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Union members support ‘Justice for Trayvon Martin’

By Dave Schneider

Justice for Trayvon Martin

Jacksonville, FL – When the nearly all white jury returned with a not guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, people all around the U.S. were outraged. Outside the courtroom in Sanford, Florida some 200 protesters gathered up and issued a united call for nationwide protests, which was answered in the coming days by activists across the country.

One of these protesters in Sanford was Jared Hamil, a union member of Teamsters Local 79 out of Tampa. Holding a sign that read “Justice 4 Trayvon,” Hamil stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the other protesters, proudly wearing a Teamster pin on his shirt.

“Seeing racist discrimination at work and knowing that Trayvon was racially profiled, I saw a big connection,” said Hamil. He continued, “It goes further than just laws. Trayvon’s case shows a system of oppression that targets different nationalities in their communities and at their workplaces.”

Hamil was one of thousands of union workers around the country who joined the protests against Zimmerman’s acquittal in the streets. Two days after the verdict, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) called for “the Justice Department to immediately conduct an investigation into the civil rights violations committed against Trayvon Martin,” adding that it will take a “massive grassroots movement” to win justice.

Reverend Terry Melvin, President of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), issued an even stronger statement, saying that the verdict “sends an ominous message to the Black community – that is, white fear still trumps the value of Black life in America today – whether you wear a suit or a hoodie; whether you live in a struggling neighborhood or a gated community; whether you are minding your own business or being stalked by a stranger armed with a gun and hostility toward folks who fit a negative racial profile. This is reality, not a reality show.”

Union members have a direct connection to the struggle for justice for Trayvon Martin. Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, is an active member of Office & Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 100 and has worked at the Miami-Dade County Housing Authority for over 23 years. In a powerful showing of union solidarity after her son was murdered, 192 of Fulton’s co-workers donated $40,825 hours’ worth of vacation time to assist the grieving family.

Many unions and labor organizations supported the outpouring of protesters demanding the arrest of Zimmerman. In Tallahassee, the Big Bend Labor Chapter passed a strongly worded resolution condemning the shooting of Trayvon Martin and “[supporting] coalition partners in their actions to demand justice.” On a national level, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists had Trayvon Martin’s parents speak to the delegates, who received them with roaring applause and calls for justice.

For many union members, the struggle for justice for Trayvon Martin and civil rights goes hand-in-hand with the struggle in the workplace. Warren Smith, a member of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) Local 1408 in Jacksonville and an active leader in the local CBTU chapter, said, “Union members have learned through the years that the right to organize is directly tied to one’s civil rights. What human can work and call themselves truly free in a place where they can’t even walk home safely from the corner store?” Smith continued, “Seeing this, we feel compelled to take arms and ensure justice for Trayvon and by doing so, we ensure a measure of justice for ourselves.”

On July 22, Smith and other union members in Jacksonville did just that. Members from the Longshoremen, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the International Association of Machinists, and AFSCME provided water, food, coolers and supplies to protesters marching from Jacksonville to Sanford to demand justice for Trayvon Martin. The five-day march, called “Walk for Dignity – Enough is Enough”, will span the nearly 120 miles between the two Florida cities. Jacksonville unions took up the call to feed and support the protesters.

Progressive labor unions are part of the African American freedom struggle in the South. The Congress of Industrial Organizations rose to prominence by organizing African American workers in the Black Belt South, in defiance of Jim Crow repression. Civil rights leaders like A. Philip Randolph worked heavily in the unions to fight against job discrimination and unequal pay. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was brutally assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee just a day after supporting the striking African American sanitation workers of AFSCME Local 1733 as a part of his Poor People’s Campaign.

In the struggle for justice for Trayvon Martin in 2013, the history of unions fighting against racism and national oppression remains alive and well. Speaking to his experience on the shop floor, Hamil said, “Where I work, African Americans are constantly harassed and disciplined by managers. I went to Sanford to fight for justice for Trayvon and all other oppressed nationalities who live under this oppressive system. More than just showing solidarity, this was about getting up to the gates of the courthouse to struggle alongside everyone else fighting for freedom in this country.”

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