Rep. Courtney Curtis

On Wednesday, February 4, a Missouri House of Representatives committee passed a so-called “right to work” bill for the building trades, sponsored by state Rep. Courtney Curtis – a black Democrat representing part of North St. Louis County, including Ferguson. All of the bill’s supporters were Republicans in the 8-4 vote.

In his testimony before the Workforce Standards and Development Committee, Curtis argued that the bill is about equality. He said inequality and discrimination within the construction unions is not new.

“It works for some, but it does not work for me,” he said. “And it doesn’t work for the people I’m fighting for.”

The unions’ “practices of legal discrimination,” he said, have recently manifested in St. Louis-area legislation that require bidders on government contracts of $25,000 or more to maintain or participate in a Department of Labor-approved apprentice program. Union contractors are often the only ones that meet that requirement, making city contracts “anticompetitive for minority contractors,” he said. And those apprentice programs also have low minority participation, he said.

In 2012, St. Louis County passed such legislation, and St. Louis city is currently trying to follow suit.

He said that is why he has proposed the bill, which prohibits employers in the construction industry “from requiring certain persons to become members of a labor organization as a condition or continuation of employment.”

After Curtis’ testimony, state Rep. Clem Smith, a pro-union Democrat who also represents parts of North St. Louis County, engaged him in a heated debate.

“Organized labor is not perfect,” said Smith, who voted against the bill and is a labor union member. “You are trying to impact the whole system,” though he only has an issue with a certain aspect of the unions.

Curtis replied, “I have the same issue that you should have.”

Many people, including several African-American labor union members, testified in opposition of the bill, saying that this was not the way to increase minority inclusion in the construction industry.

Demetrious Johnson, a former NFL player, testified against the bill on behalf of a 14-week program of unpaid training. It is designed to carve out more opportunities for minorities in the painting industry. His foundation is a partner in the program, along with Mayor Francis Slay and the IUPAT Painters District Council 58.

One program participant testified, “The program has given me all the things I need. I was selling drugs and locked up. I feel it will lessen crime.”

However, in Curtis’ opening statement, he called pre-apprentice programs a “farce” because minorities often don’t make it past the apprentice level.

Yaphett El-Amin, executive director of the minority business advocacy group MOKAN, attended the hearing but did not get to testify. She said their membership is half union-based and half non-union-based companies, so they simply wanted to provide information. Listening to the testimonies, she noted that many people acknowledged the lack of inclusiveness in the building trades. But they didn’t think the right-to-work bill was the answer.

“My question is: then what is?” she said. “The bill has pulled a curtain back and exposed the ugliness of what’s in the house. We have to focus on cleaning up our own house.”

El-Amin said she wanted to speak on the day-to-day challenges that minority companies face inside of unions when they do get union jobs. St. Louis is trailing on a nationwide level the number of minority and females in the workforce, she said.

The bill will now move through a few more committees before it makes it to the floor, Curtis said, hopefully in March.

“I’m not anti-labor; I’m anti-inequality practices by the building trades,” Curtis said. “I’m fighting for true change.”

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(2) comments


September 6, 2011 at 9:36am

You may know that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968 -- but do you know why he was there?

The civil rights leader was supporting a strike by 1,300 sanitation workers, mostly African-American men, who were protesting horrendous working conditions, poverty-level wages, and the refusal of the city to recognize their union.

As Americans mark Labor Day September 5, the story of the Memphis strike is worth retelling.

Although “Jim Crow” laws (which permitted racial segregation) were no longer allowed, it was still very difficult for blacks in the South to find good jobs. For black men in Memphis, sanitation work – collecting garbage – was the only work they could get. Working conditions were hard and often dangerous. The workers had to carry huge tubs of garbage that leaked filthy water, garbage and even maggots on them, and they had to work in snow and rain or risk losing their jobs.

The sanitation workers began their strike in February 1968 after two men who were seeking shelter from the rain were crushed to death in a garbage compacter.

Martin Luther King led a demonstration in Memphis in March that was marred when a few of the marchers broke windows and police responded with force. When King returned to the city in April, he was determined to have a peaceful march. King gave a speech saying “we've got to march again …. and force everybody to see that there are thirteen hundred of God's children here suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights wondering how this thing is going to come out.” The next day, April 4, King was killed by a sniper.

Later, the sanitation workers joined thousands of other mourners in an emotional – and peaceful -- march in King’s memory, and in support of the strike.

“This group of ordinary American workers took an extraordinary stand for workplace justice,” said Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis in April 2011, when she inducted the Memphis sanitation workers into the Labor Hall of Fame. “They took a stand for human dignity with four simple words: ‘I AM A MAN’” -- the slogan on many strikers’ signs.


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., New Testament of Hope

-------"Less than a century ago the laborer had no rights, little or no respect, and led a life which was socially submerged and barren.

He was hired and fired by economic despots whose power over him decreed his life or death. The children of workers had no childhood and no future. They too, worked for pennies an hour and by the time they reached their teens they were wornout old men, devoid of spirit, devoid of hope and devoid of self-respect...................The inspiring answer to this intolerable and dehumanizing existence was economic organization through trade unions."

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