‘We have to find ways to serve our community better’
By TIM ROWDEN
While the facts and circumstances surrounding the shooting death of Ferguson teenager Michael Brown remain under investigation, his death has exposed deeper problems of economic disparity, political disenfranchisement and the ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Missouri AFL-CIO President Mike Louis have both issued statements highlighting the need to have a discussion about issues long neglected in this country.
The St. Louis Labor Council, at its Aug. 19 delegate meeting, issued a statement of solidarity with Louis and the state federation.
“The St. Louis area is being portrayed in a way that is not St. Louis,” Council President Bob Soutier said. “We have to find ways to serve our community better.”
In Illinois, James Thompson, of the East St. Louis Federation of Teachers Local 1220, and a vice president and chairman of civil rights for the Southwestern Illinois Central Labor Council, told Council delegates everyone needs to have a little patience.
“Everybody all over the world is watching this,” Thompson said. “We are going to have to do a better job of getting along.”
Thompson noted the difference between those who are peacefully protesting and those who have used the unrest in Ferguson to “loot and create havoc.”
The latter group, he said, is not interested in justice, but is hurting the community. “I don’t know how the businesses will recover,” he said.
‘NOT A FIGHT AGAINST THE POLICE’
Mark Esters, an organizer for CWA 6355 who grew up in North St. Louis County and also serves as vice president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists’ St. Louis Chapter, urged Council delegates to join the protesters in Ferguson in a peaceful demonstration for change.
“These are trying times for us. This is an opportunity for us as trade unionists to support our community,” Esters said. “This is not a fight against the police, but we can’t support the issues that have led to this. This is about the problems in the community economically, socially and politically.”
ISSUES AT THE HEART OF THE LABOR MOVEMENT
Local 6355 President Bradley Harmon noted the staggering high rate of unemployment (47 percent) among young black men in St. Louis and the fact that Brown was a graduate of Normandy High School, a struggling district that has been taken over by the state and is in the process of being privatized.
“These are issues that are at the heart of the labor movement,” Harmon said, noting that many of the same young activists with Show Me $15, who are fighting for a living wage at their fast-food jobs, have used their organizing training to try to intervene and bring about a peaceful and positive resolution in Ferguson.
OPPORTUNITY FOR CHANGE
Yvette Goods of IBEW Local 1 urged delegates not to judge the demonstrators in Ferguson based on the clothes they wear or what they see on the news.
“Talk to them. Find out what their dreams are and what they want to be,” Goods urged. “These young men and women don’t have a choice. This is a system that is designed against them. Give them some options. Give them a choice. And let us be the organizing power.”
The Rev. Martin Rafanan, co-chair of the St. Louis Workers Rights Board of Jobs with Justice andcommunity director for Show Me $15, the organization of fast-food workers fighting for a decent wage, better treatment on the job and the right to form a union, said the struggle in Ferguson is, ultimately, a struggle about economic inequality.
That inequality, Rafanan said, is “held in place by structural oppression based on race, class and human identities. Without the ability to have the resources to meet basic human needs, take care of families, and create opportunity and dignity in our neighborhoods, Ferguson will happen over and over again. The wealth in the nation is going to capital rather than workers, and that must change.”
J. David Cox Sr., president American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) said everybody in the labor movement understands why “peace” in communities like Ferguson is so fragile.
“Ferguson is like so many once-stable and prosperous towns that have been ravaged by decades of economic decline caused by ‘free-trade,’ globalization and winner-take-all economic policies that led to the disappearance of good union jobs,” Cox said.
“We in the labor movement recognize that our struggles – for economic justice, for social justice, for political equality, and for dignity for every American – are represented in the streets of Ferguson too, and we stand in solidarity with this community in its insistence that justice be served.”
WORK FOR ALL
Jeff Mazur, executive director of AFSCME Council 72, which represents public workers across Missouri and Kansas, including employees of the County and City of St. Louis City and County, said:“Council 72 calls on national, state and local leaders to deal comprehensively with the structural problems that have led to segregation, hopelessness and violence in communities like Ferguson.
“Too often, our economy has been closed to participation by people who already face a history of hardship,” Mazur said. “With jobs, we give people dignity and a stake in the system. Sadly, we so often see leaders trying to deal with the effects of despair in impoverished communities, rather than rooting out its underlying cause. AFSCME urges Missouri’s leaders, and America’s, to focus on building a country that works for all its citizens.”
(Labor Tribune Illinois Correspondent Carl Green contributed information for this story.)