By: Jeff Darby, president of the Sabine Area Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO
The American Federation of Labor Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) is the largest labor union federation in the United States of America, founded in 1955 as a merger of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Over 60 unions are members of the AFL-CIO.
The AFL-CIO has chartered over 600 Central Labor Councils (CLCs) throughout the nation. These CLCs (and Area Labor Federations, or ALFs in larger metropolitan areas such as Houston) are the voice of the AFL-CIO in a particular geographical area.
The Sabine Area Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO received its charter from the AFL-CIO in 1957 to serve as the voice of the AFL-CIO in Jefferson, Orange, Hardin, Tyler, Jasper and Newton counties, plus Chambers and Liberty counties east of the Trinity River. All unions chartered by the AFL-CIO and have members in these counties can and should join the Sabine Area Central Labor Council (Sabine Area CLC).
I write today as President of the Sabine Area CLC as part of the AFL-CIO National Day of Action. The AFL-CIO General Board (under the leadership of AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka) called for a National Day of Action to be held June 3 to make the American people aware of the problems that COVID-19 have inflicted upon working people. Due to the nationwide and worldwide protests since the murder of Houston native George Floyd on May 25, the AFL-CIO rescheduled the National Day of Action to June 17 and broadened its scope to include our failure to fully attain the demands of the United States Constitution concerning the civil and political rights of all Americans.
I am a trained historian (BA in History from Lamar University, Class of 1988) and believe that the history of the American labor movement can show us ways to address the issues affecting working people, including health care and human rights.
Health Care and Occupational Safety and Health
Health care should be viewed as a fundamental human right, just like safe drinking water. Less than a century ago, some in this country viewed city water and sewer service as “a slippery slope to socialism” (note, some politicians called themselves “Sewer Socialists” around 100 years ago). Today, safe drinking water is as controversial as apple pie. The AFL demanded safe drinking water for all Americans and worked for that cause.
The main issue in American health care is “Who is going to pay for this?” Many unions have negotiated very good health care benefits for their members and their members’ families. At times, these increases in health care benefits came at the expense of frozen wages. These union sisters and brothers should not be expected to give up these health care benefits in return for a health care plan “to be named later”.
Other workers are employed with companies that have limited or no health care benefits and/or poor safety and health rules at work. Many in the so-called “gig economy” are not even considered employees but rather “independent contractors”. COVID-19 have exposed these issues. Although the virus does not care what one’s politics, religion, or socioeconomic status is, an inordinate amount of its victims seems to be poor, old, and from minority groups.
This country must come together and solve the issues of health care financing and of occupational safety and health. For decades, the AFL-CIO has worked to expand health care in this country by advocating for Medicare, Medicaid, the spread of health care benefits, and better occupational safety and health standards that will protect all.
Along with safety and health standards and enforcement must come Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE. Companies must provide PPE for anyone who works in the health care field, but also in food service and basically anyone working in the public or in an office setting. COVID-19 has changed our lives.
The American Experiment (our Constitution from 1787 as amended along with all of the laws, court decisions, and rules) is definitely a work in progress. Those of us who enforce laws know that they just do not enforce themselves. The same is true with our Constitution and laws. We must take the words on paper and turn them into reality.
The savage treatment of George Floyd at the knee of a now-former Minneapolis police officer shows this. The proliferation of video cameras has shown for an unbelieving nation what our black sisters and brothers have been saying for years about their treatment at the hands of a very few in law enforcement.
I believe you. I am sorry it took this long to get through my thick skull.
We must make this country a place that truly has “liberty and justice for all”. One of our national mottos is “E Pluribus Unum”, Latin for “Out of Many, One”. Americans are not a single ethnic group: we are a gumbo of many ingredients that tastes the best when we come together through the heat and seasoning.
The Constitution applies to all Americans. It is not for any gender, ethnicity, national origin, religion, or political belief. A black man has the same right to have a decent job and the same right to drive or walk down the street as any other American.
Our law enforcement professionals take an oath just like the other civil officers and the military in our country. First and foremost is an oath to support the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to bear true faith and allegiance to the same. I took that oath on my first day as a Federal investigator on October 10, 1989 and am under that oath today. Those of us under that oath have special responsibilities to see that the Constitution reigns supreme in our body politic.
It is true that a very small percentage of police officers have done wrong. It is also true that a very small percentage of protesters have turned into rioters. It is equally unfair to besmirch all police officers as “crooked” as it is to call all protesters “rioters, looters, and thugs”. Do not judge the many by the actions of a very few.
Words of Wisdom from AFL President Samuel Gompers
Samuel Gompers was President of the AFL from 1886 to 1895, and from 1896 until his death in San Antonio on December 13, 1924. Some of his many quotes are as meaningful now as when he wrote them over 100 years ago. Here are three of his quotes. I have modified one of the quotes with financial figures that make more sense today (I multiplied the dollar amounts by 100 to be more in line with the value of the dollar in 1890 versus 2020).
“The man who receives $500,000 a year wants $600,000 a year (note: the original quote was $5000 and $6000), and the man who has $80 million will want $10 million more to make it $100 million (note: the original quote was $800,000 and $100,000 to make it $1 million), while the man who has his billions (note: the original quote was millions) will want everything he can lay his hands on and then raise his voice against the poor devil who wants $10 more a day (note: the original quote was 10 cents).” From his speech “What Does the Working Man Want?” (speech); Louisville, KY; May 1890.
“And what have our unions done? What do they aim to do? To improve the standard of life, to uproot ignorance and foster education, to instill character, manhood and independent spirit among our people; to bring about a recognition of the interdependence of man upon his fellow man. We aim to establish a normal work-day, to take the children from the factory and workshop and give them the opportunity of the school and the play-ground. In a word, our unions strive to lighten toil, educate their members, make their homes more cheerful, and in every way contribute an earnest effort toward making life the better worth living.” Samuel Gompers, “Gompers Speaks for Labor”; McClure’s Magazine, February 1912, page 376.
“What does labor want? We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures.” The Shoe Workers’ Journal, Volume 16 (1915), page 4.
We have come a long way but we are not there yet. Let’s go!
Jeff Darby is a resident of Nederland. He is President of the Sabine Area Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, the voice of the AFL-CIO in Southeast Texas representing nearly 10,000 members in around 20 different unions.