Labor Unions and Al Sharpton: An Enduring Partnership

Labor unions in this country are engines of egalitarian policy and its most potent political vehicle, the Democratic Party. As the party platform heavily overlaps with that of demagogic black identity politicians, most of all, Al Sharpton, labor leaders have become prominent supporters of Sharpton and his New York-based nonprofit, National Action Network (NAN). The bond was very much in evidence at Manhattan’s Sheraton Times Square Hotel last Friday afternoon on a discussion panel, “The State of American Labor Unions Today,” one of nearly 30 held during the NAN annual convention of April 13-16. Despite a couple of key no-shows, the speakers gave the mostly black crowd what it wanted: a rousing call for union organizing, welfare state expansion and “anti-racist” activism.

Labor and civil rights activists long have marched hand in hand, literally as well as figuratively. Unions provided ammunition for civil rights federal legislation of a half-century or more ago. Most Americans may not be aware of it, but the August 28, 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his defining “I Have a Dream” speech, was as much a rally for trade unionism as for civil rights. The event was formally known as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, with an emphasis on the word “Jobs.” And though King was the marquee speaker, organized labor made it all possible. The leaders were: Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers; A. Philip Randolph, founder-president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and a vice president of the AFL-CIO; and Bayard Rustin, head of the AFL-CIO’s A. Philip Randolph Institute. King’s fateful visits to Memphis in 1968 were in response to a request from local black ministers to support an American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) campaign to organize black city sanitation workers. And a decade ago, as I explained in a Special Report for National Legal and Policy Center, unions were joining forces with “anti-racist” revolutionaries to oppose American military involvement in the Middle East.

Al Sharpton knows all this. That’s why one of the panels of the National Action Network four-day extravaganza last week consisted of partisan union officials and their allies. He also knows that blacks constitute a disproportionately large share of the unionized work force.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 13.6 percent of all U.S. black workers in 2015 belonged to a labor union. The respective percentages for whites, Asians and Hispanics were 10.8 percent, 9.8 percent and 9.4 percent. In the New York City labor force, according to a recent City University of New York study, the black union density rate is nearly 40 percent. The principal speaker was J. David Cox (in photo, on right), national president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). Cox, whose Washington, D.C.-based union represents roughly 675,000 federal and District of Columbia government workers, expressed the belief that most social problems in this country could be solved with large increases in union membership. Unions, he argued, are the primary drivers of social progress and the natural allies of racial minorities and women. Cox stridently denounced the recent challenge by Rebecca Friedrichs and her co-plaintiff teachers to the longstanding public-sector union practice of forcing nonmember workers to pay partial dues, also known as “agency fees.” Late in March, the U.S. Supreme Court, deadlocked at 4-4, declined to issue a ruling in that California case, effectively upholding a dismissal by a federal appeals court.

Others spoke with combativeness as well. Jill Furillo, executive director of the New York State Nurses Association, spoke of her organization’s successful campaign to prevent hospital closings, singling out National Action Network for praise in siding with union workers. She declared: “We must be advocates for communities.” Brianne Gorod, chief counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit legal group, the Constitutional Accountability Center, echoed union positions on economic issues. “It’s time to give America a raise,” she said. “People need a raise, whether or not they belong to a union.” Gorod, like Cox, expressed relief over the U.S. Supreme Court non-ruling in Friedrichs and anger over the fact that the plaintiffs even had been given standing in the case. Henry Garrido, executive director of the New York City area’s AFSCME District Council 37, was even more combustible. “There is an open war on labor in this country,” he declared. As an example, he cited the recent passage by the State of West Virginia of a Right to Work law designed to protect private-sector workers from mandatory dues contributions. The Right to Work idea, he added, originated decades ago with a known “white racist” (which, even if true, is utterly irrelevant to the Right to Work principle). He also skewered the Wisconsin public-sector reform law of 2011, claiming, without attribution, that it has led to drastic cuts in wages and benefits, and a doubling of fatal workplace accidents. Shane Harris, a black San Diego pastor and head of the National Action Network chapter in that city, offered loud if not necessarily persuasive commentary. He argued unions should be seen as human rights organizations, not simply labor organizations. Unions, he argued, are a reflection of a struggle for moral justice in every aspect of life and thus require everyone’s support.

The panel might have been even more heated had a pair of listed invitees shown up: Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and George Gresham, president of Service Employees International Union Local 1199, which now represents more than 400,000 health care workers in New York City and elsewhere in East Coast states. These are two of the most powerful union leaders in the country. The AFT, as much as any union could, supported Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign of 2008. And it is working overtime to get her elected this time around. SEIU Local 1199 provided crucial help on behalf of the Obama White House in securing congressional passage of the Affordable Care Act of 2010. The interests of public-sector labor chieftains and National Action Network are, for all intents and purposes, identical. That’s why the AFGE, AFSCME, AFT, SEIU and New York State Nurses Association each helped bankroll last week’s NAN convention. And, by no coincidence, that’s why NAN set up a labor issues panel for top representatives of these very organizations.

Unions, especially public-sector unions, are moving ever further leftward, especially on racial issues. Al Sharpton knows who his friends are. Thanks to union support, Reverend Al and his allies are more equipped than ever to launch campaigns against “racist” targets. National Action Network might benefit, but the nation as a whole surely won’t.


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