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Black workers building links, fighting back

On this week's episode of Talking Radical Radio, Scott Neigh speaks with Mark Brown about the work of the Canadian chapter of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU). The CBTU brings together Black workers from across the labour movement and across the country to fight against racism and all of the other forms of oppression with which it intersects, both within the labour movement and in the broader society.

It is a truism but worth noting nonetheless: human institutions are always a product of the society in which they exist. Where the fabric of that society is woven through with particular kinds of injustices and oppressions, so too is the functioning of institutions within that society.

So for all that they are important vehicles for working people to collectively struggle to meet their needs and exert power over their conditions, this is no less true of unions than of any other kind of institution. Just as there are long histories of Black people, Indigenous people, people of colour, disabled people, women, queer people, trans people, and people at the various intersections of those identities being marginalized in the context of Canadian society as a whole, so there are also histories of them experiencing marginalization within the labour movement.

To respond to this reality, groups of workers who share some form of marginalization beyond simply their status as workers have for a long time now come together, formally or informally, to challenge that marginalization and to work for justice.

Take, for instance, Black workers in Canada. In the more distant past, they were completely prevented from joining unions. In more recent decades, they and other racialized workers have been members of many unions in many places, but they have been un- or underrepresented in leadership roles, and their experiences and struggles have not always been reflected in labour's practices, priorities, and demands. Organizing by Black workers and other workers of colour has accomplished a lot over the decades to challenge and change this, but there is much work still to do.

One important vehicle through which that organizing by Black workers has happened has been the Canadian chapter of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. The CBTU has existed in the United States since the 1970s, and the network of Black union members that later became the CBTU chapter in Canada has been active since at least the 1980s, though the roots of Black labour activism go back many more decades than that.

The group is active in challenging anti-Black racism, along with all of the other experiences of oppression with which it intersects, both within the labour movement itself and, in conjunction with community groups like Black Lives Matter, in the broader community. They also do things like run a children's camp, provide scholarships, mobilize Black voters during elections, publicly commemorate past victories against slavery and racism, and regularly bring Black workers together to discuss issues and to plan political action.

Mark Brown is a member of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, the chair of the Equity Committee of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council, and the social media officer of the CBTU in Canada. He speaks with me about some of the history of organizing within the labour movement by Black workers, about the role and work of the CBTU, and about the important political challenges facing Black trade unionists today.

For more information on the work of the Canadian chapter of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, click here.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada. We give you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow us on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact scottneigh@talkingradical.ca to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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