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POLITICAL SALSA Y MÁS with SAL BALDENEGRO 8.23.15
Unions and civil rights go together
AFSCME filed a grievance against Pima Community College.
Worker-rights and civil-rights dynamics often intersect. An example of the symbiotic relationship that often exists between unions and civil rights is a grievance that the public employee union AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees) filed against Tucson’s Pima Community College (PCC).
Some background: In 2013, Pima Community College was placed on probation by its accrediting agency, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), due to the unethical actions of PCC’s administration and Governing Board. This included ignoring sexual harassment complaints filed by employees and creating a hostile workplace through “a culture of fear and retribution.”
The Higher Learning Commission is the accrediting agency for Pima Community College.
The credentials of the student support personnel was not an issue for the HLC. Yet, in a sucker punch announcement to student support services staff, PCC administration claimed that the HLC is mandating that PCC student support personnel possess a B.A. degree. AFSCME and others contacted HLC asking for clarification. In response, HLC made it clear that HLC did not mandate that PCC’s student support staff must possess a B.A. degree.
HLC’s clarification notwithstanding, PCC continues to insist that HLC is behind PCC’s move. In a cynical attempt to appear “reasonable,” PCC gave a “window of opportunity” for staff to obtain their B.A. degree. PCC has the employees’ personnel files and knows full well that the affected workers cannot earn a B.A. degree in the allotted time.
Putting a real-life face on the situation: as a consequence of PCC’s lie, 37 employees (some with decades of years of experience) will be displaced by PCC’s action.
Pima College threatens to displace 37 employees.
AFSCME has submitted a grievance regarding this, seeking to protect the affected employees from what AFSCME characterizes as PCC’s “cruel and capricious” action. The grievance also has a civil-rights dimension in that the overwhelming majority of the personnel who will be displaced by PCC’s action are members of protected classes: women and Mexican Americans: of the 37 employees affected, 32—86%—are women and 28—76%—are Mexican American.
Unions and civil rights go together
Historically, in Arizona unions and civil rights go together. In fact, Arizona’s anti-union “right to work” law can be traced in part to the mining unions—led by the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers (IUMMSW),
Arizona miners have been in the forefront of the civil rights struggle.
which became the United Steelworkers (USW)—standing with Mexican American miners who were being discriminated against. In the 1930s-1940s, the unions were aggressively recruiting Mexican Americans into their ranks, and they fought to eliminate the “Mexican” wage, in which Mexican Americans were paid less than whites for the same jobs. This ended the division of workers and the exploitation of Mexican-Americans and made the unions bigger and stronger.
At about this time, the Associated Farmers of Arizona (AFA) were shaken when in 1938 lettuce and strawberry pickers (the overwhelming majority of whom were of Mexican descent) went on strike in the Phoenix area and tried to unionize. Alarmed by the growth of unions, the tearing down of the “Mexican” wage, and the farm worker strikes, AFA and other political and business interests launched an aggressive campaign that depicted unionists as gangsters and criminals. As a result, a right-to-work provision was added
Miner’s unions also fought housing discrimination.
to the Arizona Constitution in 1946.
Besides fighting the “Mexican” wage, the unions—particularly the IUMMSW and the USW—in Arizona’s mining towns fought against segregated housing policies and the common Arizona practice of allowing children of Mexican descent to swim in public pools only one day a week, after the white kids had used the pool for six days.
On a national level…
In September of 1963, the “March for Jobs and Freedom” took place in Washington, D.C. to press for the passage of President Kennedy’s civil rights bill. Unions played a key role in that historic civil-rights event. Of the 200,000 participants, 50,000 were unionists from all across the country. AFSCME Council No. 37 from New York City chartered a special train that took an estimated 2,500 members to the march. The Director of the March was A. Philip Randolph, President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, AFL-CIO vice president, and representative of the Negro American Labor Council (NALC). United Auto Workers President Walter P. Reuther,
Unions played a key role in the March for Jobs and Freedom.
also an AFL-CIO vice president, was one of the 10 March leaders.
In February, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, 1,300 black sanitation workers went on strike under the auspices of AFSCME. The strikers focused as much on the racial dimension of the situation—discrimination against black workers—as on the labor issues, safety and dangerous working conditions. Local black organizations that supported the strikers formed Community on the Move for Equality (COME). The AFSCME sanitation workers strike came to represent the broader struggle for equality within Memphis, where a disproportionate number of black residents lived in poverty. Due to COME’s efforts, the strike grew into a major civil rights struggle, attracting the attention of the NAACP, the national news media, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. Martin Luther King supported AFSCME sanitation workers.
On April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Memphis to support the striking AFSCME sanitation workers. That evening, he delivered his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. The next day, he was assassinated.
The United Farm Workers union movement led by César Chávez was as much a civil-rights phenomenon as a labor one. So much so that Chávez and the UFW helped inspire the dynamic and life-changing Chicano civil-rights movement of the 1960s-1970s.
The fighting culture of unions-civil rights continues…
Senator Alfredo Gutierrez hails from the mining town of Miami, Arizona.
The culture of people standing up for what’s right that the unions fomented in Arizona’s mining towns has had far-reaching effects. One of these is that these mining towns produced some of Arizona’s outstanding civil-rights leadership. Many of these are still active in the fight for workers’ rights and against discriminatory policies and practices. And along with the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers and the United Steelworkers, AFSCME, the protagonist in the Pima Community College fight, has been in the forefront of this tradition and culture of unions being involved in civil-rights struggles.
When SB 1070, the law that mandated racial profiling of “Mexican looking” people, was passed in Arizona, a movement to fight it immediately sprung up. AFSCME members and leaders were very visible in that movement as they were when we fought HB 2281, which outlawed the teaching of Mexican American history and literature in Arizona schools, and when the Tucson
AFSCME was involved in the fight against SB 1070.
Unified School District eliminated its successful Mexican American Studies (MAS) program and banned the books used in MAS classes. To be sure, other unions also stood with us in these and other struggles. Recently, two local barrios fought off an attempt to gentrify them. The first organization to come out and publicly support the barrios was the United Steelworkers union.
And as we speak, in the state of Washington an independent union of indigenous farm workers, Familias Unidas Por La Justicia, led by Triqui and Mixteca harvest workers, are waging a fight for justice—including boycott and strike actions—against the Sakuma Brothers Berry Farms. In addition to their fight for labor rights for farm workers, Familias Unidas is active in the anti-deportation and immigrant civil-rights struggles.
The Higher Learning Commission demanded that Pima College stop its “inaccurate communications.”
Indeed, unions and civil rights go together. AFSCME’s grievance against Pima Community College exemplifies that historical and symbiotic relationship.
Postscript: Just as I was submitting my blog, the PCC Chancellor issued an email about the situation. HLC became aware of the situation from sources other than PCC and told the PCC Chancellor that PCC is putting out “…inaccurate communications” relative to the issue of staff credentials and that, “It is important that you clarify with your staff and your community any misconception there might be with regard to the Commission’s requirements in this regard and that you do so as soon as possible.”
Most significantly, HLC told the PCC Chancellor that HLC actions and concerns relative to credentials “…in no way apply to staff members at (PCC); they apply to faculty only.” HLC confirmed what the workers, AFSCME, and their community supporters have been saying all along.
Power to AFSCME and the workers—they won this round! But everything is not yet resolved. AFSCME, the employees, and the community need to remain vigilant. c/s
Copyright 2015 by Salomon Baldenegro. To contact Sal write: email@example.com