The need for a black labour federation

Protest against unemployment in black communities.
Protest against unemployment in black communities.

Ex-Black Panther and ex-political prisoner Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin writes in his Anarchism and the Black Revolution about the need for a Black Labor Federation.

Submitted by AJI on August 26, 2011

The demand for Black labor has been the central economic factor in America; it was Black labor that built the foundations of this nation. Beginning with slave labor in the Old South on plantations, then with sharecropping and other farm labor after the Civil war, successive migration to the North and working mills, mine and factories during a 40 year period (1890- 1920), and on down to the present day, Black labor is important to the functioning of the Capitalist economic order. Almost from the beginning, Black workers have organized their own Labor unions and worker’s associations to represent their interests: the National Colored Labor Union in 1869, the national Colored Farmer’s Alliance (Populist) in the same year, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in the 1940s, the league of Black Revolutionary Workers in the 1960s; the United Construction Workers Association and the Black and Puerto Rican Coalition of Construction Workers in the 1970s, and on down to the present day with such unions or associations as the Black Workers for Justice and the Coalition for Black Trade Unionists. Some of these were unions, some were just associations of Black workers in existing unions. (NOTE: In addition to Black organized or led labor federations in the 1870s, there were 90,600 Black workers in the Knights of Labor in the 1880s and at least 100,000 in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the 1900s.

In fact, the trade unions would not even exist today if it were not for the assistance and support of the Black worker. Trade unionism was born as an effective national movement amid the great convulsions of the Civil War and the fight to end slavery, yet Black workers were routinely excluded from unions like the American Federation of Labor. Only militant associations like the Knights, IWW and the Anarchist-initiated International Working People’s Association (IWPA) would accept their memberships at all. This continued for many years, until the founding of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) began its campaign of strikes, sit-downs, and other protest actions to organize the unskilled industrial workers. Black labor was pivotal in these battles, yet has never fully reaped the benefits. In fact, the Labor bosses betrayed them when the CIO was beaten down in the 1950s.

You would think that American labor movement would see it as criminal or racist to ignore these fellow workers today in that fashion. But even now there is no labor organization in the U. S. which gives full representation and equal treatment to Black workers. The fact is that even with some Black Labor officials in office, Black workers receive far fewer union benefits than white workers, and are trapped in the most low-paid, tedious and dangerous jobs, even though they made substantial economic gains during the 1960s.

The majority of the Black masses are in the working class. Because of the role they play in production, Black industrial and clerical workers are potentially the most powerful sector of the Black community in the struggle for Black liberation. As the victims of inequality in the economy, Black workers have already begun to organize for their interests and protect their rights on the job, even if the union is conservative and won’t fight the boss. They have formed union caucuses and even independent labor unions where necessary. Of course, the unity of Black and white workers is indispensable to combat and overthrow Capitalism. But where white workers are now privileged and Black workers are penalized, Black unity and struggle must precede and prepare the ground for any Black-white unity on a broad scale. Black caucuses in the Unions can fight against discrimination in hiring, firing, and upgrading, and for equality of treatment in the unions, now, while white workers still have yet to widely support democratic rights for Black and other oppressed nationalities. Black Caucuses are important. Where they are part of organized labor, they should strive to democratize the unions, regenerate their fighting spirits, and eliminate white job trust practices. These Black caucuses in the unions should demand:

Rank and file democratic control of the union.
Equal rights and treatment for all unionists; eliminate all racist practices in the labor movement.
Affirmative action programs to redress past racist employment practices, end racial discrimination based on seniority and other ploys.
Full employment for all Blacks, women, and other non-white workers.
A 20-30 hour workweek with no reduction in pay.
The right to strike, including wildcat strikes without union sanction.
Speedier and fair grievance procedures.
An escalator clause in all union contracts to ensure automatic wage adjustments to keep up with the rising cost of living.
Full payment of social security by employer and the government. Full unemployment compensation at 100 of base pay.
Minimum wages at union scale.
Prevent runaway shops, phony bankruptcy, or “strategic plant shutdowns” by companies without notice to union or to gain advantage in contract negotiations.
A public works program to rebuild the Black and other inner-city communities, and to provide work for Black workers.
Worker’s self-management of industry by factory committees and worker’s councils, elected by the workers themselves.
In addition to the union caucuses, Black working people need a national Black workers association, which would be both a revolutionary union movement to do workplace organizing, but also would be a mass social movement for community organizing. Such a movement would combine the organizing tactics to both the labor and Black Liberation movements. It is not designed to drive Blacks out of those unions where they are already organized, but would rather serve as a tool to multiply their numbers and strength, and turn their unions into militant, class struggle instruments.

The League of Revolutionary Black Workers, which organized Black auto workers during the late 190s provides an example of the type of organization needed The League, which grew out of its major affiliate, the Dodge Revolutionary Movement (DRUM), was undoubtedly the most militant Black Labor movement in American history. 1l was a Black labor federation which existed as an organized alternative to the United Auto Workers, and was the inevitable step of taking the Black Liberation struggle to the industrial shop floor, the point of production, and Capitalism’s most vulnerable area.

The League had wisely decided to organize in the Detroit automobile production industry. This was an industry where its workers were an important part of the workforce and also in the Detroit Black community, where the League united the struggle in the factories with that of the Black struggle as a whole. It quickly became a major force in the workplace and in the streets as many of its cadres organized on college campuses and in the Black inner-city areas. It had the potential to become a mass nationwide Black working class movement, but this potential was stifled through political faction fights among the leadership, lack of a solid organized base in the factories; company/UAW/and State repression, organized racism and lack of cooperation among white workers, and other such reasons. Eventually the League split into mutually hostile factions and died, after less than five years of existence.

Even though the League was at best a revolutionary syndicalism organization, and later a rigid Marxist-Leninist organization, (and their adoption of this later authoritarian ideology, with its ideas of purges and unquestioned leadership, directly lead to its demise), there is much that Anarchists and radical Black labor activists can learn from the League. The main thing is that Black workers can and should be organized into some sore of independent labor association, in addition to or even in lieu of, their membership in organized labor unions and especially where the unions are of the sellout type and discriminates against Blacks. Also it is much easier for Black workers to organize other Black workers and their community in support of strikes and workplace organizing. That is precisely why we need to establish a group like the League today, but as an Anarcho-Syndicalist organization, so as to avoid the past pitfalls and ideological squabbles of Marxism-Leninism- Simply stated what would be the program of a newly formed National Federation of Black Workers?

For class struggle against the bosses.

To organize the unorganized Black workers ignored by the trade unions.

For workers solidarity among all nationalities of workers.

It should be an International Black Labor Federation!

From Detroit, Michigan to Durban, South Africa, from the Caribbean to Australia, from Brazil to England, Black workers are universally oppressed and exploited. The Black working class needs its own world labor organization. There is no racial group more borne down by social restraint than Black workers; they are oppressed as workers and as a people. Because of these dual forms of oppression and the fact that most trade unions exclude or do not struggle for Black laborer’s rights, we must organize for our own rights and liberation. Even though in many African and Caribbean countries there are “Black” labor federations, they are reformist or government-controlled. There is a large working class in many of these countries, but they have no militant labor organizations to lead the struggle. The building of a Black workers’ movement for revolutionary industrial sabotage and a general strike, or organize the workers for self- management of production, and so undermine and overthrow the government is the number one priority.

What would an international Black labor federation stand for? Firstly, since many Black workers, farmers, and peasants are not organized at all in most countries, such an organization would be one big union of Black workers, representing every conceivable sill and vocation. Also such an organization means the worldwide unity of Black workers, and then, secondly, it means coordinated international labor revolts. Capital and Labor have nothing in common.

The real strength of workers against Capital and the imperialist countries is economic warfare. A revolutionary general strike and boycott of the multinational corporations and their goods by Black workers all over the globe is how they can be hurt. For instance, if we want to make Britain and the USA withdraw financial and military support from South Africa then we use the weight and power of Black Labor in those countries to wage strikes, sabotage, boycott and other forms of political and economic struggle against those countries and the multinational companies involved. It would be r power to be reckoned with. For instance, coordinated actions by trade unions and political action groups in that country have already causes major-policy changes, a full-fledged general strike would likely lead to the total economic collapse of the racist South African state, especially if such strikes were supported by Black workers in North America.

In addition to asking the Black workers to form their own international labor federation and to organize rank-and-file committees within their existing trade unions to push them into a class struggle direction, we also invite Black workers to join Anarcho-Syndicalist labor organizations like the IWW and the Workers Solidarity Alliance, the American section of the International Workers’ Association, which is based in Paris, France. But, of course, it is not intended to drive Black workers out of those unions where they are already active, but would rather serve as a tool to multiply their number and strength in such unions, and make them more militant.