How AFSCME is tackling racial and economic justice

by Naomi Walker
Assistant to the President
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees

As a longtime advocate for workers, I’m not sure how I ended up on the mailing list for a publication called Responsive Philanthropy, but somehow I did. The lead article in my first issue was, “Tackling Racial Justice: Why, How and So What” by Tamara Copeland, president of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers (WRAG). My union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), had just spent a year focusing on issues of race; so I was drawn to the article. I thought that WRAG’s work could inform ours on the intersection between racial and economic justice.

AFSCME has a longstanding commitment to civil rights. One-third of our members are people of color, and many have been feeling extremely raw after the events in Ferguson, Baltimore and New York City along with the recent toxic political debates around issues of race, religion, and gender. We also represent public safety officers who feel scapegoated and stigmatized.

Early last year, AFSCME President Lee Saunders appointed an internal Racial Justice and Public Safety Work Group. The group came together for two intensive face-to-face meetings, the first of which was held in Memphis at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. By meeting there, we grounded our work in the history of racial discrimination in our nation and in the history of our union. Tragically, Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis occurred while he was supporting an AFSCME strike of sanitation workers.

Through a series of meetings, trainings, and intense conversations, the work group grappled with implicit bias, the challenges facing public safety officers, and the vast economic and racial disparities that show up in everything from wages to retirement security. The resulting resolution passed unanimously at AFSCME’s International Convention reaffirming our union’s deep commitment to racial and economic justice.

Throughout the process, participants said that they did not want the resolution to become “just another piece of paper sitting on the shelf.” Now, the difficult work begins of implementing the campaign laid out in that piece of paper. We want to be informed by other organizations like WRAG. We want to learn what strategies are working and what to avoid. We know that it will take networks like WRAG, unions like AFSCME, and many others, to keep the discussion of racial and economic justice on the table and to achieve real change in our country.

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