Black Transit Worker Campaigns to Increase Diversity in Union Leadership

Black Transit Worker Campaigns to Increase Diversity in Union Leadership

By Stacy M. Brown (NNPA Newswire Contributor)

Keith Bullock, a bus operator for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), wants to transform the leadership of his local union and push for greater diversity in top labor positions nationwide.

According to a 2013 report by the Labor Center at the University of California at Berkeley, Black workers are more likely to join unions than non-Blacks.

“These differences were magnified when limiting the analysis to the ten most populous metropolitan areas in the United States. Among U. S. workers, Blacks were 19 percent more likely to belong to unions than non-Blacks; however, among workers in the largest metropolitan areas, Blacks were 42 percent more likely to belong to unions compared to non-Blacks,” the report said.

In the northeast, union density for Black workers is 23.8 percent compared to 16.5 percent for non-Black workers.

Bullock, born and raised in Southeast, Washington, D.C., is campaigning to become the next Recording Secretary in the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents operators, clerical, paratransit and maintenance workers in the Washington D.C. area transit system. The position is one of three elected positions in the powerful union.

The election is scheduled for Sept. 21.

“Labor unions have taken a kind of twist in the route to bringing together individuals,” said Bullock, who has worked for more than 11 years in transit and served as union shop steward and executive board member for Local 689. “Today, the union leadership is more a ‘me’ and ‘my’ attitude.”

While Bullock campaigns for a leadership position in his Washington, D.C.-based union, the election has far-reaching implications for other trade groups.

In 2015, the Black Labor Collaborative, a group of influential African-American leaders from major labor organization, released a white paper that said, “Black workers have been, for the working class as a whole, the canary in the mine…What befalls the Black worker inevitably confronts the bulk of the working class.”

The paper also suggested that the, “the Achilles’ heel of organized labor has been its failure to respond to attacks on Black workers and its inability ‘to recognize that the Black working class is, indeed, a component of the larger working class and not some marginal category.’”

Bullock said that the powers-that-be are more concerned with maintaining power than they are about the workers. During elections, Bullock said that group leaders will run a five-person slate for office, tying all of the positions together to form, “a clique where there’s no accountability.”

The married father of five wants to push for greater transparency in leadership, increase benefits and improve the quality of life of his fellow transit workers in the region.

Bullock’s mission is to ward off attacks on pensions, ensure adequate and affordable health care and fair wages for workers and to provide solutions for inclusive management and employee relations.

His appreciation of history can also be an advantage, as Bullock noted the distinct ties that labor unions have with the Civil Rights Movement.

“I know that during the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s there was strong solidarity and support from the leadership of the AFL-CIO with Dr. Martin Luther King and the Southern Leadership Conference,” Bullock said, noting that King’s assassination in Memphis occurred during a struggle over the labor rights of primarily African-American sanitation workers.

Bullock said that the unions adopted some of the organizing traits that became prominent during the Civil Rights Movement, but at times, union leadership has taken their eye off the ball.

“We kind of lost our focus,” said Bullock. “Once people get into leadership positions, it seems they become like management, like elitists, and that’s the wrong attitude to have, because the struggle continues every day.

Bullock continued: “You can never get to a point where you are satisfied and think you have done all that you can do. You have to keep your eye on the ball and know where you are going and how you’re going to get there because otherwise you’ll be lost.”

Since the Civil Right Movement, the membership of trade unions has grown in racial and ethnic diversity, but that demographic shift has not translated to increased diversity among the top leadership in the trade union movement in the U.S.

“Our leadership is majority White and, when you look at it, I don’t think we have a Black person that oversees an international union, so it’s still very much a struggle to have minorities in particular positions,” Bullock said. “We’re on the frontlines, but behind the scenes, there are a lot of Caucasians.”

In addition to union leadership inclusion, Bullock said he’d like to see more African-American and Latinos strive to be owners of the various businesses that contract with and service the mass transit industry. Just as it is important to increase access for Blacks and Latinos to land jobs in the transit system, it is also vital that minorities ultimately become employers and owners.

Just 5 percent of Blacks born in the U.S. are self-employed in America, compared to 11 percent of U.S.-born Whites, according to the Pew Research Center.

Still, Bullock expressed great concern about the future of unions.

In recent years, state laws crafted to make it harder for workers to organize and changes in public sentiment have contributed to a decline in union membership.

“I’m concerned for the future. I work alongside guys whose parents have worked [in transportation] for 30 years,” said Bullock. “The fight is to preserve what’s important and the fight is to not allow bad decision-making and mismanagement to derail us.”

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