By TONY PECINOVSKY
St. Louis – “With union support, workers are becoming aware that they are pawns in the bottom line in a corporate drive for profits,” Claude Cummings, international president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) told more than 200 St. Louis area Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) members and friends gathered at the downtown Marriot Hotel on Sept. 2 for CBTU-St. Louis’ 50th Anniversary celebration: “Power of the Past – Force of the Future.”
Workers are “fed up with corporate greed and a lack of respect,” Cummings said, and they are “fighting back.”
Cummings also linked worker’s rights to the electoral arena, saying “We face two very different and distinct political choices… much like the choices Black trade unionists faced in 1972” when CBTU was founded. The St. Louis chapter of CBTU was founded in 1973, one year after the Chicago conference.
Marcia Gant, vice president of CWA Local 6355, said the St. Louis chapter has been a “bridge between Labor and the Black community helping to defeat so-called ‘right-to-work’ both in 1978 and in 2018.”
Additionally, she said, CBTU is a “champion of Black political empowerment… a leader on the frontlines.”
DIVERSIFYING THE WORKFORCE
Pat White, president of the Greater St. Louis Central Labor Council representing 80,000 union members, echoed Gant. “Even though we’ve worked hard to diversify the workforce, we know we have a long way to go,” White said.
White praised the work of the Building Union Diversity (BUD) Program, noting that it recently graduated its 30th class. He also thanked CBTU for holding the Labor Movement’s “feet to the fire” and for bringing “uncomfortable topics to the forefront.”
Because of CBTU, White said “our Movement is stronger.”
Numerous elected officials attended the banquet, including Missouri State Senator and CBTU member Karla May.
May, a member of CWA Missouri State Workers Local 6355, said she was forged through CBTU. “The education I received through CBTU laid a strong foundation,” she said, which enables her to better fight for workers in Jefferson City.
Though unable to attend, Congresswoman Cori Bush sent greetings and noted that CBTU “is the voice of Black workers in St. Louis.”
St. Louis chapter President Emeritus Lew Moye provided some history on the chapter’s founding. Moye, who served as chapter president for 35 years and is also a 59-year leader of the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 110, noted that St. Louis was “ripe for the founding of CBTU.”
Even prior to CBTU’s founding, Moye said, “Black trade unionists were discussing the lack of Black leadership in the Labor Movement.”
Moye noted there were five St. Louisans among the 1,200 Black trade unionists that attended the 1972 conference that led to CBTU’s formation.
Moye said the St. Louis chapter developed a reputation over the years as a no-nonsense chapter of committed activists. “They say…‘if you want to get something done, call St. Louis CBTU,’” he said.
The chapter’s current President Jay Ozier, a member of Carpenters Local 92, led a slide show presentation of photos documenting the chapter’s activist history. Photos included CBTU members at picket lines and rallies, at marches and protests; photos of members who ran for and won local, state, and national office; as well as photos of CBTU members with national movement leaders, such as Charlene Mitchell, head of the National Coordinated Committee to Free Angela Davis and Executive Director of the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, one of the most important civil rights organizations of the 1970s and 80s.
One photo Ozier was most proud of was when a leader of the African National Congress (ANC) attended a St. Louis area banquet to thank the St. Louis chapter for its support in the fight against apartheid in South Africa. In the 1980s, CBTU member and Alderman of the 22nd Ward Kenny Jones, an iron worker by trade, led the anti-apartheid divestment campaign in St. Louis City Hall, calling for all city investments and pension funds to be divested from South Africa.
Lisa Wilkerson, daughter of long-time CBTU leader and St. Louis chapter founder Jim Wilkerson, made special remarks on behalf of her father who is fighting Parkinson’s disease. Wilkerson, a member of Operating Engineers Local 513, recalled his path from the St. Louis Black Labor Council to CBTU. He emphasized the “collective fight” to defeat so-called “right-to-work” in 1978, end apartheid in South Africa and free the “Wilmington Ten” – nine young men and a woman who were wrongfully convicted in 1971 in Wilmington, N.C., of arson and conspiracy during a period of racial unrest. Most were sentenced to 29 years in prison, and all 10 served nearly a decade in jail before an appeal won their release.
‘FORCE OF THE FUTURE’
Fitting of the evening’s theme to become a “Force of the Future,” the chapter also emphasized the role of young workers to building and solidifying the Labor Movement today.
Oluwadamini Melvin, a member of CWA Local 6355 and chair of the CBTU Under 40 Leaders Committee, said, “We have the power to change the trajectory of the future.” He noted the “importance of mentorships” and implored elder CBTU leaders to “remember the youth… to give them space to thrive, to drive, to learn, and to empathize. And most importantly to put resources behind us.”
‘ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS’
“We proudly stand on the shoulders of giants,” Cummings concluded in his speech, while cautioning the attendees of a “dangerous agenda” unfolding in Texas, Florida, and across the country. He said, the far-right wants to “rewrite the past… they want to eradicate the best of the past and replace it with the worst of the present. The very foundation of our government is being threatened by racists, a hateful throwback to the worst of us.”
Cummings noted the array of new voter suppression schemes across the country and said, “They want to seize control of elections if they don’t like the results.”
However, he also told the assembled Black trade unionists not to despair. He emphasized coalition building and collaboration. “Mobilize our people and get them out to vote,” Cummings said. “Democracy is on the ballot. Our future as a nation is on the ballot. We’ve got to fight. We can’t give up.”