CHICAGO (Feb. 14, 2020) — During this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, I was honored to speak at the Electrical Workers Minority Caucus (EWMC) 30th Annual National Leadership Conference in Chicago for the third consecutive year. I was deeply inspired by the love, energy and determination of the 550-plus very diverse delegates and speakers.
I want to share some inspiring stories from the conference.
In 1966, Dr. King came to Chicago to lead a movement for racial justice and desegregation. He led a march into an all-white neighborhood demanding that homes be sold to everyone regardless of their race. He was confronted by an angry racist mob and was hit in the head with a thrown brick.
“I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South,” he later said. “But I can say that I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’m seeing in Chicago.”
Five years later, Dr. King said: “The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress… The captains of industry did not lead this transformation. In fact, they resisted until they were overcome.”
But Dr. King was also critical of our movement’s internal discrimination. Speaking at the AFL-CIO’s Constitutional Convention in 1963, he said:
“Labor has not adequately used its great power, its vision and resources to advance Negro rights. Undeniably, it has done more than other forces in American society to this end. Discrimination does exist in the labor movement. It is true that organized labor has taken significant steps to remove the yoke of discrimination from its own body… Labor must honestly admit these shameful conditions, and design the battle plan which will defeat and eliminate them.”
Why was the EWMC founded?
The creation of the Electrical Worker Minority Caucus must be understood in this historical context.
“The EWMC was officially founded in 1974, by a small group of primarily African American International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) brothers and sisters who were delegates to the 30th International Convention. Hispanic and African American IBEW members were threatening the formation of an informational picket line,” the EWMC website reads. “The primary purpose of the EWMC is to advocate for greater diversity and inclusiveness within the IBEW, with extreme emphasis on increasing the numbers of people of color and women in leadership positions at all levels of the IBEW.”
The IBEW International President and Treasurer agreed to meet with an EWMC delegation at that convention to discuss ways to address their concerns. The EWMC notes that “these high level meetings have been scheduled on a continuous basis since 1974.”
Since that time, the EWMC has grown to 38 chapters across the U.S. and Canada. Their annual national conferences have grown dramatically in recent years with increased enthusiasm to building a stronger and more inclusive IBEW and labor movement.
Finding hope in the IBEW International and its leadership.
One of the keynote speakers at this year’s EWMC national conference was IBEW International President Lonnie Stephenson. He gave a deeply heartfelt speech reaffirming his commitment to continue working with the EMWC to address issues of diversity and inclusion within the IBEW, grow the IBEW, and fight to defend our nation’s democracy and our right to vote. His remarks were well-received.
As I listened I thought about Dr. King’s criticisms of the past. I felt that Dr. King would see President Stephenson’s ongoing commitment as sincere and meaningful progress.
Finding hope in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Victor Uno gave a deeply moving speech. Victor is Japanese-American. In the mid-1970’s, at age 23, he became an IBEW member, one of the first minorities allowed into Local 595, a construction local in Oakland. When he went to his first union meeting, the door foreman tore up his dues receipt, refusing him entry into the meeting.
“Are we letting Chinese in now?” was a remark he heard when he finally gained entry into the meeting.
Undeterred, and after 25 years of dedicated work serving the union and the Asian Pacific Islander community, Victor was elected Business Manager of Local 595 and won four re-elections. Twelve years later, he was appointed to an International Representative.
“One of my greatest honors was to serve as President of our EWMC,” he told the conference. “Here we see a wonderful diversity. This conference has always inspired and given me great hope for the work that we do to lift up all into our IBEW.”
Brother Uno’s rise to leadership is a profile in courage and determination. His success also reflects changes in the attitudes and actions of the leadership, staff and membership of the IBEW. Recently he wrote to me: “We need a labor movement with social justice at its core.”
Finding hope in Chicago.
IBEW Local 134 in Chicago was the host local for this year’s conference. Business Manager Donald Finn welcomed the delegates and invited them to an open house at their hall nearby. Brother Finn’s remarks were short but powerful. He said that the history of Local 134 was one of exclusion. He acknowledged that this approach was wrong. He stated clearly that they are working to make the union one of inclusion.
Brother Finn (pictured at right with a student at a new construction trades program) showed honesty, integrity and courage. I interviewed him about Local 134’s ongoing agreement with four Chicago high schools in poor black and Latinx communities. Union members teach an electrical shop class in each school. Course completers are guaranteed a trainee job and union membership. While working, trainees become more competitive for the apprenticeship program. Local 134 also conducts ongoing math classes to help the students/trainees improve critically needed math skills.
In each of the past two years, 16 students from Dunbar High School have joined Local 134 after completing this program. President Stephenson noted in his remarks that Bobby Rush, the African-American U.S. Representative for this part of Chicago, has recognized this important collaboration between Local 134 and Dunbar on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Dr. King once said: “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
I humbly add: “But only if we, the people, bend it.”
The IBEW, President Stephenson, the EWMC, Victor Uno, Local 134, Business Manager Donald Finn and many more in the IBEW and the EWMC are bending that moral arc day by day. It isn’t easy, but it is righteous work.