Juneteenth Matters


By the time most of you read this it will be Juneteenth, or the holiday will have just passed. It’s the newest federal holiday created when President Joe Biden signed it into law just a few short years ago. Like many of the folks reading this, I’m sad to admit I had never even heard of the day until it became major news.

It takes only a moment to reflect before you realize how obvious and important the holiday should be to all of us. Consider what other holidays we celebrate. We have set aside federal holidays for the Labor Movement, for our veterans and for the birthdays of former presidents.

Commemorating those who fight for this country, the founding fathers, and the workers that built our nation is certainly the right thing to do. Weighed against that, it would seem that a holiday celebrating the emancipation of all enslaved men and women across the nation would surely be something we can all agree on. To those that scoffed when the holiday was signed into law, I have one question: should we NOT celebrate ending slavery? Is that not a moment that deserves celebration?

Slavery is our nation’s greatest sin, and it’s a sin we can’t easily wash off. Now I’ve heard it all before, “I didn’t own slaves, that was a long time ago, why are we still apologizing for it?”

It’s true. No one alive today has ever owned a slave in the United States, and no living person today was ever held as one. That doesn’t mean that we don’t still feel its effects or that it doesn’t impact how this country has been formed.

Guilt is not the same as responsibility, and we all have a responsibility to accept that what happened was wrong and commit that we will all work to correct any lingering effects of this. 

When I became president of Local 655, I was not responsible for many of the decisions that placed us where we were in that moment. I hadn’t chosen when and how to spend our partner’s dues money, and I hadn’t made many of the decisions that were wrong in this organization’s early days — such as contracts that had different pay rates for men and women that were doing the same job. So I don’t have guilt for those decisions, but I do have a responsibility to make sure we always strive to treat all our partners equally.

Those of us living in this country today aren’t guilty of the sins of the past. We do have a responsibility in making sure those sins do not continue to hinder our future. 

The way slavery has shaped this nation cannot be overstated. Even when the last chains of bondage were broken America did not immediately start down the right path. Virtually overnight, many parts of this country passed laws to keep Black men and women from having the same rights as the rest of the nation. Jim Crow laws explicitly kept Black individuals and families away from white counterparts whenever possible, and law enforcement usually turned a blind eye to outright violence committed by white citizens against Black citizens.

In fact, union membership was denied to Black men to make sure they could not make equal wages to their white counterparts and was done with the introduction of so-called “right-to-work” laws.  Pretending we don’t have that history would be like having a friend or family member that once caused you great pain and now simply saying it’s your fault for dwelling on it.

“Move on” or “it was so long ago” or “can’t you get over it” is not something you say to a person you care about. You express empathy and own the responsibility you have to make things different. Not a single person can fix every problem America has with its continued racial disparities, but we can at least start by acknowledging they exist.

Much of our history is not as far back as we think. We are a young nation and nations take centuries to be forged. The last recorded lynching in this county was in 1981, just 43 years ago, when Michael Donald was targeted and killed by several KKK members who told police later that he was killed simply for being black.

I’m not saying all of this to declare that America is irredeemably racist or broken. I’m not saying this because I believe America is a terrible place filled with terrible people. In fact, I believe for all our flaws America is by far the best country in the world, and I am definitely proud to be an American! I’m saying this because there’s work to be done and unions are one place where that work can actually be accomplished.

Labor’s hands are not clean on issues of racial discrimination. Many Labor organizations at one time or another excluded people of color from their ranks, which meant that those good union benefits and were never available to Black working people.

Eventually though, Organized Labor became one of the most critical tools in the fight for civil rights in the United States. You probably know that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a vocal advocate in favor of Labor unions because he saw them as an ideal vehicle to help working Black people get access to higher quality jobs and build their wealth for the next generation.

Juneteenth is an important holiday with a complex past. Just like this nation, it is something to celebrate and something to mourn. It is something to be understood, and we should cherish the opportunity to point to a failure of our past and say “we’re fixing it.”

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