Why the Labor Movement Must Join the Anti-Racist Struggle To Make Black Lives Matter

Andrew Tillett-Saks April 6, 2016

(xddorox / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Amer­i­can unions appear on their deathbed. The per­cent­age of work­ers in unions is at its low­est point in 75 years, cor­po­rate politi­cians have spread union-bust­ing right-to-work laws to more than half the states in the union and labor’s tra­di­tion­al strong­holds (from man­u­fac­tur­ing to the pub­lic sec­tor) are rapid­ly being erod­ed. But an oppor­tu­ni­ty for labor to reverse its for­tunes looms large in the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, the largest wave of anti-racist strug­gle in recent memory.

If Amer­i­can labor is going to reverse its declin­ing for­tunes, it must begin with attack­ing Amer­i­can racism.

Racism is the lynch­pin that holds cor­po­rate Amer­i­ca togeth­er — as well as the shoals upon which Amer­i­can labor has sunk for cen­turies. Racism in Amer­i­ca — past and present, from the colo­nial to the Trump era — divides work­ers so to pre­vent an effec­tive unit­ed front. The Amer­i­can labor move­ment must seize the oppor­tu­ni­ty pre­sent­ed by the cur­rent upsurge and put its insti­tu­tion­al sup­port behind the anti-racist move­ment. It is more than a moral mat­ter. Orga­nized Labor’s very exis­tence depends on it — no Amer­i­can work­er move­ment will suc­ceed so long as racism remains ram­pant in America.

Activists in the labor move­ment must rec­og­nize that the ques­tion of which must take pri­or­i­ty, anti-racist or labor strug­gle, is a false one. The two are inex­tri­ca­bly inter­twined and mutu­al­ly depen­dent. The labor move­ment will nev­er suc­ceed with­out fight­ing and erad­i­cat­ing racism. Like­wise, we can­not elim­i­nate racism with­out elim­i­nat­ing the mate­r­i­al inequal­i­ty upon which it feeds. Racism is not a mere idea float­ing in the cul­tur­al clouds; it is an ide­ol­o­gy root­ed in and depen­dent on mate­r­i­al inequal­i­ty along racial lines. In the ques­tion of end­ing racism and eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty in Amer­i­ca it is not one or the oth­er, but both or none.

The his­to­ry of racism’s devel­op­ment in the Unit­ed States, start­ing from the very begin­ning, helps illus­trate its impor­tance to work­ers and unions. Colo­nial elites imple­ment­ed racist laws large­ly in response to uni­fied work­er resis­tance. In 1676, a unit­ed front of white inden­tured ser­vants and African slaves rebelled against Virginia’s rul­ing class. For wealthy colonists, Bacon’s Rebel­lion was one of sev­er­al white-and-black colo­nial upris­ings whose sol­i­dar­i­ty sent shiv­ers down elites’ spines.

Only after these rebel­lions did the colo­nial rul­ing elite imple­ment the racist and caste-hard­en­ing Slave Codes, cod­i­fy­ing Amer­i­can racism by pro­hibit­ing whites to be employed by Blacks, crim­i­nal­iz­ing the touch­ing of whites by Blacks, estab­lish­ing sep­a­rate judi­cial courts and more. In the face of labor sol­i­dar­i­ty, ear­ly wealthy Amer­i­cans laid the foun­da­tion for cen­turies of insti­tu­tion­al­ized racism to divide and con­quer dis­con­tent­ed Amer­i­can labor­ers. Mul­ti-col­ored labor sol­i­dar­i­ty was to be destroyed at all costs.

As the colo­nial planters clear­ly rec­og­nized, racism shifts the dis­con­tent of white work­ers from their exploiters to their Black cowork­ers. In hyper-oppress­ing one sec­tion of work­ers, wealthy elites squeeze even greater prof­its from Black and brown work­ers while under­cut­ting the poten­tial uni­ty and pow­er of all workers.

His­to­ry is full of exam­ples of racism’s par­a­lyz­ing effect on col­lec­tive work­er action in Amer­i­can labor. Rail­way own­ers under­mined the famous Pull­man Strike of 1894 by hir­ing scores of African-Amer­i­can work­ers. Despite Eugene Debs’ (then head of the Amer­i­can Rail­way Union) pleas, the ARU pre­vi­ous­ly barred African-Amer­i­can mem­bers at its found­ing in 1893. The union paid the price for their racism: the strike col­lapsed under the weight of the exclud­ed scabs. Seattle’s Gen­er­al Strike of 1919 sim­i­lar­ly failed when employ­ers brought in non-white strike­break­ers by the thou­sands; a large major­i­ty were African-Amer­i­can and Chi­nese, both gen­er­al­ly exclud­ed by Seattle’s unions.

W.E.B. DuBois explained the fail­ure of the Rad­i­cal Recon­struc­tion of the post-Civ­il War era — and its poten­tial­ly his­toric alliance of Black and white South­ern work­ers to democ­ra­tize the South — in pre­cise­ly the same vein:

The race ele­ment was empha­sized in order that prop­er­ty-hold­ers could get the sup­port of the major­i­ty of white labor­ers and make it more pos­si­ble to exploit Negro labor. But the race phi­los­o­phy came as a new and ter­ri­ble thing to make labor uni­ty or labor class-con­scious­ness impos­si­ble. So long as the South­ern white labor­ers could be induced to pre­fer pover­ty to equal­i­ty with the Negro, just so long was a labor move­ment in the South made impossible.

The American’s labor movement’s most impor­tant cam­paign of the 20th cen­tu­ry, Oper­a­tion Dix­ie in 1946, also failed spec­tac­u­lar­ly due to racism. Despite huge finan­cial invest­ment from the CIO to orga­nize the Amer­i­can South, labor’s Achilles heel, the effort col­lapsed as South­ern employ­ers suc­cess­ful­ly dis­cour­aged white work­ers by stok­ing their racism in equat­ing union­ism with racial equal­i­ty. More­over, racist lead­er­ship (under pres­sure from racist mem­ber­ship) with­in the CIO shied away from tar­get­ing the South’s most orga­ni­z­able work­ers, African-Amer­i­cans. The effort thus failed to make inroads into the South, and unions suf­fer the debil­i­tat­ing con­se­quences of an unor­ga­nized South to this day.

The list of poten­tial exam­ples is long. Time and time again, work­er orga­ni­za­tion in Amer­i­ca sunk on the shoals of racism.

Racism con­tin­ues to divide work­ers and crip­ple the Amer­i­can labor move­ment. Con­ser­v­a­tive politi­cians have launched mas­sive legal attacks against unions across the coun­try, but how do these con­ser­v­a­tive politi­cians who attack unions get elect­ed in the first place? In part, white work­ing-class vot­ers fueled by anti-immi­grant, anti-Black, and Islam­o­pho­bic scape­goat­ing elect them. In oth­er words, racism.

It is obvi­ous that immi­gra­tion laws that leave mil­lions of work­ers in the U.S. with­out the right to orga­nize under­mines the lever­age of all Amer­i­can work­ers, but how have right-wing politi­cians jus­ti­fied and passed these immi­gra­tion laws? By scape­goat­ing immi­grants, Lati­nos in par­tic­u­lar, for the country’s ills. In oth­er words, racism.

Clear­ly, mas­sive unem­ploy­ment and pover­ty-lev­el min­i­mum-wage laws keep work­ers’ lever­age min­i­mal, but how do the rich legit­imize such abysmal eco­nom­ic con­di­tions? Through vit­ri­olic, vic­tim-blam­ing rants about lazy (Black) wel­fare recip­i­ents and a cul­ture of pover­ty” in Black com­mu­ni­ties. In oth­er words, racism.

White work­ers are sta­tis­ti­cal­ly much less inclined to join a union than Black or Lati­no work­ers, but why? White work­ers, seduced by that old siren song of racial prej­u­dice and often iden­ti­fy­ing more with their white boss­es than with their Black and brown cowork­ers, are more inclined to blame their suf­fer­ing on immi­grant job-tak­ers” and a Black under­class than their employ­er. In oth­er words, racism.

Racism thus leads to the laws, eco­nom­ic con­di­tions, and atti­tudes that make orga­niz­ing unions so dif­fi­cult in con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­ca. Ram­pant racism in Amer­i­ca has paved the path for Amer­i­can cap­i­tal­ists to gut the per­cent­age of Amer­i­can work­ers in unions to eleven per­cent and shriveling.

But over­com­ing that racism is not impos­si­ble. This is where the oppor­tu­ni­ty pre­sent­ed by a ris­ing anti-racist move­ment comes in. The Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment is wag­ing war on Amer­i­can racism. Unions can help. Pri­mar­i­ly, unions can mobi­lize their still-siz­able mem­ber­ship of 16 mil­lion work­ers for anti-racist strug­gles. Where there is anti-police bru­tal­i­ty, anti-mass incar­cer­a­tion, anti-ICE or any anti-racist protest, unions should turn out their mem­bers and lend their heft to the cause. Seri­ous turnout from labor unions would be a seri­ous jolt for the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment — and could help trans­form unions’ mem­bers, too.

Sec­ond, unions have an unpar­al­leled abil­i­ty to reach white work­ers for anti-racist polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion. Beyond the sheer num­ber of white work­ers in unions’ ranks, there is no bet­ter con­text than labor strug­gle to con­vince work­ers from dif­fer­ent back­grounds of their com­mon bonds.

Unions should direct­ly engage their white mem­bers through edu­ca­tion on the anti-work­er func­tion of racism. Union lead­ers will meet inter­nal resis­tance to com­mit­ting time and resources to anti-racist strug­gle, but inter­nal bat­tles on this issue are nec­es­sary and will lead to the tough con­ver­sa­tions mem­bers need to have.

But the crux is that unions must mobi­lize all of their resources and ener­gy in the anti-racist strug­gle. It can’t just be a sym­bol­ic bit. Unions can­not under­stand anti-racism as mere­ly sol­i­dar­i­ty work; anti-racism must be under­stood as a union issue itself.

Bet­ter yet, anti-racism must be under­stood as the union issue of our imme­di­ate time. Con­tracts must be nego­ti­at­ed, new orga­niz­ing dri­ves must be pushed and inter­nal orga­ni­za­tion must strength­en, but unions will make no par­a­digm-chang­ing advances until they help van­quish racism in Amer­i­ca. Accord­ing­ly, local and Inter­na­tion­al unions should ded­i­cate vast staff and finan­cial resources to anti-racist mobi­liza­tion and edu­ca­tion. Any­thing less, any oth­er orga­niz­ing activ­i­ty, is akin to doing pet­ty house repairs dur­ing a rag­ing house fire. The house of Labor will soon be mere ash­es if we do not help con­front racism in America.

What could this look like in prac­tice? Unions should mobi­lize large num­bers of rank-and-file mem­bers (not a sym­bol­ic few in union t‑shirts) for anti-racist demon­stra­tions to have a seri­ous impact. Unions should only sup­port politi­cians who will fight for anti-racist pub­lic pol­i­cy like mea­sures against police bru­tal­i­ty — politi­cians’ posi­tions on issues affect­ing minor­i­ty com­mu­ni­ties should be con­sid­ered of equal impor­tance to unions as their posi­tions on col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing. Unions should cre­ate train­ing pro­grams that pro­mote advance­ment of African Amer­i­cans and Lati­nos into union jobs, par­tic­u­lar­ly high­er-lev­el posi­tions long-denied due to dis­crim­i­na­tion (and aggres­sive­ly police any dis­crim­i­na­to­ry hir­ing prac­tices by employers).

Unions should prac­tice affir­ma­tive action in fill­ing staff and lead­er­ship posi­tions, and invest in train­ing pro­grams that pre­pare minor­i­ty rank-and-file mem­bers for them. Union con­tracts should serve as mod­els of racial jus­tice leg­is­la­tion, such as pro­hibit­ing ask­ing job appli­cants about their crim­i­nal record and pro­vid­ing job pro­tec­tion for work­ers in need of leave to resolve immi­gra­tion issues. Unions should ally with com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions to make sure any devel­op­ment or Project Labor Agree­ment ben­e­fits com­mu­ni­ties of col­or, not harm minor­i­ty work­ers at large for the imme­di­ate ben­e­fit of the union’s mem­ber­ship. Unions should invest in nation­al mem­ber­ship edu­ca­tion pro­grams on racial jus­tice — the labor move­ment can­not fight racism if its rank-and-file is not pre­pared to do so.

It’s a long list to start with, to be sure. But it’s essen­tial work that unions can’t turn away from. Racism is the lynch­pin that holds Amer­i­can cap­i­tal­ism togeth­er despite all its inequal­i­ty and mis­ery. If labor can help remove the pin, we can watch it crumble.

Andrew Tillett-Saks is the orga­niz­ing direc­tor of UNITE HERE Local 217. You can con­tact him at andrewtil­lettsaks [at] gmail [dot] com.
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