By Mark Brown
Imagine for a moment observing a Labour organization’s National convention. The President is at the front of the room standing behind a podium opening the convention. The Executive Board members are seated on both sides of the President. Imagine a Sergeant of arms at the entrance to the convention floor insuring that everyone who enters has the proper credentials for delegate status. Imagine the delegates seated behind tables on the convention floor eagerly awaiting the opportunity to debate resolutions and set priorities for the work of the organization for the upcoming term. Finally picture everyone in the equation being African Canadian or African American. If that wasn’t enough, then imagine a significant part of this Labour organization’s leadership being ordained Pentecostal or Baptist ministers. This is The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU).
The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists was founded in 1972 by William (Bill) Lucy, Nelson (Jack) Edwards, William Simons, Charles A. Hayes and Cleveland Robinson. That was the year that over 1,200 black union officials and rank and file members who represented thirty-seven different international and national unions, met in Chicago for two days to discuss the role of black trade unionists in the labour movement. It was out of those discussions and the racial tensions within the United States Labour movement at that time that the Coalition of Black Trade Unionist (CBTU) was born.
Today, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionist (CBTU) is the largest union Coalition of its kind with 54 chapters across the United States and one chapter in Ontario Canada. The Ontario Canada chapter includes members from all across Canada who are themselves members of both public and private sector Unions.
The Ontario Canada Chapter is headed up by Chapter President Yolanda McClean. Yolanda McClean was acclaimed as the Ontario Chapter president after former President Janice Gairey retired.
Chris Wilson is a lawyer and an International Executive Board Member of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. When asked the question “what does the CBTU Ontario Canada chapter do for Canadians?” Chris said, “The CBTU Ontario Canada chapter provides a voice for workers of African descent to advocate within the labour movement on issues that are important to our community. CBTU Ontario Canada promotes social justice trade unionism that links black liberation struggles to class struggles.
At the 2012 National Convention Terry L. Melvin was elected as the new National President chosen to lead the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. Terry Melvin is also the secretary-treasurer of the powerful New York State AFL-CIO. The AFL-CIO is the United States counterpart to the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) which represents over one million workers in Canada. According to the CBTU’s national website Terry Melvin is an ordained Baptist Minister. He serves as Associate Minister and Assistant to the Pastor at Second Baptist Church, Lackawanna, New York.
He is a graduate of the Rochester Center for Theological and Biblical Studies with a Bachelor’s Degree in Ministry. Terry Melvin succeeds William (Bill) Lucy, the iconic labor leader who had held the position since he co-founded the CBTU in 1972.
Terry Melvin is a familiar face within the Canadian Labour movement recently being the Keynote speaker at the Toronto and York Regions Labour Council’s Aboriginal & Worker of Colour Conference in May of 2016.
According to the CBTU’s mission statement posted on its national website the objectives of the CBTU are to:
- Improve economic development and employment opportunities for black workers.
- Work within the framework of the trade union movement to provide a voice and vehicle for greater black and minority participation.
- Increase union involvement in voter registration, voter education and voter turnout projects.
- Organize unorganized workers.
- Actively support civil rights and civic groups working to improve living and working conditions in the black community.
- And increase effective political alliances between labor, churches and the general community.
During the most recent federal elections in Canada, CBTU’s Ontario chapter working closely with the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) organized and conducted meetings throughout Ontario entitled “Black Vote Matters”. These meetings brought together African Canadian women, men, the young and the seasoned and motivated them to vote in the upcoming Federal election. The CBTU is a strong ally with the Black Lives Matter movement in both Canada and the Unites States and the Zero Gun Violence Movement in Canada. According to CBTU Ontario’s Facebook page the Zero Gun Violence Movement is a community organization that works with other community organizations across Toronto in an effort to engage young people and communities in a campaign to solve the root causes that contribute to gun violence.
Earlier it was mentioned that a significant portion of the national leadership of the CBTU were ordained Pentecostal or Baptist ministers. As such the agenda of the CBTU’s National convention often includes both a church service Sunday morning and gospel concert. Both of which are held on the convention floor and often officiated by the leadership of the organization. The CBTU Ontario chapter President Yolanda McClean is herself a member of the CBTU gospel choir.
The cohesion between organized labour, elected officials and the church is what differentiates CBTU from other labour coalitions. One speaker at a previous convention described the relationship this way: “If you went into a church service and asked for a show of hands of all the people that belong to a trade union, a significant portion of the congregation would raise their hand. If you then went to a union meeting and asked how many belonged to a church, the same people would raise their hand again”.
African Canadian Union members from across Canada converged in Washington DC. last week, May 26-30, 2016, for the CBTU International Convention.
Mark Brown is the Chair of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council’s Equity Committee, a member of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionist (CBTU) and a member of the Toronto Local of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. He can be reached at www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000658149978.