‘Civil Rights in Workers’ Lives conference highlights intersection of Labor issues and civil rights

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PERCY GREEN II (second from left) answers a question from the audience during the “Civil Rights in Workers Lives” conference at the University of Missouri at St. Louis (UMSL). Associate Professor Priscilla Dowden-White (at left) moderated the panel with Green and Rosemary Feurer, (far right) an associate professor at Northern Illinois University. – Steve Walentik/UMSL Daily photo

By STEVE WALENTIK
UMSL Daily

Discussing the parallels between workers’ rights and civil rights, Percy Green II, founding member of the Action Committee to Improve Opportunities for Negroes and member of the St. Louis chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, compared the history of individuals organizing and advocating on behalf of a cause, such as workers’ rights or civil rights­, to the molecules that come together to form clouds.

Green, in 1964, famously climbed a ladder at the Gateway Arch – then still under construction – to protest fair employment practices. Later, he brought a federal lawsuit against McDonnell Douglas Corporation and carried it to the Supreme Court, helping make it possible to prove discrimination in the workplace. He has taken action to push for equality in the St. Louis region for 50 years.

“Not every cloud that you see come together – the molecules that formulate a cloud – brings rain,” Green said as he spoke to an audience of about 130 students, faculty members and local Labor organizers at “Civil Rights in Workers’ Lives” conference at the University of Missouri at St. Louis (UMSL).

“Just because you have a cluster of people that comes together… we would like to think that that will be a movement that will sustain itself, but there’s no guarantee,” Green said

STRATEGIES TO EFFECT CHANGE

Doug Swanson, who coordinates Labor studies at UMSL through a cooperative agreement with the College of Arts & Sciences and University of Missouri Extension, organized the event, bringing together speakers such as Green and Labor historians Deborah Henry, a professor at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park, and Rosemary Feurer, an associate professor of history at Northern Illinois University, to discuss the tactics and strategies groups have used to effect change on behalf of workers in the past century.

The conference delved into the decline in union participation in the past few decades and the corresponding slowing rate of workers’ gains.

“We have to get young people to understand that ‘union’ is not a bad word, because a lot of them have misconceptions and a false education on this subject,” Henry said.

WORKERS’ RIGHTS AND CIVIL RIGHTS

Swanson said the goal of the conference was to show workers’ rights and civil rights overlap.

“When I do Labor education, I look from a lens of Labor, and either you’re a wage worker or you’re not. Everything else can end up being used as a wedge tool to divide workers from talking about their common interest if we are not careful.

“Whether I’m a person of immigrants or if I was native born, whether I’m white or black or brown, whether I’m male or female what we all have in common is that we are workers and our differences shouldn’t be used to divide us.

“We all want to have a family-supportable job. We all want to have a job that brings dignity to the household. We want to be able to raise our families. We want to be able to have food on the table, a roof over our heads, health care, maybe some retirement savings. Those are things that we all have in common,” Swanson said.

LABOR ISSUES KEY IN CIVIL RIGHTS

The idea for the conference grew out of an exhibit at the Missouri History Museum called “#1 in Civil Rights: The African American Freedom Struggle in St. Louis.”

Gwen Moore, a 1969 UMSL graduate and who curated the exhibit in her role as curator of urban landscape and community identity at the museum, spoke during the first of two afternoon sessions at the conference. She shared some of the history of the civil rights movement in St. Louis dating back to the mid-1800s with the Dred Scott decision and showed how Labor issues at the heart of much of the battle for civil rights.

Pat Dolan, president of Sprinkler Fitters Local 268 and apprentice coordinator for the Missouri AFL-CIO, talked about the St. Louis Building & Construction Trades Council’s Building Union Diversity (BUD) program, created with the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment and supporting unions to increase minority participation in the building trades.

The BUD program, which boasts an over 80 percent hiring rate for graduates, will graduate its 12th class at 11 a.m. April 4 at AGC Construction Training School, 6301 Knox Industrial Drive in St. Louis.

Missouri Representative Bruce Franks Jr. (D-St. Louis) closed the session discussing his goals for bridging the divide that seems to exist between workers in urban and rural areas.

WOMEN, IMMIGRANTS AND THE GIG ECONOMY

Swanson said he was hopeful the conference will be the first in an annual series focusing on the changing nature of work. He said future topics could include women in the workforce, immigrant issues and the gig economy.

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