Just Harvest honors AFL-CIO’s first Black VP

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With national elections just weeks away, Arlene Holt Baker is only half joking when she calls this time of year her “busy season.” But the two-term executive vice president of the AFL-CIO isn’t too busy to fly across the country and speak at the 21st annual Harvest Celebration Dinner, the major fundraising event for Just Harvest.

RallyCall
RALLYING CALL—Keynote speaker and AFL-CIO Vice President Arlene Holt Baker urges guests at the Oct. 12 Harvest Celebration Dinner to continue the fight for economic justice. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

“Just Harvest’s work is impressive, not just its direct service, but its focus on public policy and helping people get ahead,” she said. “More than just giving someone a bottle of milk, it’s about having the economic ability to get good sustainable jobs.”

Baker has been a union advocate for more than 30 years. Growing up in a poor Texas community, she didn’t come to her leadership position through the conventional labor union route, but from the government union AFSCME.

“I wasn’t intending to be an administrator. But with my passion for equality and justice, it was just a natural path,” she said.

Recently Baker has been working on the foreclosure crisis and Wall Street regulatory reform.

“They got us into this mess and they have to pay,” she said. “It’s an issue all over the country. My office is in Washington, D.C. So I am lobbying. But my duties are broad, so I actually spend about a quarter of the time out traveling the country, working with progressive advocacy and community groups.”

Naturally, part of her advocacy involves trying to get more workers into unions.

“Workers of color in unions make more money and have better healthcare. We talk about union advantage. Interestingly, polling shows women and people of color are more likely to form unions. We try to make sure people understand there is a place for every worker. So to the degree I can be a role model, it’s great.”

Currently, she said the AFL-CIO is targeting election contests in 22 states. Legislatively, Baker said the Employee Free Choice Act is still a priority.

“We are pushing them to bring it up after the election, so stay tuned,” she said. “We think it is very important. It’s been delayed, but workers will not be denied.”

Baker’s keynote address covered several of these points, with her focus remaining on community support.

“You’ve got to ensure those safety nets are there, especially as our states struggle with debt,” she said. “They are under attack, so we must fight to keep them. We’re not about making Wall Street work, we’re about making sure main street works.”

Following her address, the United Steelworkers and Just Harvest honored Baker with the George Becker Memorial Award for her dedication to the cause of economic justice. Just Harvest also honored Joni Rabinowitz, who retired after 34 years as Just Harvest’s co-director of public policy advocacy. A veteran of the voting rights struggle in Georgia in the 1960s, Rabinowitz was given the Seeds of Justice Award for her more than 50 years of fighting for peace, labor rights, women’s rights, welfare rights and civil liberties.

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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