Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA




July 6, 2007

Modern-day African-Americans owe an enormous debt to the American labor movement, which helped provided funding, leadership training, and leadership itself for the African-American Freedom cause during key periods of the civil rights era.

In the modern myth-tale of the birth of the civil rights movement that we hear recited each Black History Month, Rosa Parks, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and various Montgomery church organizations get pretty much all the credit for sparking, and then organizing, the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott out of which the movement grew.

But those with good memories and/or research skills know that it was E.D. Nixon, the head of the Montgomery branch of A. Philip Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union, who was one of the key African-American leaders and organizers in Montgomery in the leadup to, and the operation of, the year long boycott.

In its recent online retrospective on the boycott, the Montgomery Advertiser says of Nixon: “Long before the famous boycott, Nixon had been campaigning for civil rights, particularly voting rights, working in the black community to get people registered to vote. He was well known for interceding on behalf of those who asked for his help with white office holders, police and other officials. He organized a group of 750 men who marched to the Montgomery County courthouse in 1940 to attempt to register to vote. He also ran for a seat on the county Democratic executive committee in 1954 and questioned candidates for the Montgomery City Commission on their position on civil rights issues the following year. Nixon is credited for helping to bail Rosa Parks out of jail.” The Advertiser begins its E.D. Nixon bio by saying that he was “affectionately dubbed as the father of the civil rights movement.”

The Sleeping Car Porters developed and/or brought to national prominence other important African-American leaders in the years leading up to the beginning of the civil rights movement, of course, among them A. Philip Randolph himself, as well as Oakland’s own C.L. Dellums, whose statue now stands in front of the Jack London Square train station, and whose nephew, Ron Dellums, sits in the Oakland mayor’s chair over at City Hall.

That is one of the reasons, perhaps, you can all but hear the anguish in the writing voice of (African-American) Oakland Tribune columnist Brenda Payton when she pauses during a recent column critical of the Oakland Police Officers Association union to say “I support unions. I'm a member of a union. I believe in workers' rights to organize. Without organized labor, I think working conditions would be worse in every industry.”

For knowledgeable African-Americans, taking a stand against the unions can, at times, feel like the same thing as going against the Black Cause itself.

At times, not, however.

There are, actually, two major ideological strands within the union movement constantly in conflict with each other—the one that sees the primary (and, perhaps, sole) work of a union is to promote the rights and welfare of the members of that particular union, the other that sees the purpose of unions is to advance the interests of the entire working class. That is something of what comprised the original split in the American labor movement—between the old American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Council of Industrial Organizations (CIO), a split that was papered over when the two groups merged into the present AFL-CIO, but was never actually reconciled.

African-American workers have, therefore, often found themselves at odds with some unions, and some aspects of the union movement. For many years during the pre-civil rights days, some unions operated a policy in which only family of union members—or those recommended by current union members—could join a union, and only union members could get jobs in certain industries. This had both the practical and, sometimes, intended effect of keeping out African-American workers—who were neither family nor recommended—from both the union and from the jobs the union represented. Then, in many instances when those old segregationist union policies were overthrown, some of those unions then promoted the “seniority rules,” in which those who had been in the unions the longest were favored during layoffs and promotions over those who had come in more recently, thus perfuming over the old anti-Black racism by lathering it down with another, more acceptable, more confusing name.

Anti-Black racism certainly plays an enormous part in the current struggles between the City of Oakland and the Oakland Police Officers Association—and if you think it doesn’t, you really haven’t been paying attention—but to fully understand the situation, you have to understand that OPOA leaders appear to demonstrate the belief that their first priority is to protect the interests of OPOA members—the Oakland police—and that priority supercedes and any other priorities which might get in the way.

That makes the role of the OPOA very different from the role of the people and entities—the mayor, the chief of police, and the City Council—now negotiating with OPOA over a new police contract. Their job—whether they do it well or poorly or, sometimes, forget it altogether—is to protect the safety and interests of the citizens of Oakland. Knowing this allows citizens to be able to interpret the various positions taken by each side, and to know how to hold who accountable for what.

That is why there should be no surprise—nor any outrage—amongst Oakland citizens following the comments of OPOA President Bob Valladon over the recent airport police transfer.

In case you missed it, Mayor Dellums and Chief Wayne Tucker announced, two weeks ago, that 15 Oakland police officers currently assigned to duty at the Oakland Airport were being reassigned to street patrol duty. Their place at the airport will be taken over by Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies.

This would seem like a good thing to most people, more police on Oakland streets for a department that has a severe shortage of patrol officers. And most people quoted in the June 20th Heather MacDonald article in the Oakland Tribune agreed, with one notable exception, Mr. Valladon.

“Oakland Police Officers Association president Bob Valladon criticized the move,” Ms. MacDonald wrote, “saying it would do nothing to reduce the time it takes officers to respond to calls from residents for help. ‘I'm 100 percent against it,’ Valladon said, adding if the union could block the change, it would. ‘It's just another bad decision by the chief.’ Valladon said city officials would come to regret the decision, calling it a Band-Aid solution.

Without understanding Mr. Valladon’s motivations and responsibilities, this seems like an odd response.

Of course, adding 15 street patrol officers to a department that is a “band-aid solution” to Oakland’s enormous violent crime problem, but that is no reason to reject it out of hand. A person with a life-threatening disease does not fall down while walking, scrape their arm on the pavement, and then normally refuse to wash out the wound and put a band-aid on it by saying, “Well, after all, it doesn’t do a thing about my cancer.” True. But it does do something about that particular bit of bleeding.

The assertion by Mr. Valladon that adding 15 additional patrol officers to street duty “would do nothing to reduce the time it takes officers to respond to calls from residents for help” is a little more problematical. If there is one more officer working the streets on a given shift, and that new officer happens to be available at the moment I place a call that someone is breaking into my car, and that officer is able to immediately respond, then that, by definition, reduces the time it takes for police to respond to my call, whoever I may be. It may not be widely felt all over the city but then, after all, it is only a band-aid, and major surgery on the patient’s other problems is yet to occur.

Once you understand that Mr. Valladon’s responsibilities are to his union members, and not to the citizens of Oakland, his response to the airport officer redeployment makes perfect sense. Some portion of his members obviously want airport duty as one of their preferred patrol options. When, after all, was the last time you heard of someone doing a drive-by or robbing a concession stand at the airport?

Meanwhile, the major surgery we earlier spoke of, a reorganization of the police department to reflect Chief Tucker’s ideas about how best to protect Oakland citizens, is at the heart of the current impasse between the City of Oakland and the OPOA over a new contract.

Some of the bare outlines of the dispute have surfaced, such as the union’s opposition to the redeployment of the airport officers, or their opposition to Mr. Tucker’s proposal to change the regular patrol shifts from four days on at 10 hours a day to three days on at 12 hours a day. Mr. Tucker asserts that this will significantly cut down on overtime pay, which is one of the things which annually throws the police department way over its allotted budget.

But will it make the city safer? I do not know, in part because the issue of possible increased officer fatigue towards the end of their 12 hour shift has not been completely explained by Mr. Tucker and his staff. That, obviously, is a part of the safety issue. But in trying to understand and determine my position on those issues, I will be listening more to Mr. Tucker’s side of the argument, and holding he, and his boss, Mr. Dellums, and the Oakland City Council responsible. It is their job to keep the citizens of Oakland safe. It is Mr. Valladon’s job to get the best possible contract deal he can for his union members, and that, my friends, is not at all the same thing.