About 140 mechanics – a majority of whom were white – at Metro, the St. Louis transit agency, joined together this spring to try and pass a state bill. That bill would allow them to negotiate their salaries and benefits independently from other workers at Metro, said Michael Breihan, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Division 788 – which represents 1,600 Metro workers.
House Bill 1361 states that “a collective bargaining unit may independently represent different classes of workers within the Bi-State Development Agency.”
At the “Blacks & Labor: A Call for Change” town hall meeting held on June 15 at the Omega Psi Phi Center, community members discussed how this action would affect African-American workers.
Breihan, who attended the meeting, said the largely white group of mechanics felt they could “get a better deal if they get away from the drivers,” who are mostly black.
“It’s outright racism and classism,” said Adolphus Pruitt, president of the St. Louis City NAACP. “Why would a faction of the union that is predominately white want to separate from a faction that is predominately black? Where is the union brotherhood in that?”
Meeting attendees also discussed a list of recommendations that the NAACP recently presented to labor union leaders. It included diversifying the executive boards of the St. Louis Labor Council, Missouri AFL and St. Louis Building Trades Council with black union representatives. Pruitt said this process has already begun, and they have been sitting down with the leaders of these groups.
The list of recommendations came after state Rep. Courtney Curtis’ “right to work” bill, which targeted the building trades, started to gain some traction. Curtis was a panelist at the town hall meeting, along with Mark Esters (president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unions), Thomas Kitchen (community service chair of Omega Psi Phi) and state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal.
Many of the union members present at the meeting spoke in opposition to Curtis’ bill, which was passed out of the House but stalled after that. Many said that “right to work” bills lower worker wages and benefits, particularly for black labor.
NAACP is opposed to right to work. However, Pruitt said Curtis accomplished his goal – to strategically push labor leaders to diversify their leadership ranks.
“They can say what they want about Courtney Curtis,” Pruitt said, “but up until the bill was introduced, these folks were not at the table. All of the sudden, blacks were elevated to three or four positions. That is a direct response to the ‘right-to-work’ legislation.”
CWA passes ‘Black Lives Matter’ resolution
Attendees gave a nod to union members at the Communications Workers of America (CWA), who passed a “Black Lives Matter” resolution at their national convention on June 10 to address the issues of “systematic racism” in the United States.
“Part of our goal in passing the resolution is to start active members of CWA talking about these issues,” said Bradley Harmon, president of the CWA Local 6355. “That has already started. I think it deepened our commitment towards working for racial justice.”
Chappelle-Nadal commended CWA’s resolution. She also talked about her research on racism in the unions. She said in the early 1900s, some unions passed some resolutions to push for more equality among workers.
“But as soon as there was some distress in the economy, African Americans always got the hit,” she said. “Change is incremental.”
The CWA resolution points out the “widening gap of trust” between law enforcement and minority communities. It states that union members opposed policies designed to marginalize minority communities and people of color. This includes privatizing education, attacks on public services and “voter suppression laws that suppress the rights of minorities to vote.”
Pruitt said they will continue to hold the meetings, and African Americans inside labor unions are going to continue to organize to make sure that their rank and file is diverse.
“Or we are going to do it from the outside,” Pruitt said. “It’s going to happen one way or the other.”
Follow this reporter on Twitter @rebeccarivas.