Black Labor Vows ‘We Will Not Be
by BAR executive editor
"CBTU has from the beginning viewed the labor struggle as
a people's struggle."
"We're tired of living between ‘hard times' and ‘bad
times,'" said William Lucy, addressing the 36th annual convention of
the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU),
late last month. "We cannot cure the system, as it is. There is an urgent need
for a New Economic Subscription." The new arrangement requires that "we
dismantle the corporate agenda."
The Hyatt Regency
Hotel convention site, its two towers perched high above the Chicago River,
drew 1,200 delegates and one presidential contender - Barack Obama, a Chicagoan
and the only candidate to accept CBTU President Lucy's invitation. But the most
painful absence was the army of de-unionized and unemployed workers -
disproportionately Black - ejected from decent-wage employment by the "corporate
agenda...the U.S. Chamber of Commerce agenda... the agenda of the National
Association of Manufacturers...the agenda of the rich and wealthy," as Lucy put
The devastation pre-dates - but has been exponentially
increased under - George Bush. An Economic Policy Institute study showed
a nearly 900,000 net jobs loss due to NAFTA trade policies from 1993 to 2002 -
78 percent of them in manufacturing. An AFL-CIO report registered three
million manufacturing jobs lost between 2001 and 2005. And of the union
jobs lost in 2004, 55 percent "were held by black workers, even though they
represented only 13 percent of total union membership," according the Black
labor writer Dwight Kirk.
"More stunningly," said Kirk, "African American women accounted for 70 percent
of the union jobs lost by women in 2004."
"Those of us who are here are the lucky ones," Lucy told the
The CBTU's first mass gathering was in Chicago, at the old
LaSalle Hotel, in 1972, the same year William Lucy became
secretary-treasurer of the now 1.4 million-member American Federation of State,
County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). At that inaugural convention, the
1,200 delegates all paid their own way. Today, the vast majority are sent by
their affiliated unions.
1972 was also a watershed year for U.S. labor in general,
the end of a post-World War Two era when the poorest workers made the greatest
income gains. From 1973 on, the richest segment of the population grew ever
fatter, while manufacturing jobs were exported to the super-exploitation zones
of the planet, and unionized workers dwindled to only 7 percent in the private
sector, 12 percent among public employees.
"The rich and powerful have apparently concluded that
millions of people in this country and millions around the world are
permanently expendable," wrote Lucy, in a pre-speech release. "In their hands,
war famine, disease, incarceration, and random violence have now become the
real weapons of mass destruction, eliminating those who can no longer be
absorbed into the economic system or be exploited by its corporate masters.
The CBTU, which
"has survived longer than any other Black labor organization in American
history," spans the entire period of American manufacturing and worker income
decline. "When you pair George W. Bush with Dead-eye Dick Cheney, the
modern-day Machiavelli, you have the scariest White House duo since
Nixon-Agnew," said Lucy.
"Labor, CBTU, can beat City Hall."
In the decades since Nixon, as car- and steel-makers shrunk,
Wal-Mart emerged as the largest employer in the United States and unchallenged
leader in foreign outsourcing, union-suppression, and hyper-aggressive assaults
on the fragile social safety net. Chicago labor - especially Black labor -
fought valiantly to keep the predatory retailer out of the city, and then
succeeded in passing a Big Box ordinance mandating Wal-Mart and other
mega-stores pay $10 an hour wages by 2010. Despite studies that showed 90 percent of Black
Chicagoans supported the measure, Mayor Richard Daley vetoed it with the
help of half the Black city aldermen. Labor retaliated against Daley's minions
in the next election cycle, unseating a
number of them.
"The Chicago Chapter [of CBTU] beat city Hall!" Lucy told
cheering delegates. "In the end, some folks flipped on us, so we flipped on
them. Some of them are gone. Labor, CBTU, can beat City Hall."
The emphasis on grassroots,
down-and-dirty organizing outside the shop floor - on enlisting the
broader community in the battle against corporate domination of society - is
nothing new for the CBTU, which has from the beginning viewed the labor struggle
as a people's struggle. "Since the
earliest days of this nation when democracy was built on racial exploitation,"
says the CBTU's website,
"black workers have risked their lives to protect and empower their communities
through agitation, collective action and faith."
A movement to "dismantle
the corporate agenda" cannot be accomplished by old-style, guild-like labor
organizations focused only on narrow workplace issues - especially when the
very existence of the workplace is in question. "Our mission is to give our
chapters the capacity to hold citywide economic forums," said Lucy, to hold
"town hall meetings, educate our people about Wal-Mart, make life difficult for
Just as Martin Luther King, Jr. found that he could not lead
a people-emancipating movement if it were constrained by narrow definitions of "civil
rights" - that the War in Vietnam crippled the War on Poverty, and that
corporate rule was antithetical to democracy - so the Black labor movement
understood early on that its mission is to resist the totality of oppression,
and to envision a new world. The revolution - which is what dismantling the
corporate agenda must mean - will not be ghettoized, narrowly trade unionized,
but must be generalized. This requires that leaders undertake the deepest
analysis and broadest critique of the society and larger world they inhabit.
"The nation is less safe and humane than it was five years
ago," said Lucy to a crowd comprised of over a thousand labor and community
leaders in the own right. "The stock market hit 13,000 two weeks ago - how many
of y'all feel richer?" He cites a report that shows "50 percent of American
workers live paycheck to paycheck" - a necessary condition for dragooning
Americans into a global race to the bottom.
Sixteen million Americans are in "deep and severe poverty,"
while one percent of the population owns 20 percent of the wealth, "the highest
In 1980, just twenty seven years ago, corporate chief
executive officers earned forty two times that of the average worker. Today the
CEO earns four hundred eleven times the average worker. The average CEO earns more on the first day of the year than
the average workers earn all year.
CEO salaries multiply at an obscene rate. "There's nothing legal
you can do for that kind of money," said Lucy. The crowd responded with
knowing, bitter laughter.
market hit 13,000 two weeks ago - how many of y'all feel richer?"
"Why is the only guaranteed housing our government will
offer our children, a jail cell," he continued. "Folk commit crime because they
need money" - a fact that is obvious to people who actually live in Black
America, where Columbine-like events are viewed as white-folks-crazy behavior.
"Crime went down five consecutive years during the Clinton years." Of course it
did: more people were at work at the remaining good jobs. Today, violent crime
indexes are up, especially for offenses usually associated with economic
motives and tensions, such as robberies and drug gang-related murders.
The trade unionist's emphasis on economic issues, and the
Black activist's on the general condition of one's people, are combined in the
CBTU. Delegates recognized - to a man and woman - the inherent contradiction
between imperial warfare and domestic progress. None of the broad goals
outlined by Lucy - that all who want a job should have a job; workers should
live in dignity with healthcare and retirement security for their families; all
workers should have the opportunity to form a union and bargain collectively,
and share in the prosperity of the economy - can be accomplished in an
environment of eternal warfare, and resultant domestic militarization, ethnic
scapegoating, and shrinking social space.
African Americans, historically unburdened by notions of
American Manifest Destiny, find no contradiction in being good unionists and
anti-war activists, too. The nine-tenths of Blacks that voted against George
Bush know he is not "our" president.
"Bush is the most isolated, incompetent president in
American history. He turned the Department of Defense into the Department of
Evil," said Lucy, to loud applause. These actions are inseparable from the
imposition of a "cutthroat economy in ‘which greed is good' and people are told
to ‘make it on your own.'"
Roots of Solidarity
African Americans have been, collectively, "on their own"
for most of post-Columbus history in the Western Hemisphere. For that
historical reason, the term "self-help" assumes a social dimension, rather than
an individualistic one, in Black America. At the CBTU convention, teams fanned
out to workshops that explored issues such as Workplace Violence, HIV/AIDS,
Building Unity Across Color Lines, the Fundamentals of Organizing, and The Case
Against Smithfield Packing, as well as money management, personal health care
and other more mundane concerns. For Black trade unionists, it's all part of
the same community-building-protecting cloth.
Labor activists Susan Washington and Cecelie Counts prompted
delegates to discuss the general and specific meaning of graphs showing the
vast economic changes that have occurred in the U.S. since the mid-20th
Century. Two-thirds of the "An America That Works for All" workshop
participants were female, a ratio that held for most workshops - and no
surprise given that Black women are the most union-friendly demographic in the
nation, and are also the backbone of activist and church organizations.
explained the results of the breakdown in the social contract in terms now
familiar to middle-aged parents: boomerang kids. "You put them out, and they
come right back - sometimes with their own kids," said Washington. Heads nodded
"Black women are the most union-friendly demographic in
At the "Building Unity Across Lines of Color" workshop, organizers encouraged the nearly
all-Black gathering to be introspective. After eliciting common stereotypes of
union leaders ("party too much," "corrupt," "selfish," "dancing with management,"
"selling members down the drain"), participants, all local union leaders, were
cautioned: "We often turn stereotypes against other people in the same way as
people use them against us."
Workshop leader Sharon Lovelady Hall held up an old LP
recording to explain how "each one of us has a ‘record' inside us. Sometimes
our ‘record'" - our group background - "speaks for us, not our intelligence,"
Virulently anti-worker Smithfield Foods looms second only
to Wal-Mart as a target of broad-based union action. "We're dealing with a
corporation that has no corporate conscience," said Bill Lucy, making the
rounds of various workshops. The company operates the world's largest hog
processing plant, in Tarheel, North Carolina, and has been cited by Human Rights Watch
for violating international workplace standards. "We've got to make Smithfield synonymous with violation of
workers' rights," said Lucy, in the same way that Shell Oil was subjected to
global condemnation for its alliance with white rule in Africa - a campaign in
which Lucy was a key player.
Organizer Rigo Valdez was careful to remind the workshop
audience that American unions are forbidden by law (!) to advocate
boycotts - although individual union members are free to engage in such
activities. Therefore, community coalitions are mounting campaigns in important
Smithfield Ham markets - Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington,
Raleigh, Nashville, Atlanta, Richmond and Dallas - to make the Smithfield name
smell as bad as the environs polluted by its gargantuan lakes of hog excrement.
Informational materials will be posted in barber and beauty shops, and
supermarkets targeted, one by one, until the stench is cleared.
Organize or Disappear
Black unionists may have emerged even stronger from the Big Labor
Split of 2005, when for a time it seemed that both the AFL-CIO and breakaway
unions that later formed "Change
to Win" were jettisoning commitments to diversity in the trade union
movement. No such cleavage occurred within the CBTU, where SEIU (Change to
Win), AFSCME (AFL-CIO) and unionists of all affiliations refused to allow
labor's "top management" squabbles to intrude on Black solidarity.
Solidarity with one another encourages others to seek
solidarity with us.
"You risk your family's well being just to join a union."
Communications Workers of America (CWA) President Larry
Cohen is a founder of Jobs With Justice, and
has addressed many CBTU gatherings. An early speaker at the convention, Cohen
launched into a push for final passage of the Employee
Free Choice Act. The measure, which would make it far easier to unionize
workers, passed the U.S. House in March and comes up in the Senate, later this
year. But George Bush has already vowed to veto it.
"No other country in the world has the obstacle course for
workers trying to get union rights," said Cohen, "except Columbia, where you
George Bush is a great fan of the Columbian regime, too.
The U.S. has "gone backward" since 1935, when the National Labor
Relations Act was passed, said the CWA leader. "You risk your family's well
being just to join a union."
Immigration, the great bugaboo of contemporary U.S.
politics, boils down to a simple equation. "Guest worker programs...create two
classes of workers," said Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive vice-president of
the AFL-CIO. As for the mish-mash McCain-Kennedy bill, "We don't support it. It
is a joke." As a Mexican-American, she remembers the old "Bracero" guest
workers labor scheme as "an indentured worker program."
Workers can only bargain collectively, when they all have
equal rights. The curse of the U.S. labor movement - the most important factor
in its failure to become an independent political force in national affairs,
unlike labor in other developed countries - was generations of white labor insistence
on maintaining a two-tier system of employment, with themselves on top. In the
end, the whole labor edifice began crumbling down.
Health care, the lack of it, is the most potently popular
issue in America, today. Yet not one of the top-tier Democratic presidential
aspirants proposes anything that resembles a universal health care plan.
Republican front-runner Rudolph Giuliani ridicules the whole concept as
"socialized medicine," said AFSCME union President Gerald McEntee. The
audience, heavy with New Yorkers, burst into "boo's" at the mention of
Giuliani's name. "They [Republicans] are enriching the members of their party
and impoverishing everyone else," roared McEntee.
Sensing a good crowd, McEntee explicated the significance of
George Bush's middle initial. " "'W' stands for "wicked," "wretched," "worst,"
and "wrongheaded." Only the elderly, and very busy note-takers, stayed in their
McEntee knows where Black folks buttons are located.
"Katrina was the most bungled disaster response in our nation's history.... Bush
turned his back on New Orleans and the entire Gulf Coast."
Then the peroration: "We're not spreading democracy in Iraq,
we're spreading violence and anarchy. We want the troops to come home today!"
Everybody said "Yeah," like Stevie Wonder on "Fingertips."
"Republicans are enriching the members of their party and
impoverishing everyone else."
Rep. Bennie Thompson, the sole Black representative from the
once Black-majority state of Mississippi, is a special friend of CBTU. Now
chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, which oversees 22 formerly
separate agencies employing, at its post-9/11 inception 180,000
workers, Thompson promised to fight for union rights in the Department.
The funniest of CBTU's guests, Thompson rejected the
contention that immigrants are doing jobs that Americans refuse to perform.
"There are more than enough jobs to go around," he said, "people just don't
want to PAY!" The Congressional Black Caucus "will continue to be the single
largest source of support for labor in the U.S. House. Not Hispanics, not Blue
Dogs - you gotta come to the Black Dog!"
The debacle in Iraq has so poisoned world opinion of
Americans, Thompson is personally concerned about traveling abroad. On one of
his overseas journeys, "Somebody said to me, ‘You look like you're from the
Caribbean.' I said, ‘Yeah, Mon!'" Bones audibly cracked in the convention hall.
The Obama Phenomenon
A day later than scheduled, Sen. Barack Obama arrived at the
Chicago Regency Hyatt. As a favorite son on several levels, this was his
audience. Obama named specific union leaders who, "if it were not for them, I
wouldn't be a United States Senator." He harkened back to the 1968 Memphis
sanitation workers' strike, which drew Dr. Martin Luther King to his final
destination (and where a young Bill Lucy further developed his own vision of
Freedom Movement-Labor struggle).
"Your agenda has been my agenda," Obama told the unionists,
endorsing the fight to "give employees a free choice." He spoke in general
terms about the paltriness of the minimum wage. On health care, the candidate
vowed to "save money by cutting bureaucracy...by making sure that people are not
getting fat off the system."
Education would be best served by giving teachers and
schools "more flexibility" and providing "them more resources to do it."
African Americans, he noted, are "twice as likely to be
unemployed. African American women make 66 cents on the dollar.... That's
un-American, it's got to change." Obama is in favor of job training, and a
change in the "trading system with other countries."
Each vague point was punctuated by enthusiastic applause.
The night before, Obama had voted against Democratic
leadership's "compromise" Iraq War Funding bill. "The way that we are going to
show that we support the troops," he said, " is to start bringing some
of them home." (emphasis mine)
"People are hungry for change. They are crying out for
something new," said Obama, winding up. "You are not only winning an election
for Democrats, you are gonna put one of your OWN in the White House."
Nobody sat after that. Obama spent at least an hour in the
hotel's lower level, taking pictures with delegates. He had not made a
substantive statement of intent on any of the CBTU's treasured and very
definitive positions, other than the Employee Free Choice Act.
But in a sense, it doesn't matter. Obama is a politician.
Movements are meant to make and break politicians, not the other way around.
It's Movement Time.
BAR executive editor Glen
Ford can be contacted at Glen.Ford (at) BlackAgendaReport.com.