Unions and black liberation - Martin Glaberman

A critical review by Martin Glaberman of the book, The Negro and the American Labor Movement. Originally appeared in Radical America (September-October 1968)

Submitted by Juan Conatz on October 9, 2012

The Negro and the American Labor Movement, Julius Jacobson, editor. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1968. 1+3o pp., $1.75 (pbk).

This book helps to fill a great void in material on a crucial area of American life, making considerable information on black workers and the trade union movement easily accessible. Its early chapters, devoted primarily to the history of the problem, are especially valuable: August Meier and Elliott Rudwick on black leaders’ attitudes toward the labor movement, Herbert Gutman on the United Mine Workers, Ray Marshall on southern unions and Mark Karson and Ronald Radosh on the A. F. of L. provide very useful contributions to an understanding of the current situation. The anthology as a whole, however, and particularly those parts dealing with immediate issues and arguments are marred by a traditional view of the struggle for black liberation. It is a view from before the time of Debs and, although it is somewhat modified here to remove the most glaring contradictions with current reality, it does not go much beyond the time-worn slogan of "Black and white, Unite and Fight.“

The Negro and the American Labor Movement deals primarily with the organized union movement, which is a reasonable enough area of discussion but does not justify either the tendency to identify the unions with the workers as a whole or the distinctions that are made when the two are viewed separately. Jacobson, in his introduction, notes "that the efforts of the CIO leadership to raise the rank and file to its own level of egalitarian consciousness were inadequate." (p. 8.) The idea that the labor leadership (or any significant part of it) has had a more radical consciousness than the rank and file worker is a myth with widespread support. But when union leaders use a language that is constantly belied by their acts it seems much more reasonable to believe that their consciousness is reflected in their acts and that their language is a reflection of what they believe to be the consciousness of their constituents. The leaders universally use the harshest disciplinary measures against their members on such questions as wildcat strikes or violations of company-union contracts. When they begin to show as little regard for prejudice against Negroes as they do for prejudice against no-strike pledges, it may begin to be necessary to take them seriously.

White workers are shot through with prejudice against blacks. It would be difficult to imagine it to be otherwise after centuries of slavery and a system of education, entertainment and communication completely dominated by racist doctrines. But there have been occasions when workers have attempted to overcome this heritage and have been pushed back by their leaders. The Detroit auto plants during World War II are a case in point. Thousands of southerners, whites and blacks, men and women found themselves working side by side. Most southern whites, propagandized by years of stories of race mixing, were prepared to accept the "worst" when they came North. In many plants social intercourse across race and sex lines became common. By the end of the war, it was apparent that the basic characteristic of the union leaders’ ideology was not equality but timidity, and the racism inherent in this society was quickly reaffirmed. Neither the union nor its leaders ever gave anything more than verbal allegiance to racial equality. The gains made were made by the direct pressure of black workers. When national unions, such as the UAW, moved against the overtly racist practices of some southern locals, it was not from any egalitarian consciousness at all but from the need to placate the powerfully-placed black workers in their membership in the north.


More fundamental than the "consciousness" of union leaders (best left to psychoanalysts) is the role of the union as such. Jacobson says that

"the unions‘ right to organize, to bargain collectively, to improve the welfare of their members must be fortified constantly by progressive, democratic social and economic legislation. Similarly, the position of the Negro worker in American society, not merely as a worker but as a Negro with unique needs and interests, cannot be improved without a continual growth and application in life of demo-cratic principles." (p. 22.)

This is traditionally the objective basis for the Negro-labor coalition. The problem is the union institution and how it has changed in time. Old categories no longer apply and there is little point in talking as if this were 1938 instead of 1968.

Let us be specific: "The unions‘ right to organize, to bargain collectively," is no longer equivalent to “to improve the welfare of their members." One could ask whose welfare was improved by John L. Lewis‘ right to bargain away the jobs of 150,000 miners in the 1950's by accepting unlimited mechanization of the mines; whose welfare was protected by Harry Bridges’ notorious waterfront contract which reduced the younger workers to second class status in the union and on the job; and whose welfare is improved by Reuther‘s contracts which steadily destroy the working conditions of the auto workers for trivial fringe benefits. These were among the most militant of the industrial unions. Most unions are much worse. It is not accidental that the right to organize and bargain collectively of the great industrial unions is strongly protected by the forces of law and order in most circumstances (This, of course, does not apply to newer unions in peripheral industries, such as agriculture), The basic function of the union has become to participate in the administration of production and to protect the relative position of a favored few. This should be visible to anyone familiar with conditions in basic industry, whose head is not still back in the ‘thirties.

Under these circumstances the objective mutuality of interest between black and white workers has to be sought elsewhere. It can be found in the union only in the sense that the union has become hostile to the basic interests of both black and white workers. It cannot be found on the simple questions of race, but rather in the fact that their conditions of life and work force black workers and white workers to fight the same enemy, an enemy which is not simply the abstract "system" but the particular institutions of this society that oppress those whom it dominates, including the government, the corporations, and the unions.

The need to struggle within the union movement against racism and racist practices should not blind either the student or activist to a sense of historic and economic development. Battles over "consciousness" in itself have accomplished little here. Sumner M. Rosen, in his article on the CIO, notes: "Most advances secured by Negro industrial workers during the CIO's life time were due to dominant economic forces, specifically the acute and prolonged labor shortage which prevailed during the Second World War." Thus, economic forces will not secure advances without struggle, but struggle will not secure advances that have no relation to the specific historical conditions.

And it is the point of history at which the book is weakest. There is little recognition of the continuing, even growing, power and significance of the black industrial working class. On the one hand, blacks continue to serve as a "permanent reserve army of the unemployed," for a blue-collar sector in which the absolute number of jobs has risen in the last decade. On the other hand, they (along with the white industrial workers) continue to reside in a critical position for the possibility of a successful socialist revolution, at the basic gears of the social order. The presence of black majorities in major auto plants, particularly Ford and Chrysler, is the basis for such developments as DRUM (Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement) which has shut down the main Dodge plant several times. Black workers do man significant segments of American industry from the inside. They can shut it down; they can transform it or destroy it.

The motion of millions of workers in the ‘thirties to transform American society led to effective unity between black and white industrial workers and prevented the unemployment from leading to race wars. But the struggle for liberation was then, and is today, countered by the reaction. The growth of the Klan, of the Black Legion, of the movements of Coughlin and Gerald L. K. Smith attempted to counter the unrest and the revolutionary outbreaks. Their equivalents are everywhere evident today as a response to the struggle for liberation. The radical rejoinder must go beyond defense onto the offensive, based on the strategic strength of the black industrial worker and his ability to carry the white workers along with him. The greatest barrier to such a development is the notion that struggles of black and white workers have to take place within the framework of the labor unions.

An example of this latter notion is Jacobson's defense of preferential hiring for Negroes (pp. 13-lh.) He is forced to reduce the question to terms that are manageable within a union framework: isn't the graduated income tax preferential? etc., etc. In fact, of course, preferential hiring barely scratches the surface. If black workers were preferentially hired everywhere they would still be the last hired and, by seniority standards, the first fired. But the union has no choice but to defend the seniority system which discriminates against black people, young people and women. Its function in this society is to administer the rules by which its members are protected against capitalism's worst evils, and there is no way it can relinquish this function without ceasing to be a union. what is required is not preferential hiring (except as a modest local demand) but a complete reorganization of jobs. And that is possible only on the basis of a new society, one in which jobs are not dependent on the requirements of managers but on the collective decision of the workers. That may be a Utopian ideal or a practical possibility, according to how one sees it. In either case, it is in fundamental opposition to the unions as they now are or as they may conceivably become.

Originally appeared in Radical America (September-October 1968)



11 years 9 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by syndicalist on October 10, 2012

Interesting. I actually have the Jacobson* book on my shelf. I can't remember reading it or just parts of it.

What I find of interest here are two things. First being the year the book was published, 1968. It was prolly edited from texts written a year or two before that. That would mean at the height of union dentistry. And just about the time of a real rise in on the job Afro-American militancy (and before the rise of ELDRUM, DRUM, LRBW). So Jacobson's framework, much in tune with a general democratic socialist union agenda which existed at that time.

The second point of interest, for me, is that BOTH Glaberman and Jacobson were comrades at one time. Both belonged to the Workers Party, as did Stan Wier who is frequently discussed/promoted on Libcom.

The trajectory of the WP split is quite interesting. And Glaberman's review, while not obvious to the uninformed reader, indicates elements of his criticism of some ex-WP members move towards a more traditional struggle within the trade unions.

Jules Jacobson:



Another interesting ex-WP member was BJ Widick, although he went right,right wing,
his own history is of interest: http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/revhist/backiss/vol10/no1/wald.html