Members mobilize in Minneapolis for civil and human rights

“Welcome union members, we are in your presence. Hand in hand together, we make the union strong.”

Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) President Elise Bryant led the more than 500 attendees of the USW Civil and Human Rights Conference in song to kick off the three-day triennial event in Minneapolis. The collective refrain set the tone for the massive meeting, which boasted the theme “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now—Forward As One.”

District 11 Director Emil Ramirez then took to the stage and spoke to the crowd on the importance of educating and mobilizing their fellow members to fight for the soul of the country together.

“We are a better nation than what we are witnessing today,” he said. “That should anger all people who are for fairness and justice.”

The conference featured dozens of other inspirational leaders and speakers including former Congressman and current Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, Robin Williams of the UFCW, British Columbia’s Minister of Labour Harry Bains, and Valerie Castile, mother of Philando Castile who was shot and killed by a Minnesota policeman in 2016. Philando was in his car with his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter.

After her son’s tragic murder, Valerie moved forward despite her grief to keep her son’s legacy alive by starting the Philando Castile Relief Foundation.

“It would have been so easy for me to withdraw,” she told the crowd during a panel. “But I love my son and I love my community, and I knew I had to do something.”

The lively, moving plenaries were punctuated by a variety of workshops that focused on immigrants’ rights, workplace violence, Islamophobia, LGBTQ+ equality, the Black Lives Matter movement, and more.

The large group of revved-up activists also took to the streets on Tuesday, July 23, to march to City Hall in support of legislation to prevent wage theft from workers and comprehensive reform of the broken immigration system.

“Everywhere we go we want to make it perfectly clear to the world that the United Steelworkers stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters at the southern border and we will not be quiet until justice prevails,” USW Vice President Fred Redmond said to a storm of cheers and chants.

Newly installed International President Tom Conway addressed the crisis at the border during the conference as well, calling on the labor movement to draw a line in the sand and stand with immigrants and their families as ICE raids terrorize communities across the United States.

“We’ve got to be a part of that resistance,” he said. “We are a nation of immigrants.”

Outgoing USW President Leo Gerard reiterated the union’s responsibility to calling out the crisis and fighting to make it right in a video address to the conference.

“There’s a violation of human and civil rights staring us right in the face,” he said. “The best thing we can do is mobilize our membership and educate our membership and tell them this isn’t the kind of union we are.”

The USW, Gerard said, is the kind of union that brings people together, not tears them apart.

“This union stands for justice for everybody,” he said. “Everyone is welcome into our union as they should be in our society.”

New USW Vice President at Large Roxanne Brown, the Executive Board’s first black woman, spoke to the conference on the final day about this idea of unity and about what her momentous appointment signifies.

“It’s not about me,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for all of us to lead this union. It’s about what I represent for the present and future of this union. It’s about what you represent.”

Redmond closed the conference by honoring the legendary William “Bill” Lucy, a prominent labor leader who was vital in organizing the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike. The landscape-shifting moment in labor caught the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King, who was shot and killed in the Tennessee city while supporting the workers.

Redmond also reminded the attendees of the earnestness required in the many fights the movement must take on moving forward.

“We’re living in a time that Dr. King referred to as ‘the fierce urgency of now,’” said Redmond. “We need to vigorously, and with a vicious sense of completion, make sure that we take action now. We need to move outside of our comfort zone so we as a union and as a movement can make real change.”

2019 USW Civil & Human Rights Conference

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