J.W. Cleary, 55, says he has spent most of his adult life “with a union card in one hand and an NAACP card in the other.”
“Unions and the NAACP go hand-in-hand,” says the Paducah, Ky., United Steelworkers (USWA) member and longtime local NAACP president. “The NAACP fights for equality. In a union, everybody is equal.”
Cleary belongs to USW Local 550 at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant. The huge facility enriches uranium for nuclear power plants. Cleary says he learned the value of unions long before he went to work at the factory known locally as the “atomic plant.”
When I was a kid, my daddy was a waiter in a nightclub, and he didn’t make much money. Then he got a job at a chemical plant at Calvert City, near Paducah. He was the first African American hired. He joined the union and started making good money. The union also gave him job security and a voice at work.
Cleary’s other inspiration as a trade unionist and NAACP activist was the late W.C. Young, a national labor and civil rights leader from Paducah. Young, who died in 1996 at age 77, retired as director of the Chicago-based AFL-CIO COPE Region 10.
W.C. told me he always had his union card in one hand and his NAACP card in the other hand. I followed his advice.
Cleary says Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said much the same thing. King was assassinated in 1968 in Memphis where he had gone to support striking sanitation workers struggling to gain a unioon voice on the job with AFSCME. Almost seven years before, King told the national AFL-CIO convention:
Our needs are identical with labor’s needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor’s demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.
For many years, Cleary was a delegate from his local to the Paducah-based Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council, whose highest honor is the annual W.C. Young Award. Young earned the first award in 1994. Young belonged to the Paducah-McCracken County NAACP branch. Cleary was president for more than 20 years before he chose not to seek reelection in 2009.
I never held an elective office in the union because I was so busy with my NAACP work. It’s better to do one job well than to try to do two jobs and do both of them badly.
He thinks unions and the NAACP need to do a better job of educating young people about the history of the labor and civil rights movements, which often intertwined.
A lot of them don’t know how hard people had to fight for civil rights and for the right to have a union. When young people get hired at a union plant, a lot of them think it is the company that is giving them the good wages and benefits out of the goodness of its heart. Union leaders should be stressing that those good wages and benefits wouldn’t be there if there hadn’t been a union to fight for them.