Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice

“It’s more than a racial problem; economics, education, and social justice are all connected, the labor movement needs to address the race problem.” — Lorretta Johnson, AFT


On a Saturday afternoon in August 2014, 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr. was fatally shot and killed by 28-year-old police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. This was the third killing of an unarmed black man by police officers in as many weeks. Eric Garner suffocated in an illegal chokehold in New York City. John Crawford, a new father, was killed in an Ohio Walmart while waiting to purchase a pellet gun. Each incident was captured on video and shared widely on social media. During a weekend of protests in Ferguson, emails and calls from our affiliates, central labor councils and constituency groups poured into our Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Department asking, “What do we do? How do we respond?”
The story of race and labor in America starts with the treatment of black workers in the South. That region’s cultural isolation from, but continuing political and economic influence on the rest of the country continues to this day. When African Americans moved north in the 20th century over the course of two world wars and the Great Depression, they found more personal freedom—but they also found ongoing discrimination and unequal access to economic opportunities. In the decades between the two wars, business interests deliberately used race and ethnic differences to undermine labor unity. Some unions responded by embracing integration; others resisted.

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