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Labor and Progressives Should Work for Justice in Ferguson

Jamelle Bouie/flickr

Ferguson, Mo., Police Chief Tom Jackson last week apologized to the family of unarmed African-American teen Michael Brown.

Brown was fatally shot by a cop in August, but a grand jury is still deliberating and the FBI is still investigating.

Besides such a crawl toward justice, Brown’s killing may reveal the results of economic disparity and political disenfranchisement, and the challenge to and response by labor and progressive groups.

However, complaints that unions are not weighing in on the tragedy and aren’t doing enough organizing around the demand that cop killings of unarmed people must stop overlook the obvious engagement by some, even though the question has some merit in the larger progressive community.

After all, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Missouri AFL-CIO President Mike Louis have both spoken forcefully about the situation, as has the St. Louis Labor Council, plus American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 72, the American Federation of Government Employees, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1, and others.

This horrendous act is not as simple as the case of Trayvon Martin, another unarmed African-American teen gunned down, by a violent vigilante who wasn’t even going to be arrested, much less tried, if not for an organized outcry. Instead, the Ferguson killing was by a policeman – a union member, Trumka noted – and it exemplifies an entrenched set of questionable practices by law enforcement around St. Louis and the nation, and the consequences of an eroding middle class.

Ferguson, North St. Louis County and all its communities have suffered decades of economic disinvestment, loss of manufacturing jobs and massive disruption by highway construction and airport expansion, the St. Louis American newspaper editorialized, writing, “The mortgage bubble really burst in these areas, with rampant home foreclosures. Large retail areas have been abandoned. Disillusionment, resentment and tension set in where economic opportunities, recreation and thriving businesses once flourished.”

Communications Workers of America Local 6355 President Bradley Harmon told Press Associates, Inc. that the rate of unemployment among young black men in the St. Louis area is extraordinarily high – 47 percent – and Brown was a graduate of Normandy High School in a struggling school district that’s been taken over by the state and is in the process of being privatized. Harmon said, “These are issues that are at the heart of the labor movement.”

Bill Knight

Civil rights groups have been active, as have clergy. For instance, a group of about 100 religious leaders marched from Clayton, Mo., to the office of St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCullough to demand an expedited grand jury hearing and the arrest of the shooter, Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. En route, Protestant ministers, Catholic priests and representatives of various faiths demonstrated, repeating the episode’s stark phrase, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” But rather than asking, “Where is labor?” in almost an accusatory way, critics might legitimately wonder where the National Organization for Women is, or, Amnesty International, reproductive rights activists, the Occupy movement, climate justice people, or even public figures such as Major League Baseball players and “Cardinal Nation.”

Writing about demands on athletes to publicly insist on stopping such tragedies, Nation magazine sports editor Dave Zirin said, “We need the full weight of [all] these organizations. We need them using their reservoirs of power, money and influence to demilitarize police departments, demand civilian review boards for the police and stop the violence. We need them showing the true meaning of solidarity; the idea that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and our struggles are conjoined.”

The Rev. Martin Rafanan, co-chair of the St. Louis Workers Rights Board of Jobs with Justice and community director for Show Me $15, the fast-food workers advocacy group, linked the killing and economic inequality.

Such injustice, Rafanan said, is “held in place by structural oppression based on race, class and human identities. Without the ability to have the resources to meet basic human needs, take care of families, and create opportunity and dignity in our neighborhoods, Ferguson will happen over and over again. The wealth in the nation is going to capital rather than workers, and that must change.”

Labor is involved, as it must be – as must all progressives.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.

Contact Bill at; his twice-weekly columns are archived at