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“The hounds of racism, greed and militarism still threaten not only our families, jobs and communities,” said William Lucy, President of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), “but also the entire global human family.”

Lucy’s remarks, part of the Call to Convention for the CBTU’s 35th annual gathering, in Orlando, Florida, May 24 – 29, evoke the “Triple Evils” cited by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his famous “Where Do We Go from Here?” speech: “[T]he problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together,” King told a convention of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, August 16, 1967, in Atlanta. “These are the triple evils that are interrelated.”

Nearly two generations later, the same evils remain, as does Dr. King’s question: Where do we go from here? In this era of rightwing resurgence, deindustrialization and wholesale outsourcing of jobs, Black trade unionists “must vigorously challenge these twin lies: that a low-wage economy is both good and necessary for America to regain its global economic power and that working families must accept a lower standard of living, while inept CEOs collect fat paychecks,” said Lucy. “We must change the economic thinking of national and local policy-makers if we intend to create a new economic order where social prosperity is shared by all.”

2006 is shaping up as The Year of African American (Re)Assessment. The National Black Peoples Unity Convention, held March 9 – 12 in Gary, Indiana, site of the watershed 1972 National Black Political Convention, was first publicly proposed at last year’s CBTU convention, in Phoenix, Arizona. “It’s time to go back to Gary,” Lucy told the 1,500 delegates. “Let’s go back to Gary and once again change the direction of this country.”

Unlike Gary I, the hundreds of delegates to Gary II arrived with economics on their minds. “The first Gary convention addressed political power, getting folks elected – and we have done that,” said CBTU Executive Vice President Willie Baker, an International VP of the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW). Economic development proposals put forward at Gary II will be discussed and voted on at the CBTU’s upcoming Orlando convention. That’s in line with the Gary II philosophy, which calls for an ongoing political process that can actually implement strategies, as opposed to grand but disconnected gatherings that in the end produce…nothing.

What is Economic Development?

The CBTU was founded by Lucy and other African American labor leaders in 1972, the same year as Gary I. Despite the exponential increase in Black elected officials in the intervening years, African American workers are, if anything, in an even more precarious position. “We are trying to shift to an economic approach,” said Lucy. “Both political parties need to respond to the Black community with an economic agenda, rather than competing to see who can do the best civil rights speech. We will begin to lay out the demand that both parties roll out some economic position” relevant to the African American condition.

Unfortunately, the very term “economic development” is ill-defined – not just among Black Americans, but in the national vocabulary. As BC Executive Editor Glen Ford observed in an April 27 Radio BC commentary:

“Among some Black political tendencies, the term ‘economic development’ is thought to be synonymous with individual entrepreneurship. That’s a very narrow definition of economic development, one that reduces most Blacks to the role of mere potential customers, who are expected to support individual Black businesspeople as if the survival of The Race depended on it.”

Black unionists know full well the value of collective labor power, political power, and earning power. “There’s lots of potential earning power in our communities,” said the UFCW’s Willie Baker. “There’s a direct correlation between economic power for Black Americans and labor unions. When the UAW loses 200,000 jobs, there are large numbers of Blacks losing jobs. African Americans are the most severely impacted” – a fact brought home most starkly by U.S. Labor Department statistics that showed “55 percent (or 168,000) of the union jobs lost in 2004 were held by black workers, even though they represented only 13 percent of total union membership.” (See Dwight Kirk, BC, February 24, 2005.)

The decline in Black living standards cannot be reversed by Black entrepreneurialism that benefits only a few, and is itself often dependent on the earning power of Black working people. Economic development in Black America means, first and foremost, good jobs at good wages.

“At one time Detroit had the highest paid Black workers in the country,” Willie Baker reminds us:

“We have to figure out how to get that economic power back. The lesson of Gary is not just more job training – it’s more unions. Many of the jobs we are trained for are being shipped abroad. There are more Blacks working at computer jobs than whites, but these jobs are being outsourced.

“We don’t object to more Black businesses, but the vast majority of Black people are workers. When you destroy their jobs you destroy their way of life.”

Any “economic development” strategy for Black America that does not place Black workers and their families – their conditions of life, their prospects for the future, and their political and social empowerment – at the center, is objectively marginal and morally flawed. “Opening up a cleaners is useful, but that’s not an economy,” said William Lucy, who is also Secretary-Treasurer of AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “We need government incentives to create something that is sustainable. How do we lay the foundations for a community economy? Community-oriented, light and small industry. Democrats ought to have a jobs plan, a reindustrialization plan.”

Most importantly, African Americans need a plan – or rather, lots of plans. (See BC, “A Plan for the Cities to Save Themselves, Part V,” July 29, 2004.)

“Super-ideas” came out of Gary II, Lucy reported. “[Former Gary Mayor] Richard Hatcher advanced ideas for energy based industries” that would employ large numbers of African Americans, provide opportunities for Black entrepreneurs, and operate profitably and productively in an era of energy and environmental crisis.

Economic Development for Whom?

Despite the savage attrition wrought by deindustrialization and rampant union busting, African American organized labor still represents the greatest potential mass organizing force in Black America – greater even than the African American church, which has always been divided between houses of the progressive gospel and preachers of accommodation and escapism. The CBTU’s leadership envision an alliance between Black labor and those churches that are already involved in community-building enterprises. The synergies are obvious, and go far beyond the fact that Black union households and church-going households overlap. Both churches and unions are mass organizations, sustained by the contributions of their members. If there is to be economic change in Black America, it will come through mass political action, sustained by the massed capital and energies of the people. The new Movement will not be a mom-and-pop enterprise. Its objectives can only be achieved through the accumulation and exercise of political power.

At every strategic level, Black labor will find that its new, economic development orientation will require political action to reshape the political-economic environment, dominated by capital and the corrupt politicians that serve it. Economic development that serves the masses of Black people must confront the business plans of those who would shape society to serve only themselves.

“Where do we find that niche in our markets?” asks William Lucy. “Why should Wal-Mart be the only one that can open a store?” Lucy knows the answer: Wal-Mart is a machinery of relentless monopolization and mass impoverishment. Says Lucy: “Wal-Mart has the best plan, for its own purposes. The problem is, when it succeeds, it wipes out everybody else. We need to fear Wal-Mart and the creation of an economic oligarchy.”

“The effort ought to be to force Wal-Mart to deal with the community. The community should have the authority to argue for workers, small business owners and citizens.”

Lucy is encouraged by recent legislation in Maryland that forces Wal-Mart to spend at least eight percent of its payroll on employee health care, or pay the money to the state’s health program for the poor.

The struggle for Black economic development cannot be separated from political action that puts government at the service of communities, rather than a facilitator for self-serving capital. For example, “Older cities have an awful lot of land that’s not on the tax roles. Urban plans should be tied to meeting urban goals and needs,” said Lucy.

Popular power must be harnessed to shape the infrastructure of cities in ways that nurture community economic development. These infrastructures include not only streets and utilities, but also broadband-based technology, the great, emerging vector of commerce, political dialogue and popular empowerment. Such a vital community resource cannot be allowed to be gripped by the stranglehold of a few, distant hands.

Eternal Struggle

As we wrote on August 14, 2003: “Black labor, like the vast bulk of African Americans, has the greatest stake in the sustenance and empowerment of the nation’s cities. They have no choice but to cast down their buckets where they are.”

Labor also has capital. Union pension funds dwarf the resources of any combination of mega-churches, yet they are often invested in enterprises that de-develop cities and the nation, itself. “First, you have to get the pension funds to invest in America, to vote their proxies,” said CBTU Vice-President Willie Baker. “We can do some things – we do have votes.”

The absolute necessity of a Black focus on urban planning – the irreducible basis of any long-term economic development scheme – was thrust upon the African American consciousness by the winds and waters of Katrina. “We are beginning to make the case that Katrina reconstruction is a 10-15 year proposition,” said William Lucy. “You can create a whole new class of working people in New Orleans” – like the once numerous and well-paid Black workers of Detroit.

The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists’ convention in Orlando will be held under the banner, “CBTU at 35: Continuing the Fight for a New Economic Order.” It is a fight that will consume the lifetimes of everyone reading this article, and shape the futures of all our children.

Glen Ford and Peter Gamble are writing a book to be titled, Barack Obama and the Crisis in Black Leadership.

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May 18, 2006
Issue 184

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