Bankole: In Benton Harbor, labor’s interests run counter to blacks

Bankole Thompson

The Michigan Education Association, which represents teachers in Benton Harbor, was among the first labor groups to publicly advocate shutting down the Benton Harbor High School for poor academic and financial performance. Releasing a full-blown endorsement of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s initial plan to end high schooling in a majority black city, Paula Herbart, the president of the MEA, praised the governor’s proposal which to many represents an ultimatum.

Poppy Sias-Hernandez, regional director of community affairs for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, talks with local minister Don McAfee at Benton Harbor High School, which the state says must close to salvage the struggling district.

“While the proposal put forth is not ideal, it’s the best solution for students and families — far better than closing down Benton Harbor’s schools and leaving that community, its students and its school employees without options,” Herbart said in a May 24 release. “This is a bold solution that will put Benton Harbor students on a path to success. The MEA is ready to partner with our local members, the local school board, surrounding districts, Lake Michigan College, and everyone else who wants to ensure Benton Harbor students and educators can thrive.”

The MEA’s audacious position was declared before Benton Harbor became a hotly debated topic in the news, underscoring how the interest of unions have sometimes conflicted with the real issues of inequality that resonate in black communities. No matter the present state of black-labor relations for some, the stance that the MEA took in Benton Harbor hearkens back to the days when labor straddled the fence by paying lip service on racial equality issues.

The MEA may view Benton Harbor strictly through the lens of academic performance. But the fact is the racial components of its educational crisis cannot be ignored and must be taken into serious consideration when addressing the fiasco. In fact, the statement it released in support of Whitmer’s plan made no mention of the racial demographics of the city.

“I am really disappointed in how the unions have treated us during this time. Right now, we need labor unions to stand with us, but they’ve decided to back away and switch sides in the middle of the race,” said Benton Harbor’s Rev. Edward Pinkney. “It is time for us to take a stand against unions that are not willing to help us when we need them. This is about the future of the black community in Benton Harbor.”

As we drove around Benton Harbor last week, Pinkney showed me his house with a front porch covered with protest signs, which gives the impression that it is the headquarters of the labor union in Benton Harbor. But that is his true activist nature.

“I’ve always been on the front line for labor,” Pinkney said. “I remember many times when they would come knock on my door, sit at my kitchen table and ask me to support them on some major issues. The teachers themselves would come in and ask for my help when they are getting laid off or face threat of their contracts not been renewed.”

Pinkney added, “What black people need here right now is not what labor is fighting for.”

Pinkney said what is happening in Benton Harbor is a lesson on the need to hold labor accountable in their romance with black voters.

“We have to draw a line in the sand,” Pinkney said. “I am extremely disappointed in the way they’ve acted toward us. That is why we have to hold them to account.”

Last week MEA members descended on Lansing to demand more funding for public education. The sea of predominantly white union members standing behind Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II was striking. The photo did not look like Michigan’s diverse communities. It looked like an image taken from a different era. They were not there to keep Benton Harbor’s high school open so that black students in that city won’t be displaced.

Now that the governor appears to be backing down from the stringent proposal to close the school in a recent interview with the Associated Press, we’ll see if the MEA will take a different position.