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Labor Movement and Civil Rights, Intricately Intertwined

By Colleen Chandler
September 2005

James Andrews
James Andrews, president of the North Carolina AFL-CIO, speaks to NIEHS employees Aug. 26. Union membership in North Carolina is at 2.7 percent, the lowest in the nation, Andrews said. (Photo by Steve McCaw, Image Associates)

James Andrews, president of the North Carolina AFL-CIO, is a war veteran. Besides the time he served in the military, which resulted in a Purple Heart, he is a veteran of a different kind of war - the American civil rights movement. Civil rights issues and unions issues are based on the same principles and face the same challenges. They are inextricably intertwined, he said.

Andrews served as outreach director for the state AFL-CIO, then as secretary-treasurer for 13 years. He was the first African-American to be elected as full-time president in the history of the AFL-CIO in the United States. He still holds that position. Andrews was at NIEHS Aug. 26 to make a presentation, "The Labor Movement and Civil Rights." The NIEHS Diversity Council, the American Federation of Government Employees Local 2923, and NIEHS sponsored the presentation.

AFGE is one of the unions under the umbrella of AFL-CIO, a voluntary federation of national and international labor unions. The AFGE Local 2923 and the North Carolina AFL-CIO sometimes join forces to coordinate legislative policy, political activity, member education and other shared interests, said Bill Jirles, vice president of AFGE Local 2923. Jirles said there are about 200 members of AFGE Local 2923. Professionals, supervisors and confidential employees are ineligible to join under the current agreement, Jirles said.

In his presentation, Andrews said organized labor and civil rights have always operated hand-in-hand. Just as organization and solidarity gave the civil rights movement collective power, they also fuel the labor movement, he said. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "What affects one, affects all." That message, Andrews said, was right at the time, and it is right today.

Andrews recited the following list of basic needs from a King speech:

  • Decent wages
  • Fair working conditions
  • Livable housing
  • Old-age security
  • Health and welfare measures
  • Conditions in which a family can grow
  • Education for children
  • Respect in the community

Those needs still apply to both civil rights and organized labor, he said. Andrews quoted Samuel Gompers, the first president of the AFL when asked what labor unions want: "We want more schoolhouses, less jails; more books, less arsenals; more learning, less vice; more leisure, less greed; more justice, less revenge. In fact, more of an opportunity to cultivate our nature to make manhood more noble, womanhood more beautiful and childhood more happy and bright."

As the global marketplace develops, Andrews said, both civil rights and organized labor movements will need to become global issues. But, he said, there is still plenty of work to do at home, since there are new ways to deprive people of their rights - both civil and in regards to union membership - today that did not exist in the late 1950s or early 1960s. There are still places in the United States, where employees are intimidated into rejecting union affiliation.

For Labor Day, Andrews asked that people reflect on the sacrifices and contributions made, including the ultimate sacrifice of death for doing what the law says they have a right to do. He urged people to find something to do that will contribute to the collective power of organized labor. It is, after all, labor unions that gave us the Labor Day holiday, he said. For more information, or to find out if you are eligible to join AFGE, contact Jirles at 541-2637.

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