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Blacks a big part of labor but not in top positions

By Gary T. Pakulski, The Toledo Blade, 27 February 2000

Decades after Asa Philip Randolph organized black sleeping car porters in New York and Martin Luther King, Jr., made a fateful trip to Memphis to walk picket lines alongside striking garbage workers, critics charge that the U.S. labor movement includes too few leaders like Toledo's Dave Taylor.

As a child in the early 1950s, he passed out union literature alongside his father, a Toledo labor leader. Later, as a municipal employee who oversaw the city's stock of signs and traffic signals, he worked his way up through his own union. Now, at 56, he is president of that union, Local 7 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.

He is among a handful of Toledo labor leaders who are black. And the situation here is not unique.

Blacks are a major part of organized labor's strategy for rebuilding depleted membership rosters, yet rarely are they in top leadership posts. The irony, say critics, is that unions long have championed civil rights and affirmative action for African-Americans in other sectors of society but haven't always practiced what they preached.

"The position of unions - even the most progressive unions - has been historically and dramatically different when it comes to internal reform as opposed to public policy," said William Gould, a former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board.

While efforts are under way to correct the imbalance, "the change is very modest and very slow," said Mr. Gould, a law professor at Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif.

Not one of the five largest unions in the AFL-CIO labor federation is led by a black.

Among the 51 members of the federation's policy-setting executive council, three, or 6 per cent, are African-American. About 15 per cent of union members overall are African-American, although they compose a third or more of some unions.

The greatest progress has been made on the large executive boards that oversee the Big Five unions: the Teamsters, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the Service Employees International Union, the United Food & Commercial Workers, and the United Auto Workers. African-Americans account for 17 per cent of the 192 officials on these boards, a Blade survey found.

Yet most of the gains can be traced to two unions, AFSCME and SEIU, both with 1.3 million members. When those organizations are excluded, the percentage of black board members drops to 11 per cent.

But there are even bigger gaps in some smaller unions, such as the 500,000-member Laborers International Union of North America. The union, which represents semiskilled construction workers, includes in the current edition of its official magazine a column on minority advancement by Vice President George Gudger. ". . . America's great disease, from its beginning, is racism," he writes.

Mr. Gudger, who is black, doesn't mention the union's own record on minority advancement.

Ten photographs of new president Terence O'Sullivan and the secretary-treasurer, Carl Booker - both white - appear in the first few pages of the union magazine.

Indeed, only two of the 16 people on the general executive board are black.

The union, which is attempting to end decades of domination by organized crime, doesn't know the number of African-Americans in its membership, said spokesman David Roscow.

However, union dissidents say the membership is reflected more in the makeup of the 1,400-member Toledo Local 500, where blacks represent a majority.

Jim McGough, founder of a Chicago-based group calling itself Laborers for Justice, says 60 per cent of members are black or Latino. The union disputes the figure. But Mr. McGough is attempting to assemble a slate reflecting that membership to challenge current officers in elections next year.

Locally, veterans of the labor movement have difficulty naming more than a few blacks who head Toledo union locals. The AFL-CIO's local unit includes three blacks on its 25-member executive committee, according to Ron Coughenour, executive secretary. Metro Toledo, with an estimated 65,000 union members, is the fifth most unionized city in the nation, according to the for-profit Bureau of National Affairs, Inc.

Even union activists are troubled by the failure to correct such imbalances at a time when blacks are seen as an increasingly important part of organized labor's future.

Black men are more likely to belong to unions than white men or any other group, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than one of every five African-American male workers belongs to a union. Black workers have an overall unionization rate of 17 per cent, compared with 14 per cent for whites and 12 per cent for Hispanics. Nationwide, 2.5 million of the nation's 16.5 million union members are African-American.

U.S. Census trends suggest that the pool of potential new union members will include a growing number of black workers. The nation's black population is younger and growing faster than the white population. About a third of the 35 million blacks are under age 19, compared with a fourth of the 193 million whites. Government forecasters predict that by 2050 the black population will rise 70 per cent to 59 million. They will represent 15 per cent of the population, up from 13 per cent now.

"Union membership at the grass roots level is changing," said Elaine Bernard, director of Harvard University's trade union program. "Disproportionately, African-Americans and women are joining labor."

Differing explanations are offered for the lack of blacks in union leadership.

Desegregation was slow to come to labor unions, said Harvard's Ms. Bernard. Even as Dr. King visited Memphis in support of striking garbage men on the day of his assassination April 4, 1968, segregation was commonplace.

Others point to union organizational structures designed to preserve the status quo.

"Many unions run as tight-knit, closed machines," said Carl Biers, executive director of the nonprofit Association of Union Democracy. "If you're not part of the clique, you're on the outs."

Mr. Taylor of the Toledo AFSME local agreed that there is a problem.

One explanation: Large numbers of blacks haven't sought leadership positions in recent years because, like white co-workers, they have become complacent in good economic times, he said.

He was elected president of Local 7 in June after an unsuccessful run in 1996.

"You have to build a base of interest and support," he added. "Being black will get you some votes. Being black will cost you votes. Some people have built-in biases."

A similar approach is taken by the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, which seeks to increase the number of African-Americans in union leadership posts.

The 2,000 member national group offers seminars on how to run effective campaigns and in parliamentary procedure, said Gwend Johnson, president of the Washington chapter.

The nation's most influential black unionist is the coalition's president, William Lucy.

"Most unions are working to improve diversity," said Mr. Lucy, who is second-in-command at AFSCME.

"There is a long way to go. This is critically important if unions want to reflect the face of the work force they represent."

Union leaders can't tell members whom to elect, but they can improve the chances of blacks and other minorities through affirmative action programs that help them build a name and reputation in staff positions.

But victory often is elusive for blacks who seek national union office without the backing of incumbents, he said. "It is extremely difficult for any minority without the political support of the establishment to win."

Odds improve in unions like AFSCME, which makes it easier for minorities and other noninsiders to win by selecting national board members through elections in smaller geographic districts. AFSCME's 33-member board is one-third African-American. The union says minorities represent one-fourth of its membership but doesn't give the percentage of blacks.

Mr. Lucy, a highway construction inspector in the early 1960s, rose through the ranks of his San Francisco area local in an era when the AFSCME board included no blacks. That began to change in the late 1960s. He was hired on AFSCME's national staff in 1966 and was elected secretary-treasurer, the second-highest post, five years later.

But when incumbent president Jerry Wurf died in 1981, other board members bypassed his second-in-command for another candidate. "I'm not quite sure they were ready for me as president," Mr. Lucy said. He didn't seek the union presidency again.

One of the biggest pushes to increase the number of black leaders is in the Service Employees International Union, whose membership is 20 per cent African-American. The union represents janitors, nursing home workers, hospital employees, and others.

Union delegates will be asked in May to approve a beefed-up program for training and encouraging leaders from minority groups. Begun four years ago, the program has helped increase minority representation on the 62-person board to 31 per cent from 20 per cent, said spokesman Renee Asher. The board includes 11 blacks.

The United Auto Workers last year elected a second black to its seven-person executive staff for the first time in union history. Still, membership of the 750,000-member union is estimated to be nearly one-fourth African-American, while the union's 18-person board includes three blacks. Blacks were added to the union board in the early '60s, but it wasn't until 1989 - 11 years ago - that Ernie Lofton, an African-American, was named to the executive staff as a vice president in charge of relations with Ford Motor Co.

Another big union with few black leaders is the 1.4 million member Teamsters.

Just two of 26 executive board members are black. Spokesman Chip Roth was unable to give the percentage of African-Americans in the union but speculated that it is consistent with the 15 per cent figure for unions overall.

Despite the small number of black leaders, Mr. Roth said, they exercise influence on union policies through an internal human-rights commission and an active black caucus group.

No blacks are among the top five officers of the 1.3 million-member United Food & Commercial Workers union.

However, a 52-person executive board includes six African-Americans, said spokesman Jill Cashen. Blacks represent 10 to 15 per cent of union membership, she said.

Ms. Bernard of Harvard thinks opportunities for black leaders will increase now that organized labor appears to have ended decades of decline. "It's much easier to have new leadership, black leadership, in a growing movement as opposed to a dying movement."

Mr. Gould of Stanford cautioned, however, that it will remain tough for blacks to rise to leadership positions in unions where they are a minority, albeit a growing one. "Without efforts by leading slates to include African-Americans or methods of voting that promote minority representation, it is difficult, if not impossible, for blacks to get substantial representation."