This snapshot of Constituency Groups of Color was done as a project in LABOR 480 by Anita Zeng. Anita partnered with the WSLC to connect with union members participating in Constituency Groups of Color regarding their experiences in the labor movement.

I would like to thank Kasi Perreira, the Director of Racial and Gender Justice at the Washington State Labor Council (WSLC) for connecting me to members of the Constituency Groups of Color. I also want to thank all interview participants, and their Constituency Groups for sharing their experiences with me and allowing me to capture their thoughts and stories in this article, which I hope serves as a historical marker in the future.

- Anita Zeng, Author, and Bridges Center Research Assistant


For much of its history, the labor movement has been dominated by white male workers and excluded those who weren’t, such as women, people of color, and immigrants. However, those excluded groups have fought for their inclusion and empowerment for just as long as they’ve been excluded. For instance, A. Philip Randolph, the namesake of one of the constituency groups of color – the A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI) – created the first Black-led union in 1925 with the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Even today, workers of color continue to fight for recognition and inclusion in the labor movement.

As a result, there have been initiatives in Washington State to give recognition to groups such as the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), AFL-CIO, and Coalition of Black Trade Unionists International (CBTU), led by leaders within those groups. Sparked by the outbreak of protests following the murder of George Floyd and the ongoing need to unite racial and economic justice within the labor movement, these constituency groups of color have started discussions and built relationships with each other, meeting monthly. I was fortunate enough to be able to sit in on one of these meetings and saw representatives share relevant issues and updates, ask for support, and engage in conversation. Sharing the goals of promoting racial justice and ensuring the well-being of workers of color, the constituency groups of color seek to build cross-racial solidarity and strengthen the fight for racial justice. Other initiatives, such as the recent proposal of a MLK Labor Racial Justice Task Force which would seek to implement an anti-racist analysis of MLK Labor and its affiliated groups and develop recommendations, have also promoted solidarity and contributed to centering discussions of racial justice alongside economic justice.

To learn more about the constituency groups of color leading the charge for racial equity justice within the labor movement, I interviewed three people from APALA and CBTU: Amy Leong, Kevin Allen, and Eunice How. Amy and Eunice are with APALA, whose Seattle chapter is one of the largest in the country; they work to support and empower Asian American and Pacific Islander workers. Kevin is with CBTU, whose mission is to empower Black union members. Each person interviewed has done and continues to do important work to promote racial justice within the labor movement.

Amy Leong is the only paid staff member within the Seattle chapter of APALA. She was introduced to labor organizing by her mother, who was a member of Unite HERE Local 8 and translated documents into Chinese during contract negotiation. Her introduction to APALA and the broader world of labor came in high school when Cindy Domingo invited her to the APALA convention in Las Vegas. After college, she began working at unions doing research and then organizing work, and eventually found her way into her role at APALA.

 Kevin Allen is a member of CBTU and a rank-and-file member of AFSCME Council 28 (WFSE) due to his job as a Disabilities Adjudicator. As he told me, he was “born into the labor movement”; his father was an activist, a member of the communist party, and he grew up already with an orientation of the struggles of workers. He spent his youth in North Philadelphia, where he witnessed housing segregation and experienced racial violence. After working several jobs, he became an adjudicator and was introduced to Jacquie Jones-Walsh, who was a labor leader and who then introduced him to CBTU and other coalition groups.

Eunice How is the president of the APALA Seattle Chapter and an organizer with Unite HERE Local 8. As a UW student, she worked with United Students Against Sweatshops, learned about community solidarity, and met other Asian American women within other movements. Her introduction to APALA was very much intertwined with her work at Unite HERE Local 8, which had many Asian women within its leadership.

Experience as Labor Leaders of Color

All three shared their experiences as non-white leaders within the labor movement, a space that has historically been majority white. Within this space, it is easy to become the only non-white person in the room or to become tokenized, as Amy and Eunice told me. As Asian American women, they are cognizant of the ways certain groups are excluded. In college, Eunice told me how there were only three Asian women she knew doing movement work, including her and Amy. As the children of immigrants, they also know the ways that non-native speakers struggle to be included or are outright ignored by labor unions. Because of these things, organizations such as APALA are incredibly valuable for empowering Asian Americans in labor; Eunice spoke about the political education she received from APALA, and how she wouldn’t be where she is without it. When looking at the labor archives of APALA documents, I found pictures of Amy and Eunice being recognized in newsletters, and in general celebrations and stories about Asian Americans within the labor movement. One document I viewed that was particularly interesting to me was from an APALA dinner, where the authors shared recipes from their mothers. The foreword from Tracy Lai, the president at the time, introduced “Preparing food and savoring the taste: This is how we all share culture and tradition with families, friends, and communities.” In this way, APALA brings forward the cultural heritage and racial and ethnic identities of its members in a way that the broader labor movement often fails to do and empowers its community.

When I asked Kevin Allen about racial equity as a discussion within the labor movement, he explained that he had seen much of the ebbs and flows due to his age and experience. Labor is no different from general society when it comes to discussion of race and equity – although they pretend to be ahead of the curve – and has always been built on exclusivity. Kevin recalls how union jobs weren’t for Black sanitation workers in Philadelphia, which is why constituency groups such as CBTU were created: to address needs that weren’t being met. Even though nowadays racial justice as a major issue and a lens through which to look at is gaining prevalence within the labor movement, Kevin notes that people will get “social justice fatigue” and push back against the wave of discussion, just as his own union did, almost disintegrating over Black Lives Matter. He employed the metaphor of pushing a kid on a swing to illustrate his point: “When you get a kid on the swing they want you to keep pushing … But after a while, you want to stop pushing. And the issue with social justice is that you always have to keep pushing to have the resistance to gravity and after a while, every time that swing comes back you have to brace yourself, or it knocks you back.”

Theories of Change

Kevin has suggestions for how to keep racial justice front and center, as do Amy and Eunice. Firstly, the composition of labor leadership has to change to be more reflective of its members. Washington State is doing well on this front with the election of April Sims and Cherika Carter as the President and Secretary-Treasurer, respectively, of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO. They are the first team of Black women to lead an AFL-CIO State Federation. Notably, Washington state boasts the third highest union density in the country – almost 20% of workers in Washington are in a union. However, leadership is still largely white male-dominated overall, and increasing representation in leadership is a goal that all three people I interviewed share. Amy wants to “build a movement that is reflective of its members,” and if members are immigrants, or non-native English speakers, or non-white, then union leaders cannot shy away from including them, even if it requires more steps. To further illustrate this point, Kevin employed another metaphor – that of a pilot. If labor leadership is the pilot, and constituency groups are the levers, then the pilot shouldn’t only know how to fly the plane one way; they need to know how to engage the constituency groups to understand why large sections of workers are not engaged with the union. Additionally, leaders should reflect their members, according to Eunice, not just in racial or gender identity, but also in policies and beliefs. Her union, Unite HERE Local 8, strives to embody this when representing a workforce that is predominantly Black and Brown, and low-income.

Beyond leadership, change can also come from rank-and-file members. Getting workers of color to see the value of a union is something Kevin wants to see for the future of racial justice in labor. Furthermore, he knows that active participation is the most effective way to get your voice heard – the union is a democratic place, but only “for those who are there to participate in it.” That’s where a lot of his focus lies, in using his sway and credibility to both push forward actions for racial justice and convince others to get involved and do the same. Eunice is also adamant about lifting up rank-and-file members and investing in youths and encouraging them to become leaders. She and Amy are examples of this with APALA; in 2012, Amy was presented the John Caughlan Youth Award for her work as a translator for hotel workers at the national APALA convention. And now, ten years later, she is still working to empower AAPI workers. 

Looking to the Future and Building Cross-Racial Solidarity

For the future, Amy wants to see tangible actions: more translated materials, more interpreters, and more openness to non-English speakers and immigrants. They all want labor leadership to adopt a racial equity lens, something that the CGOC is continually working for and indeed has made significant progress in. 

But another important piece to the puzzle is the complex and powerful idea of cross-racial solidarity. The monthly constituency groups of color meeting before the MLK labor meeting is the most tangible action toward building cross-racial solidarity. Within this space, they offer support for each other's actions. As Amy puts it, they’re not experts on those issues, but if CBTU or APRI or Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA) ask for support on certain legislation, then APALA will give it because they all have the same end goals. As Eunice puts it, an injury to one is an injury to all.

 But of course, there are obstacles to building cross-racial solidarity; namely, division. Throughout US history, employers have sought to divide and conquer workers on the basis of race. For Kevin, who has been in activist spaces since he was a child, it’s nothing new for him to experience working with those of other identities in a multicultural setting. However, he acknowledges that it isn’t an easy endeavor to try to build cross-racial solidarity. That’s why he is a member of every constituency group you’ve ever heard of – CBTU, APALA, APRI, LCLAA, Pride at Work, Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), etc. – so that he can be in the room and understand their issues. Eunice also knows that countering division requires confronting your own beliefs on an individual level and implementing that on a structural and institutional level. For example, anti-Blackness in the AAPI community, due to discriminatory stereotypes, misconceptions, and historical tension, prevents cross-racial solidarity. Even within a community, there can be divisions between those who have lived here for decades and newly arrived immigrants, as Kevin mentioned.

So, how do we build cross-racial solidarity despite all of that? All three of the leaders I interviewed emphasized the importance of supporting each other. “Keep the main thing the main thing” and understand who the real enemy is, says Kevin. The boss loves to divide and conquer, says Eunice, so we need to keep unpacking discriminatory beliefs. This is where the constituency groups of color step in with trainings and workshops on racism, racial justice, and how to work for a more inclusive movement. Under oppressive institutions, they all have the same goals, so no matter what, it is imperative to keep those discussions going. 

For me, as a soon-to-be college graduate about to enter the world, I am grateful I had the opportunity to attend a CGOC meeting and interview Amy, Kevin, and Eunice, all of whom imparted to me some valuable wisdom and advice. After hearing their words, and their optimism in the face of obstacles, I feel more motivated now than ever to make impactful change, explore ways to build cross-racial solidarity, and empower communities of color in my future endeavors.