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Throughout history, innumerable African American leaders have fought to make a more inclusive and just world, and we all benefit greatly from the outcomes of their struggle. In recognition of Black History Month, we feel it is important to highlight several of these leaders and the profound ways in which their work has advanced the labor movement, promoted civil rights, and undeniably influenced our culture. We do this to draw attention to important people we didn’t learn about in school and to honor the ongoing work of African American leaders today – leaders like Arlene Holt Baker.
Holt Baker began her 30-year career in grassroots organizing with the California division of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, eventually becoming a regional director. On the heels of her notable accomplishments in California, she joined the AFL-CIO in 1995 as an executive assistant and director of the Voice@Work campaign, which aimed to foster community support for labor organizing efforts. After many years working on a variety of projects within the AFL-CIO, Holt Baker became vice president in 2009.
As the first African American to hold an executive position in the AFL-CIO, Arlene Holt Baker is an important trailblazer in the history of African American organized labor. Her leadership within the largest federation of unions in the U.S. (12 million workers) is itself noteworthy, but in the context of the AFL-CIO’s history of excluding black unions, the significance of her vice presidency cannot be understated.
Because she was such an adept organizer, Holt Baker was frequently asked to lead AFL-CIO political efforts as well as other labor groups, such as the Working America Alliance and Voices for Working Families. She also led the AFL-CIO’s recovery response in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, directing disaster relief for several months and coordinating AFL-CIO investment and program development in the region thereafter. Throughout her career, Holt Baker fought for the rights of all kinds of people, including women, people of color, workers, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, voters, and union members. Moreover, she was thoroughly committed to creating more leadership opportunities for people of color:
“When people of color get the opportunity to be leaders, we have a responsibility to fight with everything within us to bring others along. We cannot, once we get in the door, close the door behind us. We’ve got to make darn sure that the door is not just cracked but is opened wide for others to come in.”
To learn more about Arlene Holt Baker, check out these sources:
Photo credit: Bill Burke/Page One, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7858492