Labor Joins NAACP In Celebrating Centennial

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[On Labor]

Birthdays and anniversaries are a time for celebration and reflection.

The NAACP’s centennial convention in New York City offered an opportunity to reflect on the historic partnership that exists between organized labor and the NAACP.

It is a partnership nurtured by a shared belief that both labor and the NAACP must serve as champions for those who lack a voice in our society. And, it is a partnership born from our shared fight for equality in education and justice in the workplace.

In education, both national teachers unions – the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association—worked closely with NAACP attorney and, later, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall to overturn segregation in the nation’s public schools.

In 1953, both unions joined the legal case of Brown v. Board of Education in support of the NAACP, arguing that an educated citizenry is essential to the preservation of a democratic society, and that to exercise the right to vote effectively, Black Americans must not only be educated, but be educated among all those within their community.

The Supreme Court, of course, agreed, ruling in favor of integration and concluding decisively that the doctrine of “separate but equal” had no place in public education.

The partnership is rooted in the workplace as well. Organized labor and the NAACP both understand that as long as workers are denied decent wages and benefits and the fair treatment they deserve, the founding fathers’ promise of equal opportunity for all cannot be met.

The fight for workers’ rights and civil rights has always been inseparable. It’s important, after all, to recall why the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis in April 1968. He was there helping to lead a strike by 1,300 Black sanitation workers over unfair treatment. There is no doubt that Dr. King gave his life for the cause of both civil rights and the right of workers to economic justice.

Along with his sisters and brothers in the labor movement, Dr. King clearly understood that it didn’t matter whether you had the right to sit at the front of the bus or at the lunch counter if you couldn’t afford the bus fare or the lunch.

The struggle for economic and educational justice continues today. While there has certainly been great progress, no one would declare our work anywhere near complete.

In education, we have made significant progress toward ensuring that children of color receive the same educational opportunities as other children, yet a large gap in funding for schools that serve minority students and a large gap in achievement remains. More than 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education, that is to America’s shame.

And, yes, more African Americans are graduating college than ever before. The earning power of African-Americans — especially those in unions — is on the rise. Still, the poverty rate, unemployment rate, and drop-out rate among African-Americans remain far higher than for whites, and fewer African-Americans own homes, have health insurance or receive a pension.

For the NAACP, celebrating 100 years as a powerful, grassroots organization is a magnificent achievement, but neither organized labor nor the NAACP plans on resting any time soon.  

Together, we will continue to fight for the rights of working families, always remembering that the fight for economic justice and social justice is rooted in an equal educational opportunity for all.

Mr. Iannuzzi is president of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers.


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