Joslyn Williams is no stranger to the American Dream. He pursued it as a Jamaican immigrant, obtaining his bachelor’s degree at Howard University. He marched toward it in embracing the economic justice legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. And in 34 years as president of the Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO, he’s championed the right of 150,000 union brothers and sisters to live that dream with fair wages, safe working conditions, access to affordable health care and secure retirements.
As the Council’s first African American president, Williams views labor as part of a broader social and economic justice movement for racial equality. “Our movement helped Black workers see that we could accomplish more if we were inside the house rather than on the outside tearing it down.” In the process, he says, “we created a Black middle class in the nation’s capital.”
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Williams will receive the JC Turner Award for Outstanding Trades Unionist at the March 12 Evening with Labor; email [email protected] or call 202-974-8221 for tickets.
photo: Williams at 2011 demo supporting Wisconsin public sector workers; photo by Bill Burke
Thrust Into the Jim Crow South
Joslyn Williams -- Jos to his many friends -- was born on the periphery of the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, where his Jamaican father was employed. His mother died in childbirth, and Jos spent most of his formative years in Jamaica, raised by his aunt while his father sought citizenship in the United States. In 1956, a 16-year-old Jos joined his father in Little Rock, Ark.
It was the era of the historic Supreme Court desegregation ruling, Brown v. Board of Education, handed down in 1954. A year after Jos arrived, Orval Faubus, the Arkansas governor, called in the National Guard to prevent Black students from desegregating Little Rock’s Central High School. It took a presidential order and the 101st Airborne to carry out the high court’s mandate.
As a young black man, Jos witnessed the Jim Crow South’s virulent brand of racial discrimination. Worse still, he experienced it himself, in all its malevolence.
“For a young, impressionable Jamaican kid, it was traumatic,” he says.
It also set the stage for a lifetime of social advocacy and activism to create racial and economic equity.
He marched for jobs and freedom. He demonstrated against the Vietnam War, which was disproportionately killing Black men. “Dr. King made the connection between civil rights and the war,” he says.
And one night, he heard a speech by A. Philip Randolph, the trade unionist and civil rights leader. It was a revelation.
“People of my generation saw the trade union movement as an obstacle to the advancement of Blacks because the unions were seeking to keep us out of the mainstream of America,” Jos explains. “They had been good for the white middle class, but not for Black workers.”
But Randolph, leader of the powerful Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, saw the labor movement for what it could be: a path to the creation of the Black middle class. Now, Jos saw it too. And so a passionate unionist was born.
Standing Strong for All Workers
Jos has labor running through his veins. Before taking the Labor Council reins, he was the director of AFSCME Council 26, representing federal employees. At the Library of Congress, where Black employees were consigned to “taking books off the shelves to give to the librarians who were white,” he increased membership in the union threefold. He also served as the assistant director of the AFL-CIO Department of Field Mobilization, and is a former regional director of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.
Since assuming the Council presidency, he’s been a mighty voice for Washington-area unions, and especially for low- and middle-income workers. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment, and the Labor Council’s crown jewel, is the Community Services Agency, which responds to emergencies and crises confronting workers and their families. The Agency works with union locals and community, religious, student and political allies to improve the lives of workers and their families throughout the greater metro Washington area by meeting their human and social services needs off the job.
“Workers’ needs don’t end when they leave the job,” Jos says. “We recognize that they don’t shed the realities of their lives when they enter the job site. Quality of life is just as important at home and in the community as it is from 8 to 5.”
The Metro Council under Williams leadership has also built one of the biggest and most effective mobilization and communication programs in the country. With legendary labor leader Tony Mazzocchi, Williams founded the DC Labor FilmFest in 2001, one of the largest labor cultural events in the nation. During Williams’s tenure the Metro Council also established the Claimant Advocacy Program, a free legal counseling service for DC workers who file unemployment appeals in the District of Columbia.
The Labor Council is the umbrella organization for nearly 200 unions representing more than 150,000 members in the District and Maryland’s Montgomery, Prince Georges’, Charles, Calvert and Saint Mary’s counties. A consensus builder and master negotiator, Jos has been hailed as the glue holding together a sometimes scrappy and contentious lot of labor activists.
But Jos’s devotion extends beyond card-carrying members. Last year, the vigorous living wage campaign he had spearheaded for more than a decade led to passage of a minimum wage indexed to inflation—a first for the District of Columbia. Montgomery and Prince George’s counties also passed minimum wage increases on his watch.
He also pushed back against an incursion by big-box behemoth Walmart into inner-city neighborhoods, demanding that the notoriously anti-union corporation “Respect DC.” And in leading the charge to strengthen the city’s Inclusionary Zoning program, he said, “This policy has great potential to help address the needs of working people who are priced out of the District of Columbia.”
He refuses to dine at hotels whose workers are non-union. When the Montgomery County Democratic Party supported a ballot initiative to roll back bargaining rights for county police, Jos called on unions to boycott the party’s biggest fundraiser. Even though the police union isn’t part of the Council, he let it be known that friends don’t let friends vote against any union workers, saying, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”
A Global Challenge
As he prepares to pass the baton to a new Council president, Jos leaves a legacy of better pay, health benefits and job security for our union workers. But he’s not done yet.
“I am just stepping down, not stepping away from the labor movement,” says the man who has been re-elected, mostly uncontested, every three years since taking on the presidency. “It’s time for someone else to move the work forward. I plan to redirect my energy from the battles of the metropolitan Washington area to the global arena.”
He points out that today’s labor issues are eerily similar to those that existed at the dawn of the union movement in the late 19th century, a Gilded Age characterized by disproportionate wealth and extreme corruption. Then as now, hostile employers and unsympathetic governments exploited workers.
“In that era, they were lobbing vicious attacks against workers with guns and batons,” Jos says. “Today, they are armed with suits and maneuvers that undercut workers from Wall Street to the state house to the U.S. Supreme Court. Corporate giants are maintaining profits by paying workers as little as possible.”
The threat, he adds, extends beyond the United States.
“The fight is on every continent. American workers are losing jobs because employers have been given the green light to take their industries—along with wholesale exploitation of workers—overseas.”
He insists that this is no longer just an American problem. “It’s a global problem, and we need global strategies to solve it.”
Through his thoughtful leadership and burning commitment, Jos Williams helped to level the playing field for workers in the DC region. The rest of the world awaits.