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Extend the Unity That Helped End the Dispute

October 22, 2000|MIGUEL CONTRERAS and CECIL MURRAY | Miguel Contreras is executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. The Rev. Cecil Murray is pastor of First American Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles

Much has been written about the recently concluded strike by about 4,400 Metropolitan Transportation Authority drivers in Los Angeles. One story that has not been told is how unprecedented solidarity and cooperation between the Latino and African American communities proved an unbeatable force that produced victory for the workers in the end.

Such teamwork has not always been the case. Even though they are usually on the same side of most issues, the relationship between blacks and browns in poor neighborhoods has too often been marked by tension and conflict. Those tensions find their roots in part with the dramatic growth of Latinos in areas that were traditionally African American. Most pundits expected the MTA strike to be yet another battleground.

Drivers represented by the United Transportation Union were roughly 50% African American, 30% Latino and 20% white. The system's 450,000 riders are predominantly immigrant and Latino. Yet instead of a recipe for further inter-racial turmoil, the MTA walkouts saw labor, community and religious leaders and activists uniting in common cause behind the strikers. And that phenomenon could forever change the landscape of Los Angeles.

In recent years, the L.A. labor movement has been on the cutting edge of mobilizing working families to organize and participate in politics. In 1999, more than 91,000 L.A.-area workers joined unions, including 75,000 mostly minority home care workers. This year, janitors struggling to free themselves from poverty won a major strike that set the tone for janitor victories across the country. Last June, more than 20,000 workers jammed the Los Angeles Sports Arena to rally for immigrant rights.

Historically, both Latinos and African Americans have been strong supporters of labor's battles, but rarely in recent memory have they come together in a united front. The MTA strike was a unique opportunity for them to pave new ground. That unity took many forms. On picket lines, African American and Latino workers walked side by side. At rallies, African American ministers and clergy who serve the Latino community led prayers in support of striking workers. Politicians from the two groups came forward to pledge support and hold legislative hearings.

Although the strike clearly could have exacerbated black-brown tensions, because half the drivers are African American and a huge number of those who were inconvenienced the most by the walkouts were Latinos, that didn't happen. While understandably upset, riders saw their priests, ministers, political and community leaders denouncing MTA management and backing the drivers' cause. And for the most part, riders turned their anger on the power brokers from the MTA's Board of Directors rather than the strikers.

The unity we achieved during the strike bore victory for the MTA workers and their families. Now we must apply the power of that unity to addressing the broader social and economic problems facing the city. Los Angeles is sadly a bastion of poverty in the U.S. It is the poster child for workers without health insurance. It is among the cities that lead in homelessness. During the past 10 years, more than 1 million new residents have officially joined the ranks of the poor in our community. The MTA strike showed that when working-class communities of color in Los Angeles unite and join with others who are concerned with the plight of the working poor, it is a formidable force. Now our challenge is to keep it going.

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