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Black Labor Union Teaches Members About HIV/AIDS

October 20, 2010

Black Labor Union Teaches Members About HIV/AIDS
Throughout history, labor unions have been known for organizing workers to fight for better benefits, contracts and wages. More recently, organized labor has battled to eliminate job discrimination and make the workplace safe. But these days, the mission of some unions includes a surprising new twist: educating members about HIV/AIDS.

One such union is the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), the nation's oldest and largest independent labor organization representing Black workers. Known for its ability to mobilize African American voters to influence elections and public policy, the CBTU is one of 12 recipients of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) first round of Act Against AIDS Leadership Initiative (AAALI) grants to increase HIV-related awareness, knowledge and action within Black communities.

Why does CBTU care about AIDS? One of every five Black workers belongs to a union, and many work in professions that place them at elevated risk for HIV infection (think: corrections, health- and home care, and sanitation).

As an AAALI partner, CBTU -- whose members include hospital and health-care, sanitation, postal and hotel workers -- challenges organized labor to better address Black and poor workers' aspirations and needs, which now include fighting HIV/AIDS. At churches, union conferences and other meetings nationwide, CBTU leaders give speeches and presentations and disseminate HIV/AIDS information, encouraging people to protect themselves and others from HIV, get tested and seek medical treatment if necessary.

Anita Patterson, a retired worker and AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) union member who for 25 years has chaired the CBTU women's committee, also serves as its AAALI program coordinator. Passionate about her new work, she remembers the day 11 years ago when HIV/AIDS really got her attention.

While planning a CBTU health workshop in Philadelphia, she decided that the presentation must include HIV/AIDS. Although unions had been involved in HIV/AIDS work since the 1980s, "It was like HIV/AIDS 101," Patterson recalls. Among union leaders as well as the membership, "Folks were still thinking it was just a gay disease. This made it clear that much work needed to be done."

Over time, Patterson would discover that 80 percent of her audiences were "astounded" that AIDS was not a "gay disease," but one ravaging Black people.

"If they are not paying attention, how many are practicing safe sex?" she wondered. It was clear that the local chapters needed more information to help increase their members' knowledge. So she started including HIV/AIDS-awareness training in every CBTU health program she organized.

"Whenever it is possible, we also offer testing and counseling," she adds.

Two years ago, CBTU's executive council even passed a resolution making HIV/AIDS education a national policy. The response from CBTU members and the mainstream labor community?

"Very good," says Patterson. "They realize that this program had to be added to our agenda and must remain until we see a decrease in the number of new infections and undiagnosed infections. We must remain committed to ending the epidemic, especially in the African American community, by educating all of our members and their families."

Go here to learn more about CBTU's work with Act Against AIDS.

Glenn Ellis, author of Which Doctor? What You Need to Know to Be Healthy, is a Philadelphia-based health columnist and radio commentator.

This article was provided by The Black AIDS Institute. It is a part of the publication Black AIDS Weekly. Visit Black AIDS Institute's website to find out more about their activities and publications.
See Also
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10 Common Fears About HIV Transmission
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