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Racism & sexism: Major pillars of the crisis in the U.S. trade union movement

Published Jul 28, 2005 8:54 PM

Clarence Thomas, center and
Saladin Muhammad, right at
Black Workers for Justice event
in Raleigh, N.C., April 3.

Black workers make up 30 percent of the total union membership in the AFL-CIO. People of color and women workers are a large percentage of the membership of the non-affiliated “independent unions.”

Yet, despite the major divisions among workers caused by institutionalized racism and gender discrimination that weaken the unity of workers and the power of the trade unions, the struggles against racism and sexism in the labor movement are not taken up as priorities. Nor are they viewed by either camp reflecting the current major divisions within the AFL-CIO as major sources of labor’s crisis.

Racism and sexism have been the two major pillars of business unionism. They are fundamental to the lack of rank-and-file union democracy and to labor’s weakness in organizing the unorganized, especially in the U.S. South. Labor’s greatest compromises with capital have been around issues of improving conditions of wages, training, promotions and job classifications for Blacks, workers of color and women workers.

The failure to organize the South, a low-wage region which has been used historically by the corporations to force billions in concessions from organized workers and tax abatements from cities and states throughout the country by their threat of plant closings and runaway shops to the South, stands out as a major indictment of labor’s failure to struggle against racism.

Organizing labor in the South, especially during the 1950s and 1960s, meant taking on the struggle against legal segregation and white supremacy. It meant aligning with the Black civil rights movement and broadening the character of labor organizing and representation from being a narrow economic movement to a movement for social and economic justice.

Today, even with the employer and government offensive against labor, too few labor leaders have been willing to acknow ledge the issue of white supremacy, racism and sexism in and outside of the unions. They have not addressed the policies and practices of organized labor that perpetuate the lingering and crippling effects of institutional racism. How can labor defend against corporate-driven attacks when its ranks can easily be divided against itself?

Blacks, Workers of Color, Women and Oppressed Groups Must Have Democracy and Power to Drive and Guide Labor’s Structural Changes!

The struggles against racism on the job and in the unions had to be pushed forward by organizations of Black workers. This has been true beginning with the formation of the Colored National Labor Union in 1869, which called for the “Unity of workers without regard to color”; the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in the 1920s, who led the call for a March on Washington in the 1940s against racism in the defense industries; the National Negro Labor Congress in the 1950s; the League of Revolutionary Black Workers; and DRUM in the Detroit auto plants in the 1960s, who called for Black workers to take the lead; the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists in the 1970s, calling for Black leadership at the highest levels of the unions; and Black Workers For Justice in the 1980s, calling for Organizing the South.

These struggles were able to bring about some changes in labor, including the election and appointments of a few Blacks to leadership positions and the recognition by the AFL-CIO of Black and other constituent groups which they sought to control and direct as top-down organizations loyal to labor’s bureaucracy.

Today, as the AFL-CIO faces a major split in its ranks, the main proposals for restructuring and solving labor’s “crisis” indicate that the organization and representation of Blacks and other worker constituency groups are no longer needed to strengthen the labor movement. This is a direct signal to the bosses that once again labor is willing to sacrifice and compromise around the interests of Blacks, Hispanics (or [email protected]), women and other workers of color.

Representation of constituency organizations in the AFL-CIO must be defended. However, “diversity” without the empowerment of Black workers and other constituency workers cannot challenge the racism and sexism in the trade unions or be a force to push forward the trade unions in struggling against the racism and sexism of the employers. Black workers and other constituencies must be empowered from the bottom as well as the top to struggle against racism, sexism and all the other forms of discrimination.

The government and corporate attacks on labor during the Reagan period expos ed the tremendous weaknesses in U.S. labor’s solidarity. This contributed to business unionism’s acceptance of labor-management cooperation and increased support and funding for the Democratic Party as an alternative to a rank-and-file fight-back movement based in national and international labor solidarity.

Black workers and the Black-led poor people’s movements have called on labor to unite with them in a fight-back movement against corporate and government attacks. Labor has constantly rejected those calls for unity.

In 1967, Dr. King called on the leadership of the AFL-CIO to support the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC). While some local unions and a couple of national unions endorsed the PPC, the AFL-CIO refused to endorse it. King saw the Poor People’s Campaign as becoming a focal point of a Black-Labor Alliance linking the struggle of unionized workers with the struggle to organize the unorganized in the South; to help increase the power of Black people to demand enforcement of the right to vote and other civil rights that were won during the 1960s benefiting women and other sectors of the working class.

In 1995, when close to 2 million Black people, largely working class, came to Wash ing ton, D.C, for the Million Man March, labor refused to support Black workers in raising their working class demands at the March.

Today, labor continues its history of trying to solve its crises without a fight-back movement. The AFL-CIO’s opposition to support the Million Worker March in 2004, once again sends a message to the corporate rulers, that labor-management cooperation and collaboration with the two corporate parties, including U.S. foreign policy of war and empire, is at the heart of labor’s strategy for survival and “growth.”

Rank-and-file democracy

The union movement is rooted in the principle that the trade union leaders can only take action based on the mandate from the workers. Trade unionism is about accountability. The proposals outlining the main directions addressing the crisis of labor have not come from the rank and file; and certainly not from Black workers and others hardest hit by the demands and conditions of the employers.

The current leadership is in denial as to the importance of confronting racism and acknowledging the important role Blacks have played and continue to play in the trade union movement. When organizing efforts involve a large number of Black work ers, history has proven there’s a greater likelihood of success. This begs the question, why doesn’t labor officialdom utilize Black trade unionists for organizing?

Organized labor needs greater unity, strength and independence at a time when the corporations wield unprecedented power and influence in both political parties. Blacks, workers of color, women and oppressed groups are essential in building the labor movement in the 21st century.

If we want to build a real fight-back movement that challenges the abuse of capital and mobilizes the rank-and-file to fully participate in resolving labor’s problems, we call on labor to build on the efforts of the Million Worker March.

Million Worker March Mobilization

Union members from across the United States and Haiti, Japan and South Africa gathered at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Oct. 17, 2004, making a passionate call for workers’ rights. Thousands stood at the foot of the Memorial and alongside of the Reflecting Pool calling for: universal health care; protection of social security and pensions; a right to strike without replacement; an end to the war in Iraq; repealing corporate free trade agreements; a national living wage; stopping the dismantling of public education; stopping off-shore North American jobs; amnesty for all undocumented workers; slashing the military budget; tax release for the working class; preserving and restoring the environment; enforcement of all civil rights; stopping corporate greed, and repealing the Taft-Hartley.

The active support and endorsement of Black, Hispanic and [email protected] workers’ organizations—from the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, the Teamsters National Black Caucus, Black Workers
For Justice, the Immigrant Rights Associ ation and the Farm Labor Orga nizing Committee-play ed a leading role in the mobilization.

The March was initiated by the International Long shore and Ware house Union (ILWU), Local 10 in San Fran cisco. Local 10 is the most racially diverse Longshore local on the West Coast. It was also the local of the legendary labor leader, ILWU founder and human rights activist, Harry Bridges. Brother Bridges was in the vanguard of all North American trade union leaders of his generation on the ques tion of race. Brother Bridges said “discrimination is a tool of the bosses.” He wrote in ILWU’s newspaper, the Dispat cher, on February 15, 1938, which featured a series of articles on “The Economics of Prejudice”:

“Prejudice means profit for the Boss. … For the worker—Black and White—it means lower living standards, humiliation, violence, often death.”

Thomas and Muhammad are leaders of the MWMM. Thomas is also an executive board member of Local 10, ILWU, and Muhammad is national chairperson of Black Workers For Justice based in Raleigh, N.C. This statement was
distributed in Chicago at the July 23 “National Summit on Diversity in Our Union Movement: A Voice for Every Worker,” sponsored by the AFL-CIO and Labor Coalition for Community Action. Thomas, national co-chair of the MWMM, presented it to both AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumpka. Thomas also presented Sweeney with the official Oct. 17, 2004, MWM rally DVD.