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Home » Officer Columns » Executive Board Members » Racism and Labor: Important Training to Eliminate Racism from Our Union

Racism and Labor: Important Training to Eliminate Racism from Our Union

  -  AFM International Vice President

For some time, the Officer Education Committee, which I chair, has been working in conjunction with the Diversity Committee to put together a training program for AFM leadership, senior staff, local officers, and boards. This will eventually flow through AFM leadership to our members at large. The AFM, as well as most unions over our long histories, have not always dealt well with the issue of racism in our ranks. Our Diversity Committee has been in place for over 20 years, and despite their best efforts, and the efforts of other segments of our organization, institutional racism, and implicit bias remain a challenge. We must prioritize this work.

To that end, we set up a training program with the Washington State Labor Council (WSLC), which has done great work in conjunction with Bill Fletcher Jr. He is an activist who has focused on racism in labor for many years and has written extensively on the subject. One of his writings that’s central to this training is a booklet called “Race to Labor: Can Organized Labor Be an Agent of Socialized and Economic Justice?” An audiovisual presentation that also speaks to this can be found online. If you want links to either of these, feel free to contact me ( and I’ll forward them to you.

This training recently took place during two four-hour sessions with two trainers from the WSLC. The “train the trainer” program will allow us to replicate the training throughout our union. Attendees included: AFM President Ray Hair, Diversity Committee members Tracey Whitney, president of Local 618 (Albuquerque, NM); Edmond Velasco, president of Local 7 (Orange County, CA); and Varun Vyas, secretary-treasurer of Local 571 (Halifax, NS); International Executive Board member Tina Morrison of Local 105 (Spokane, WA); Organizing & Education Division Director Michael Manley; Faith Nolan of Local 1000 (nongeographic); and myself.

It’s important to understand that, in the context of this training, race is not a biological distinction. This is made clear when you look at it in the historical context. According to Fletcher, we can trace “race” back to the late 1400s in Spain and the 1500s in England. The colonization of the Americas led to full implementation of racism in North America. There are alternate ways to define racism, but for the purposes of this training, we focused on this definition: “Racism is a system of oppression, designed to divide the working class, so the wealthy elite can consolidate their wealth and power at the very top.”

The training focuses on five distinct manifestations of racism: malicious, coded, routine/cultural, systemic/institutional, and strategic. All these pieces fit together, and if we are able to interrupt one, we have the ability to disrupt the entire system.

Here’s a quick overview of each:

Malicious—Ugly, violent and socially destructive, burning crosses and white hoods, hurtful words, and angry comments. It’s easy to identify and easy to condemn.

Coded—Works by invoking racial stereotypes. It’s coded because politicians deploy these stereotypes without expressly mentioning race.

Routine/Cultural—For most of us, racism is routine, forming part of our everyday understanding of the world, even for people who mean well, and even for people of color.

Systemic/Institutional—Institutions (education, health care, unions, school to prison pipeline) support the systems and contribute to and reinforce racist systems.

Strategic—The decision to manipulate the racial fears and hatred of others for selfish ends. The “strategy” is to divide and conquer, and it has been at the core of American politics for the last half-century, if not longer.

Using these manifestations as a starting point, the rest of the training dives into work in identifying these manifestations in our daily lives and provides the tools to actively fight to eliminate them from our activities. We have all experienced or been a part of racism in the workplace, but few of us are able to identify all of the ways it presents itself. To be able to make real, cultural change, we have to see it in all of its forms.

This is a quick overview of what is coming. We are focused on ensuring this training will be a safe and secure place for difficult conversations that need to happen, so that we can, once and for all, start to unpack and repair all the damage that has been done and fix the prejudicial systems and attitudes that have been in place for far too long. It is beyond time to make real change and live up to our nations’ declaration: “… that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

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