Know Your Labor History. Black Americans have played a significant role in our country, and we celebrate their achievements during February. They have been major players in the labor movement, and because of their strength, intelligence and determination, unions became empowered and people throughout the nation benefited from their efforts.
In PEF, the first African-American to be elected was Connie Cabell, as secretary-treasurer in 1979 in John Kraemer’s administration. Tonee Chillis was PEF’s first black vice president, working with President Howard Shafer. Booker Ingram held the position of PEF trustee in 1991 and was re-elected in 1994. Ingram also served as the council leader at the state Division of Human Rights and was a political activist. And throughout PEF’s history, African-American men and women have held lead roles as vice presidents, secretary-treasurer, regional coordinators and chief negotiator. But it wasn’t until 2015, that a black parole officer, Wayne Spence, was elected to lead PEF’s 54,000 members.
Following are other notable African-American labor leaders of our time.
Arlene Holt Baker rose to the position of executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, being the third top leader of the union with 11.5 million members from a federation of 56 national and international labor unions. She started her labor career as an organizer and California area director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. As executive vice president, Holt Baker continues to use her voice, platform and leadership skills to advocate for the rights of workers to organize, health care reform, fair trade, immigrant rights, LGBTQ rights, voting rights, and the right for all union members to be able to fully participate in democratic unions that reflect the rich diversity of the workplace. Holt Baker has said, “Economic empowerment occurs through collective bargaining and having a voice at work.”
William Burrus was the first African-American to be elected president by the membership of a national union in direct balloting in 2001. He led the American Postal Workers Union, one of the single largest bargaining units in the United States. It comprises more than 280,000 clerk, maintenance and motor vehicle employees who work in 37,000 facilities. It also represents private-sector mail workers. Burrus was re-elected to a third term in 2007, receiving more than 77 percent of the votes cast and capturing a majority in every state. He retired at the end of his term in 2010, but remained in the postal loop with his blog until 2013, when he decided to shut it down.
General Holiefield became the United Auto Workers (UAW) vice president in 2009. He joined the UAW in 1973 when he worked at Chrysler’s Jefferson Assembly Plant in Detroit. He is remembered for his shrewd negotiation strategies that took place in 2009 between the U.S. government and Chrysler. He retired from the UAW after serving two four-year terms as vice president and the union’s lead negotiator in the 2007 and 2011 negotiations. He died in March 2016 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
Gerald (Gerry) Hudson was a member of the Service Employees International Union in 1978 when he worked at the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale, NY. He was elected executive vice president for the former District 1199 in 1989. He spent more than a dozen years supervising 1199’s political action, education, publications and cultural affairs departments in New York. He coordinated the merger of the 30,000 member Local 144 into SEIU/1199. He is currently secretary-treasurer at SEIU and has been honored by the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations for his extraordinary leadership. He continues to have wide-ranging influence on the fight to improve the lives of working families and addressing urban sprawl and the disproportionate affects on low-income and minority communities.
Dr. Lorretta Johnson worked for $2.25 an hour in 1966 as a teacher’s aide at a Baltimore elementary school and subsequently organized the Baltimore Teachers Union. Over the years, she served as chief negotiator for union contracts. In 2008, Johnson was elected executive vice-president of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents 1.5 million members in approximately 3,000 local affiliates and 43 state affiliates, and is now AFT secretary-treasurer. She chaired the AFT Racial Equity Task Force, leading the AFT to become the first public-sector union in modern history to issue a substantive, action-oriented report on achieving racial equity in America.
Albert R. Mixon joined the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in 1977 as a factory worker. By 2003, he was president of his local and secretary-treasurer. He rose to the position on the Teamsters Executive Board six years later and was elected vice president. He was re-elected in 2008 to a second term and served until 2016. The 21 industrial divisions of the teamsters have more than 1.4 million members.
Rebecca (Becky) Pringle served on the Board of Directors for the Pennsylvania State Education Association before accepting the position of secretary-treasurer and then vice president at the National Education Association (NEA). She received 92 percent of the votes when she ran for vice president, and became part of NEA’s historic all-minority, all-female leadership team. President Barack Obama named Pringle a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans. She has been vocal in the effort to limit federal testing requirements, and chaired the NEA’s Policy Statement on Teacher Evaluation and Accountability.
A. Philip Randolph founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first African-American labor union in 1925, and became vice president of the AFL-CIO 30 years later. Because of Randolph’s efforts to abolish discrimination, President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order that ended race, color, creed and national origin bias in the hiring of workers in the defense industry and federal government, and created black membership in federal unions.
Fred Redmond is the international vice president of human affairs for the United Steelworkers. He joined the union when he worked at Reynolds Metals Company in McCook, IL. In 1973, he quickly became an active member of Local 3911, served as shop steward, grievance committee member and later three terms as president. In 1996, he was appointed to the international staff, servicing locals in the Chicago area. Two years later, he was transferred to the USW International headquarters in Pittsburgh, working in the Membership Development Department. In 2002, Redmond was appointed assistant director of District 7, where he served until his election as international vice president for human affairs.
Clyde Rivers served as Association president from 2001 to 2005, representing the California School Employees Association (CSEA) on the AFL-CIO Executive Council. In 2001, Rivers led CSEA members to join the AFL-CIO. Prior to 2001, CSEA had operated as an independent union from 1927. Rivers also served as a member of the California Labor Federation (CLF) Executive Board from 2001 through 2014. CSEA members voted to join the CLF, becoming one of its largest units. Rivers received the “Eye On The Prize” Labor Award from the AFL-CIO at a 2005 convention commemorating the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Robert Roach Jr. was general vice president of transportation at the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IMA), and is a member of its Executive Council. He joined the IMA as a ramp serviceman for Trans World Airlines and a member of Local Lodge 1056 in New York. He was elected shop steward in 1976 and served as a grievance committee chairman from 1979 to 1992. Roach earned a Bachelor of Science degree in labor and management relations at the Empire State Labor College and graduated from Cornell U. School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
Diann Woodard is serving her second term as the president of the American Federation of School Administrators (AFSA), which has 20,000 members, represents public school principals, vice-principals, administrators and supervisors. She grew up in a United Auto Workers family and worked as a teacher and assistant principal in Detroit’s public school system, before devoting her time to AFSA. In 2008, she was elected to serve an eight-year term as a trustee of Michigan State University. She also sits on the National AFL-CIO Executive Board, serves as a board member of the labor school at Wayne State University, and the labor board of the National Income Life Insurance Company. — By DEBORAH A. MILES
AROUND THE NATION – Events were held nationwide to honor the work of one of the most revered civil rights activists of our time, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. PEF members were invited to a music, dance and poetry event held at the University of Rochester Medical Center, sponsored by 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, and to various locations where speakers such as the Rev. Harvey Clemons talked about Dr. King’s leadership of the Modern American Civil Rights Movement. Films were shown in libraries and schools, including “At The River I Stand,” sponsored by PEF and other area labor organizations. At the Empire State Plaza in Albany, a memorial observance was held to remind people of all ethnic background how Dr. King spoke about the nation being not diminished, but enlarged due to the labor movement. — Deborah Miles, Graphic by Paul Seeger
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