Ever since her first participation in a grassroots movement defending undocumented students at her alma mater, UC Santa Cruz, Tiffany Dena Loftin — racial justice program coordinator of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the largest federation of unions in the United States — has been committed to representing the voice of the people.
“After finding out that undocumented students at my college could possibly not attend higher education anymore because their out-of-state student fees were going up, I felt really committed to helping another community and identity,” she said during a keynote address of the annual ILR Union days this Wednesday. “We did protests, we did sit ins and we ended up pushing back and fighting back, not only for the agenda of affordability for students, but also for worker’s rights on campus.”
“It was my first real victory and it felt really good,” Loftlin added.
After graduating with a degree in political science and ethnic studies, she worked for a variety of labor organizations before landing a job at the AFL-CIO. There, she conducts and manages the Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice — a project to address racism and inequality and empower workers of color.
Loftin emphasized the need for the labor movement to adapt to changing times in order to remain a relevant voice for workers when combating challenges like racial tensions, rising economic inequality and demographic shifts.
Specifically, Loftin criticized the labor movement for its lack of diversity, especially at the leadership level, saying the movement is “headed by old white men.” This has led to cultural close-mindedness within labor movements, which have compromised participants of color within the group, according to Loftin.
“It’s hard for folks who are organizing people of color within any labor movement, but specifically the AFL-CIO, when you belong to the labor movement, but you feel that the labor movement does not respond to you,” Loftin said.
Loftin added that such racial tensions within large unions have affected relations with various racial justice groups, Black Lives Matter in particular.
“If you look at the Black Lives Matter website, [it] has a lot of things on their website about collective bargaining and about supporting unions,” she said. “But the labor movements’ websites say nothing about supporting Black Lives Matter.”
Loftin also discussed how events, such as the election and the shooting of Michael Brown, caused a rift within the AFL-CIO.
“We had a split in the union after the murder of Michael Brown happened, because you had police officer Darren Wilson, who was a member of the union, and Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, was also a member of the union,” she said.
Talking about the future of the labor movement, Loftin cited right-to-work legislation as the driving force behind decreased participation within unions.
“One of the biggest causes for the decrease in Union membership is the right-to-work legislation taking over the country,” Loftin said. “Right-to-work laws greatly reduce the ability for unions to collectively bargain. This legislation is often times included in states’ constitutions, which makes it very hard to reverse.”
She added that people need to be reminded about the progress made by unions, and how that progress has increased societal quality of life.
“Folks don’t know the value of why unions are important and we have to remind people of things we take for granted, such as the weekend, which were brought to us by unions,” Loftin said.
Finally, Loftin asserted that unions can best be a force for societal equality with dynamic and diverse leadership.
“I think the best way to advance feminist work and racial justice work is to put more women and people of color in charge. It’s not just the labor movement, but the progressive movement in general, of we want to see more folks talk about our agenda, we have to be the ones to bring them to the front of the table,” she said.