By Aswad Walker
Though Labor Day 2023 has come and gone, the resurgent fight for labor rights continues. From sea to shining sea, in every industry imaginable, workers are raising their voices, demanding fair wages, access to an increased share in company profits, improved benefits, safer working conditions, an end to the racial and gender pay gaps, and more.
But with CEO salaries reaching record highs while annual real wages (average salaries adjusted for inflation) decreasing, the question many are asking is, “Who is fighting for the rights of workers”?
One of those fighters is Claude Cummings, a Houston native and Kashmere High School alum, who in July was elected president of one of the nation’s largest unions, the Communications Workers of America. Cummings leads the CWA’s 700,000 private and public sector workers who make up arguably America’s most diverse union, with not just communications and information industry professionals, but also workers in news media, airlines, broadcast and cable television, public service, higher education, health care, manufacturing, high tech and more.
Cummings, one of three Black men leading some of the nation’s largest unions, is on a mission to let members of the growing national labor movement, and those yet to join, that unions fight for Black workers and all workers.
Cummings shared with the Defender a story about a worker who experienced a heat stroke on the job, was admitted to a hospital and died.
“No one called his mother,” said Cummings. “[She] did not even know that her son was in a hospital; found out nothing about him until he had passed away. That was an un-unionized contractor that allowed that to happen.”
Cummings contends what unions offer workers greatly minimizes that a heat stroke would ever happen to a worker in the first place.
“On unionized jobs, you get a right to take a break. On unionized jobs, you have an opportunity to take a lunch. On unionized jobs, you can take off sick if you want to. On unionized jobs, you can take a vacation. On unionized jobs, you got a pension. In unionized jobs, you have healthcare. Un-unionized jobs don’t have all of that. And, what I think unions have failed to do, which I’m gonna change in CWA, is we don’t brag enough about what we have done to help workers in this country,” shared Cummings, who believes unions even help workers who aren’t members.
“Even unorganized workers get holidays off. Unorganized workers get weekends off. Unorganized workers get better pay, because of unions. When unions get good pay, all boats rise,” he shared.
The current tsunami of worker strikes across the country shows that workers are fighting for rising boats in the midst of reduced real wages and benefits while the CEO-to-worker pay ratio is near an all-time high, at 272-to-1. For context, the average salaries of Black women ($40,500) and Black men ($43,000) per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, equates to CEO salaries of $11 million and $11.7 million respectively. And those salaries don’t include additional bonus, benefits and incentive packages.
Fred Redmond, secretary-treasurer of the 12.5 million-member AFL-CIO and its 60 unions, wants people to recognize that the “why” behind the March on Washington (for Jobs and Freedom), which was organized by prominent Black labor leaders A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, requires committed action today.
“Electoral districts are being redrawn to weaken the voting power of Black communities. There are fewer and fewer polling places in Black neighborhoods. Black voters are being intimidated, and are often the target of misinformation and disinformation campaigns. Corporate-backed lawmakers have introduced dangerous bills that limit the voting rights of the most vulnerable in our society — including women, young adults, communities of color, and LGBTQ+ people. They have weakened labor laws so that workers have less of a voice on the job and rigged the rules of the economy in favor of the wealthy and corporations and corporate interests,” Redmon said, calling workers to action.
Essence Senior News & Politics Editor Malaika Jabali and Houston-native actor Kendrick Sampson (“Insecure,” “How to Get Away With Murder,” etc.). are two millennials of many using their voices and vocations to push for worker rights and economic justice.
Jabali is not only a growing national and international voice on worker rights and economic justice, she takes on the economic system of capitalism head-on. She has a book set to be published on Oct. 24 titled, “It’s Not You, It’s Capitalism: Why It’s Time to Break up and How to Move On.”
“Labor Day is rooted in the radical movements that gave us workers’ rights…and against the capitalists who still fight to take them away, like how illegal child labor has been up 69% since 2018,” Jabali recently “tweeted.”
Jabali, an award-winning journalist, policy attorney and self-described “life-long socialist,” fights to remove the stigma associated with the term and get people to look at our commitment to capitalism like a relationship gone horribly wrong.
“We are all in a generations-long toxic relationship with capitalism, and it is time to get the hell out of there and move along,” she says, describing the focus of her book.
Jabali recently interviewed Sampson for Essence and focused on the actor’s leadership role in the Screen Actors Guild and Writers Guild of America “Hollywood strike” seeking full-time jobs and profit-sharing.
Sampson shared that despite Hollywood’s glitz and glamour, most actors are not only perpetually unemployed, they make on average less than $24,000 a year, the earnings needed for them to qualify for healthcare.
“I could be a guest star on three different hit shows and not qualify for healthcare,” Sampson told Jabali.
The National Urban League, headed for the past 20 years by CEO Marc Morial, was founded to fight for the economic health of Black people and others. And they do so via a myriad of programs and initiatives.
During the NUL’s 2023 national convention in Houston, Morial highlighted one of his organization’s national partnerships.
“For more than 60 years, the Department of Labor has been a central partner of the National Urban League supporting various forms of job training, job preparation, and job connection programs,” said Morial before introducing conference speaker Julie Su, the acting labor secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor.
Su noted the Department of Labor invested $20 million in the NUL to partner with labor unions to expand apprenticeship readiness programs, an important move since, according to Su, because
“Labor force participation is higher for Black workers than for white workers right now… Black workers and especially Black women are powering our economic recovery.”
Su said the Biden-Harris administration is putting a huge emphasis on enforcement of laws in place to protect workers.
“Black workers still face some of the greatest inequities in our workforce by almost every measure; by pay, access to opportunity, occupational segregation, and by wealth… We are using every tool in our toolbox to protect workers from wage theft, to keep them safe on the job, to fight discrimination, and to protect their hard-earned pensions, which help families build intergenerational wealth. We can’t build the inclusive economy we envision until we start closing the racial wealth gap.”