zambrano, Latino Community Fund; and Vlad Gutman-Britten, WSLC Climate and Infrastructure Advisor

Collecting and Telling Compelling Worker Stories — Facts and figures are important, but we move people with stories. Learn about union members’ work to collect and share powerful stories. Practice skills to help workers’ tell their stories. — PRESENTERS: Anna Minard or Samantha Grad, UFCW 21 staff; Wil Peterson, UFCW 21 Executive Board Member

Essential and Empowered: Immigrant Workers Organizing and WinningThis workshop will focus on stories of front-line immigrant essential workers who have faced high rates of exposure to COVID-19, exclusion from the safety net and have been organizing and winning. A striking farm worker, a food processing plant worker, and a healthcare worker will share their experiences organizing during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Labor and Education Research Center will round out the workshop with data on important outcomes for workers across Washington state.

Race & Labor 2020 — Hosted by the WSLC Racial Justice Committee and our new Director of Racial and Gender Justice, Kasi Perreira, we will hear how affiliates have built strategic campaigns in bargaining and organizing, with community and politically, with racial justice at the core. Organized labor faces unprecedented, orchestrated, and frequent attacks from billionaires and bosses that seek to break the power of working people’s solidarity. We continue to witness the murder of more Black and Brown people, Black Trans siblings and young people: George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Monika Diamond, too many to name. All while battling the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on communities of color. People are taking these issues to the streets, to the workplace — and soon to the ballot box.

Check the convention webpage for the convention agenda and more details about what’s happening.


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