September 11 Digital Archive

Reparations and labor unions


Reparations and labor unions



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Reparations and labor unions

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Charles Brooks

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Amsterdam News

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As the reparations movement continues to gain momentum, activists maintain that the success of their movement rests in its ability to effectively educate and mobilize grassroots.

The Millions for Reparations rally, held in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 17, drew considerable support from Black workers who view the reparations issue as critical to their interests. They recognize that the very core of the reparations issue is the fact that Americas wealth was created by slave labor.

Ron Washington of the Black Telephone Workers for Justice said, The issue of reparations, at its very heart, is a question of stolen labor. Black workers have a key role to play and we have to step up to the forefront of this struggle. We have to make sure that our interests and our demands stamp the overall character of this struggle.

Patrick Loman, of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU Local 1199), who organized a busload of union members for the reparations rally, said theres not one major social issue that 1199 was not on the forefront of. Its by logical extension that we be involved in this rally. We believe that labor creates all the wealth that made this country today, Loman said.

Fred Mason, president of Maryland State and D.C. AFL-CIO, said that while the AFL-CIO didnt formally support the reparations rally, he believes that fundamentally, union members should support reparations.

Mason also believes that the American labor movement will grow and prosper as it continues to support reparations on two fronts: economic and social. Millions of people were forced to work without any compensation. The United Nations called it a crime against humanity. So supporting reparations is consistent with what we believe, which is that workers should be justly compensated for their labor, Mason explained.

He went on to discuss the continuing legacy of slavery that adversely impacts African-Americans, considering the disparity of wealth between Blacks and other groups. Blacks earn about three-quarters of what whites earn, Mason said.

But while Black workers are increasingly supporting reparations, theres the questions as to whether the issue will divide workers along racial lines. Labor activist Jim Haughton said hes opposed to the concept of reparations because its divisive, misleading and doesnt educate people.

America cannot reform itself from its racist past. You cant even quantify the suffering that Black people experienced. You cant put a price tag on that, Haughton said. He went on to explain that the reparations movement doesnt advance the struggle for working people. Reparations alienates working-class people because there are white, Latino and Asian workers who cannot identify with reparations. It doesnt bring unity amongst people, Haughton explained.

But he admits that the movement for reparations, addressing affordable housing, jobs, health care, education and environmental justice, is a good sign because all workers can identify those issues. It seems as if the reparations movement is moving away from quantifying the financial component of slavery to issues all people can get behind, Haughton admitted.

However, those in the labor movement who support reparations recognize the problems that would be created if the issue is not framed in the proper context. They maintain that education will be the key to mobilize support within the ranks of labor, while neutralizing any misinformation that would potentially facilitate division and tension.

Washington said its a question of tactics and strategy because the target of the reparations movement is not the everyday white worker, but the government, along with corporations and banks that profited from slavery and the slave trade. He maintains that opponents of the reparations movement are seeking to offset any unity around reparations by creating a contradiction between working-class people. We have to make that (white) worker an ally in our struggle. We cannot do that unless we are absolutely clear in defining who is they when we say that they owe us, Washington said.

Loman said that while theres some white and Latino support for reparations, theres still a lot of work to do. He told the AmNews that a clear analysis is needed to illustrate to the non-Black worker that reparations is not an issue that will pit Black workers against the non-Black worker. Mason said they have to guard against miseducation. Reparations is a righteous demand. The individual white worker should understand that slavery was wrong. Whites, Asians and Latinos need to say that it was wrong. There should not be a big divide on that question. Mason continued, But there can be a divide over the nature of the settlement, but the first step is to acknowledge that the slave trade and the transatlantic slave trade were wrong. So there is a need for education around this issue.

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“Reparations and labor unions,” September 11 Digital Archive, accessed May 27, 2024,