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The Movement for Black Lives and Labor’s Revival

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The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis ignited the most widespread series of protests in U.S. history. Working people—not only Black, but people of all races—were the driving force. Even labor leaders who are usually reluctant to weigh in on hot social issues spoke out.

The challenge now is to bring the militancy and energy of this year’s revived Black struggle into the workplace—amid the coronavirus-driven economic crisis.

A deep look at U.S. labor history shows that labor can make big steps forward when Black workers are in motion in their communities. In our past, a mobilized Black community has brought the energy and self-confidence of powerful collective action in the streets into workplace organizing. It’s also brought a grassroots orientation that challenges top-down conservatism.

Will the same be true for unions today?

PANDEMIC POTENTIAL

The potential could be glimpsed in the early weeks of the pandemic, when union and non-union workers alike took action over unsafe working conditions, in worksites ranging from hospitals to Amazon warehouses to grocery stores. Because so many “essential workers” are Black and Latino, they were often at the center of the action, from Detroit bus drivers to Pittsburgh sanitation workers to Georgia poultry workers.

What makes the Black Lives Matter protests so important isn’t just their size. It’s the fact that demonstrators are linking the struggle against racist police violence to the whole racist system. The basketball players’ walkout in August highlighted the connection between racism in society and at the workplace.

Black workers have never drawn a line between civil rights in the community and worker rights on the job. That has everything to do with the central role Black labor has always played in the U.S. economy, from the unpaid labor of slavery to the low wages paid to Black workers by modern industrialists to boost profits.

STREETS TO WORKPLACE

Labor history shows that Black workers don’t protest in the streets while keeping quiet at work.

Black workers were key to labor’s 1930s upsurge in many industries, particularly in the South, even if many Southern struggles were ultimately unsuccessful. In the Midwest, the steel, auto, and meatpacking industries could not have been unionized had not rank-and-file organizers, including socialists of all currents, taken on the racism of the companies—and often of their white co-workers.

Many workplaces and unions at the time were Jim Crow—barred to Black workers. In New York City, a Black community boycott of two privately owned bus lines in 1941 forced the companies to hire Black workers.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Black workers were the driving force of the Southern civil rights movement. A key strategist of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-56—the breakthrough struggle of the civil rights movement—was E.D. Nixon, the Alabama president of an all-Black railroad union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Nixon was among those who worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., then a dynamic but largely unknown 27-year-old preacher. The Brotherhood was a key connection between Black union members in Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland and mostly non-union Southern workers.

The Southern civil rights movement prodded the highly conservative AFL-CIO bureaucracy into supporting it, even as nearly all-white building trades unions kept fighting to maintain a color bar into the 1960s. More generally, the level of mobilization in the Black community and the confidence that came with winning the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 reinforced the desire to fight at work as well.

PUBLIC SECTOR STRIKE WAVE

The Southern Black struggle then came North in the form of the Black Power movement. By then Black workers represented big numbers in major industrial unions, such as auto and steel. Black workers were an essential part of—and often a leading force in—the strike wave that began in the mid-1960s.

That period saw a massive expansion of public sector unionism, with Black workers a key component. The welfare rights movement in New York City, with Black women at the center, is one example. That movement was linked to social workers’ unionization efforts in the Social Services Employees Union, an independent organization that struck in defiance of the law and got the support of King and other civil rights leaders as well as community groups. SSEU helped open the way for AFSCME’s recognition and formal public sector bargaining rights in New York.

The assassination of Dr. King led to street rebellions across the U.S. in 1968. Three months later, in auto, Black workers’ Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) led a 1968 wildcat over speedup and discrimination, which spurred similar organizations and strikes elsewhere in auto and in other industries. The workers also took on internal struggles in the United Auto Workers. The UAW had been willing to support the Southern civil rights movement and the 1963 March on Washington, but it sought to suppress Black members’ demands internally.

The 1970 national postal wildcat was strongest in the big cities of the Northeast and Midwest, strongholds for Black workers. Black workers were the absolute majority of postal workers in Chicago, Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Detroit. That job action was likely the largest-ever Black participation in a strike.

Labor struggles of the late 1960s and 1970s were widespread and certainly not limited to Black workers. But the militancy of Black workers was an essential ingredient. Could that same dynamic emerge today?

AN OUTSIZED ROLE

Potentially. But this time Black workers—and their Latino, Asian, and white co-workers—will have to undertake the basic task of union organization on a much greater scale. In 1970, more than 24 percent of workers belonged to unions. The Black Power movement could therefore find a connection in heavily Black unionized workplaces in auto and the post office. Today the path from protest to the workplace is more difficult.

But the same dynamic still exists. The Fight for 15 movement, even though it did not result in union contracts, won a $15 minimum wage through legislation in some states and cities in large part because of the participation of low-wage Black workers. And Black workers are more likely to be in unions than any other group.

Certainly, Black workers have lost important footholds in the unions over the last few decades, with plant closures and shifts of production to the largely non-union South. And now the pandemic economic shutdown has hammered the hospitality and service economy, leading to layoffs in union hotels that hit Black and Latino workers particularly hard.

But Black workers are still a strong component of labor’s remaining base in the private sector, such as auto and UPS, and in the public sector, where they are 20 percent of the total. That means Black workers have an outsized role to play in any resistance to pandemic-driven government budget cuts.

The Chicago Teachers Union’s strikes of 2012 and 2019 showed how a bold union can win public support for demands that address racist realities. The CTU fought for “The Schools Our Children Deserve,” for Black teachers facing job loss, for rent control and sustainable housing and services for homeless students, and against evictions. The potential for such connections is much wider after the anti-racism protests of 2020.

It’s a huge fight. But it always has been. The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 give labor activists the opportunity to revive that tradition.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on October 27, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tim Schermerhorn is a retired transit worker in New York City and a former vice president of Transport Workers Union Local 100. Lee Sustar is a journalist in Chicago and member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981.


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Lessons from the NBA Strike for Black Lives

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In their righteous wildcat strikes, professional athletes showed us both how collective action can directly challenge power but also how a workplace campaign can get cut short if we’re not prepared.

It’s an all-too-common experience in workplace organizing: you and your coworkers have been grumbling about injustices at work for a while but haven’t taken any action. Suddenly a crisis hits and there is a wave of enthusiasm for organizing. “We’ve gotta do something,” people say as they start rallying together. Even typically cautious workers are talking about something big, maybe a walkout.

You channel that energy into a confrontation with the boss, but then…it fizzles out. People aren’t so sure about taking risks anymore. The momentum is lost. Maybe you got a minor concession, but conditions remain pretty much the same.

We all witnessed this scenario unfold before us as NBA, WNBA, and MLB players bravely struck for racial justice after police shot and paralyzed Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August.

Players risked their careers and reputations by violating their contracts and refusing to play. In doing so, they used their platform to support Black liberation, and they leveraged their irreplaceable labor to seriously threaten the team owners’ and media corporations’ bottom lines.

But just days later, players returned to the courts and the fields with no clear victory. While we can’t know exactly what happened behind the scenes—and while any battle with employers is a major undertaking, particularly in the high-pressure spotlight of professional sports—we can see they encountered the same obstacles that any labor organizer could face, be they a bus driver, a bartender, or a basketball player.

Every workplace action benefits from:

  • Clear and specific demands. The Milwaukee Bucks, who kicked off the strike wave by refusing to play, urged the Wisconsin state legislature to “take up meaningful measures to address issues of police accountability, brutality and criminal justice reform.” They smartly identified their target—state legislators—but naming which meaningful measures could have set a concrete benchmark for determining whether their demands had been met or further escalation was needed.

    Specific policy changes described in #8toAbolition, for example, could serve as a model for changes that the legislature is empowered to make, such as removing police from schools and hospitals, withdrawing from police militarization contracts, and funding public housing.
  • A plan for escalation. LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers, one of the lead organizers of the strike, “viewed the Bucks’ initial move—while well-intentioned—as lacking a plan.” Sometimes workplace actions happen spontaneously, and when they do it’s on us to deepen that conflict and take advantage of that energy. Organizers should immediately ask: What is the deadline for our demands? If the target doesn’t comply, how can we up the ante? What will we leverage to put more pressure on the decision makers? How can we get more workers to participate? How should we ask the community to support us?
  • Inoculation to prevent defections. Barack Obama and Michael Jordan encouraged players to return to the game and instead establish a “social justice committee,” which cut into the momentum of the strike. It’s rarely the case that workers win their demands immediately, and it can be tough to maintain a fighting spirit until you do. That’s why it’s critical to prepare each other for possible obstacles.

    How will the boss try to convince us to back down? What about retaliation? When people know what to expect and trust that their coworkers have their back, they are much more likely to hold their ground.

The impact of the athletes’ strike shouldn’t be minimized: They touched millions of people with their commitment to freedom from police violence, likely inspiring many workers to take up demands for racial justice. It is only through multiracial solidarity and collective action such as theirs that we can win.

Labor organizers benefit from watching such a highly public campaign in action and learning from both successes and struggles. We can see that for a strike to succeed, workers need more than righteous anger—we need to be organized.

This blog originally appeared on Labor Notes on September 24, 2020. It is reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Wadlin is a member of Teachers (AFT) Local 2277 in Portland, Oregon, and has facilitated many “Secrets” trainings. She organizes with the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, where a version of this article originally appeared.


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King and Meany Brought Civil Rights and Labor Together for a Legacy That Continues Today

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Beginning in 1960, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and then-President George Meany of the AFL-CIO began a relationship that would help bring the labor and civil rights movements together with a combined focus on social and economic justice.

Meany was an outspoken defender of individual freedom, and in March 1960, he emphasized the crucial link between the union and the civil rights movements. He told an AFL-CIO gathering, “What we want for ourselves, we want for all humanity.” Meany met with King to privately discuss how they could work together. King proposed that the AFL-CIO invest pension assets in housing, to help lessen economic inequality. The AFL-CIO then established the Investment Department in August 1960 to guide union pension funds to be socially responsible investors.

The next year, King spoke to the AFL-CIO Executive Council, comparing what labor had achieved to what the civil rights movement wanted to accomplish: “We are confronted by powerful forces telling us to rely on the good will and understanding of those who profit by exploiting us. They resent our will to organize. They are shocked that active organizations, sit-ins, civil disobedience, and protests are becoming every day tools just as strikes, demonstrations, and union organizations became yours to insure that bargaining power genuinely existed on both sides of the table.” At the AFL-CIO Constitutional Convention later that year, Meany made civil rights a prominent item on the agenda, and King spoke to the delegates about uniting the two movements through a common agenda, noting that African Americans are “almost entirely a working people.”

Not only did the AFL-CIO provide much-needed capital to the civil rights movement, but numerous affiliates did as well. Several combined to give more than $100,000 to King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The UAW directly funded voter registration drives in predominantly African American areas throughout the South and paid bail money for jailed protesters. Meany and the AFL-CIO also used their considerable political influence in helping to shape the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Union activists were a key part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom as well. The Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO endorsed the march, as did 11 international unions and several state and local labor councils. A. Philip Randolph, then-president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was a key organizer of the event. UAW President Walter Reuther was a speaker at the march, condemning the fact that African Americans were treated as second-class economic citizens.

King’s final act in pursuit of social and economic justice was in support of the sanitation strike in Memphis, Tennessee. After his death, then-President Lyndon B. Johnson sent the undersecretary of labor to settle the strike, and the city acceded to the demands of the working people, leading to the creation of AFSCME Local 1733, which still represents sanitation workers in Memphis.

In 1964, Meany sent a letter to all AFL-CIO affiliates outlining an new pathway that would directly support housing construction and homeownership. In 1965, the Investment Department helped establish the Mortgage Investment Trust, which was the formal embodiment of the socially responsible investment plan and gave a boost to badly needed affordable housing construction. In 1984, the Mortgage Investment Trust was replaced by the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust, one of the first socially responsible investment funds in the United States. Since it was created, the HIT has grown to more than $4.5 billion in net assets and has helped finance more than 100,000 affordable housing units and helped create tens of thousands of union jobs.

The partnership between civil rights and labor launched by King and Meany has helped the country make great strides in the intervening years, and the partnership continues.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on January 12, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist. Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.


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Civil Rights and Labor: Two Movements, One Goal

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“A community is democratic only when the humblest and weakest person can enjoy the highest civil, economic and social rights that the biggest and most powerful possess.”

— A. Philip Randolph
One of our most celebrated labor leaders, A. Philip Randolph, an organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, knew the connection between the labor movement and the civil rights movement was key to a truly inclusive democracy. He stood for access at the ballot box as well as to economic security—ideally through a good job with decent benefits and a union. Today, we find ourselves back in a place where our civil, economic, political and social rights are under constant attack. The violence we see against black youth—the heart-wrenching killing of Trayvon Martin, the homicide of Jordan Davis–the passage of “right to work” laws in states like Michigan, Missouri and Iowa that have deeply racist and divisive roots, and the constant attack on immigrant communities by the current administration affirm we still have work to do.

As trade unionists, labor leaders, parents and civil rights activists, we have dedicated our time, talent and resources to advancing the agenda for people who are simply working for a better life. We believe there has never been a more critical point in our nation’s history when it is so crucial for us to reconnect deeply the movement for working people with the movement for civil and human rights. We cannot forget that the March on Washington was about freedom, economic equity and good jobs. The intersection of human rights, civil rights and workers’ rights has always been a part of our struggles for independent power both here and abroad. We must continue to uplift those movements in an intersectional way to ensure we are able to win justice at the workplace and the ballot box to make a difference for those we serve.

This summer, one of the oldest and largest civil and human rights organizations, the NAACP, will come to the city of Baltimore for its annual convention. The NAACP has stood as a coalition partner to the labor movement since 1909. There are many organizations we as a movement value and partner with through shared program and the NAACP remains one of those core allies, despite the shifts that happen in the world around us. We have great leadership within both the labor movement and the NAACP. We have seen how powerful it is when leaders like AFT’s Lorretta Johnson stand shoulder to shoulder with the Rev. William Barber, leader of the NAACP North Carolina State Conference. We know our journey together must continue as we fight to assure that “the humblest and weakest person can enjoy the highest civil, economic and social rights that the biggest and most powerful possess.”

We must expand our vision by creating solidarity without borders so that working people will be treated with the respect we are due. Thus our history and our very purpose demand that we be in the forefront of the struggle to assure first-class citizenship to all people, of all colors, and all creeds without regard to sex, sexual orientation or gender identity. Our struggles are one; our hopes are one; our dreams are one. The past is not dead, it’s not even past.

This blog was originally published at AFL-CIO on May 25, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Authors: James Settles Jr., also known as Jimmy, serves as a vice president and member of the Executive Board at the UAW. He is a national board member and Labor Committee vice-chair of the NAACP. Robin Williams serves as the national vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). She is a national board member and Labor Committee vice-chair of the NAACP. Richard Womack Sr. is the emeritus assistant to the AFL-CIO president and former director of the AFL-CIO Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Department. He is a national board member and Labor Committee chair of the NAACP.


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