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I came of age politically in the middle of the Black Power movement.  Within the ranks of organized labor, both the Black Power movement and the Anti-Vietnam War movement had a significant impact through the mid-1970s.  Caucuses were being formed to challenge the bureaucratic leaderships of many unions.  Wild-cat strikes were taking place in workplaces around the country.  And in some locales, independent unions were being established, where workers had concluded that the established union movement was incapable of making any significant changes to address the needs and demands of rank and file workers.  At the national level, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists emerged as a major voice, arguing that organized labor needed to take a new and different look at the Black worker, a look and engagement that was based on the need for respect and equality.  

As we enter the 21st century, Black labor is in disarray.  Within the ranks of organized labor, the various institutions that have often spoken on its behalf, have ossified.  Black caucuses in various unions have stepped back from challenging and pushing the union leaderships and, instead, have in all too many cases, degenerated into social clubs or step-ladders for individuals to get positions within the union structure.  While there are greater numbers of Black staff and, in some cases, elected leaders, there is an emphasis on acceptability - to the leadership of organized labor - within the ranks of the movement, rather than an emphasis on challenge and struggle.         

How this situation evolved would be the material around which a book could be written.  Suffice to say that the economic crisis affecting Black America, a crisis that became very evident in the mid-1970s, cut the ground beneath a major portion of the Black working class.  Combined with political attacks on Black America by the Right, we went on the defensive.  In organized labor, the declining percentage of workers organized in unions, along with the brutal climate built up during the Ronald Reagan years, worsened the conditions under which struggle could take place.        

Yet in my humble opinion, what was particularly lost by Black labor leaders was vision.  The vision that was articulated beginning in the 1930s with the growth of the National Negro Congress and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and advanced in the 1950s with the National Negro Labor Council and, later, by the A. Philip Randolph-led Negro American Labor Council, and in the 1970s with the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, justifiably emphasized the inclusion of Black workers at all levels of the union movement.  In some quarters, particularly within the Black labor Left, there were equal efforts to emphasize a broader approach by organized labor toward issues facing all workers, as well as the need for organized labor to be a clear and consistent ally of the Black Freedom Movement.         

By the early 1980s and with changes in the leadership of much of organized labor, the hostility that had often been felt by Black labor shifted.  This did not mean that Black labor was consistently embraced, but it meant that there was at least a public recognition of the Black worker and his/her importance.  Attacks on the CBTU, for instance, diminished, if not disappeared.  By the early 1990s, some unions had even gone as far as officially supporting or sponsoring Black caucuses.

          Yet something was lost.  The ‘fire’ that had been felt throughout organizations such as the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (and its affiliates), or the United Community Construction Workers in Boston, MA, was largely absent.  Yes, Black labor could sit at the table, but still missing was what Black labor represents as a movement.  Thus, Black labor became an appendage to organized labor, rather than the catalyst for union transformation.  Black labor has been among labor’s most important and dedicated shock troops; we remain the most pro-union of any ethnic/racial group; and we are disproportionately active in our unions.  This, however, does not translate into a coalescing, let alone a fusion, of organized labor and the Black Freedom Movements.         

In the absence of a 21st century vision from Black labor leadership, both despair as well as counterproductive views can and have emerged.  The despair that exists can be felt in the environment.  Visit Detroit, which was once a major center for Black labor - not to mention for organized labor as a whole - and one feels as if one is looking at a post-industrial scenario, a city with the equivalent of no comprehensive economic development strategy and where the Black working class is suffering as well as disintegrating as an effective force.  Nationally, the prevailing emphasis, even among many younger activists, is on individual solutions to problems that are mainly collective.  Within the Black working class there is less of a sense that unions are the instruments to deal with the larger problems facing Black America.  This does not mean that unions are disregarded, but it does mean that there is little sense that they can or do have an expansive role.         

Counterproductive views are the other challenge.  Gaining considerable attention over the last few years has been the growth of anti-immigrant sentiment within Black America, including within the Black working class.  The fact that much of this sentiment has been actively fueled by white, right-wing anti-immigrant groups is secondary to the fact that the fear of competition and displacement on the part of the Black working class has made it susceptible to ‘nativist’ arguments.  Black labor leadership has, for the most part, failed to engage and rigorously challenge this sentiment with much more than platitudes.  As the Black working class faces continued battering, the immigrant - documented and/or undocumented - becomes, for many, the target of convenience for our anger.  Rather than understanding the nature of the problem we face as lying within capitalism itself and the search by business for cheaper and more vulnerable workforces, the immigrant becomes the safe and convenient enemy of the moment.         

Black labor has historically played an interesting role, something akin to the irritant in the oyster that brings forward a pearl.  Whether we organized independent unions when we were refused entry into the American Federation of Labor, or when we and Chicanos became decisive supporters of a new labor movement, as in the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1930s and 1940s, Black labor has little history of passivity.  The time has come for Black labor to step back into that role of irritant to the oyster, but with a 21st century frame of reference.

The choices facing Black labor begin with vision and they are linked to organization.  The Black Freedom Movement has always had at its core the struggle to expand the terms of democracy beyond statutes and formalities, and instead, in the direction of social transformation.  This was true whether the battle was against slavery, against Jim Crow segregation, or against de facto segregation.  To this should be added that the Black Freedom Movement has nearly always been an essential ally for other efforts to expand democracy and oppose injustice and inequality.  This core - the fight for consistent democracy/opposition to injustice and inequality - must remain the guiding principles for Black labor and its challenge to organized labor today.  The implications are quite profound in that what is being asked of Black labor, as a contingent of both organized labor and the Black Freedom Movement, is to push for a reconstructed and redefined labor movement that is emphasizing social transformation.         

What does this mean concretely?  Among other things, it begins with taking great risks.  Too many white labor leaders believe that they have been sufficiently inoculated such that they can speak for Black labor. Let us flip the script. Black labor must not only speak for the Black worker, but Black labor must be the voice speaking on behalf of all workers.  This means not restricting ourselves to arguments about the percentage of Blacks on staff in unions, but rather challenging the basic program of organized labor including, but not limited to, the failure of organized labor to have a plan for organizing Black workers.         

Let me offer a few suggestions:

If the saying “…as goes the South, so goes the nation…” remains correct - and I would suggest that it is - then organized labor must unionize the South.  To do that, the Black worker, and the Black community more generally, are essential.  Workers are more likely to vote in a progressive direction if they are unionized, thus, insofar as the South has limited unionization, the chance for developing progressive politics in the USA as a whole is encumbered.

To organize the South, the Black community must be central.  This does not mean that the African American is the only constituency.  Whites, along with the rising numbers of Latino and African immigrants in the South are critical.  But the historically rooted African American community becomes essential if unionization is to win.  That means unionization must be a community affair.  One need only remember the 1968 sanitation workers struggle in Memphis, TN, or the 1969 Charleston, South Carolina hospital workers struggle to get a sense of possibilities.  Yet, such struggles were nearly 40 years ago, and neither organized labor nor the Black Freedom Movement have built upon such examples in terms of continuing activity (note: the current struggle of the Smithfield workers in North Carolina as well as the alliance of Black Workers for Justice and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, also in North Carolina, are examples of more recent attempts to create a new framework that builds upon the possibilities that were evident in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Whether these will set a pattern for a new practice or instead be anomalies, only time and struggle will determine).

My decades-old friend, Dr. Steven Pitts from UC-Berkeley Labor Center, has made a mission of emphasizing the fight for good jobs as key for Black America.  His fundamental point is that jobs can be transformed through unionization.  Jobs, such as longshore, which had been among the most oppressive and underpaid, underwent a conversion of sorts through unionization.  Jobs do not necessarily begin high-wage.  They can, however, become high wage through worker organization.  This means that organized labor must have a program to organize economically depressed regions - such as our central cities - to transform the jobs.  This, again, becomes a community affair.  This point must be emphasized, particularly in light of the Black neo-conservative view that holds, in essence, that any job that is created, no matter how poorly it pays, is a good job for a depressed community.  Thus, we are told, the Black community should be grateful for whatever it can get.  Rather than accepting poverty level employment, the self-organization of workers through unions can transform such jobs into respectable, higher-wage employment.  This was true of longshore and trucking in the past.  One is witnessing a similar renovation in the janitorial industry after years of re-unionizing the workers, after employers had restructured the industry, destroyed the unions and workers that had been in place, and brought in lower waged workers.  The fact that this situation could and was turned around, spoke volumes to the need for unionization and activism.  Struggle and organization, in other words, are an alternative to begging and acceptance.

With structural unemployment seeming to grow each day with workers dropping off the rolls finding no work, an effort to organize the unemployed becomes paramount.  This means building institutions that both help to support, economically and psychologically, unemployed workers, and that also provides them with a vehicle through which to place demands on the government and corporations for jobs or income.  At a point where worker productivity continues to rise, but is disconnected from wages, we need to insist that business owes a social payback to our communities.  Among other things, this means developing tax policies that lift the burden from the middle income and place them on those who are running away with profits.

A final point, at least for now, is this: none of this happens in the absence of Black labor organization that is prepared to shake the table.  This is a mission that befalls the younger generation of Black labor leaders, but it is a mission that must be supported by veteran leaders.   Each caucus and organization of Black workers must ask itself how it is concretely addressing the crisis facing the Black working class.  Each grouping of Black workers must ask how our unions are concretely addressing the crisis facing the Black working class.  Together we must be bold enough to suggest that by addressing the crisis of the Black working class, we are indeed challenging not only the structure, mission and direction of organized labor, but we are challenging the current neo-liberal direction of the USA.

BC Editorial Board member, Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a labor and international writer and activist, and the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum. Click here to contact Mr. Fletcher.

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June 21, 2007
Issue 234

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