June 1, 2006 - Issue 186
Cover: Black Labor
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“Wal-Mart is buying Negro leaders.” – Rev. Al Sharpton
“We will not be passive bystanders to our own demise.” – CBTU President William Lucy
“Economic justice is a part of freedom. We must fight for a people’s economy.” – Dr. Julianne Malveaux
Black labor is carefully writing a new page in the book of African American struggle. Despite the loss of 400,000 Black union jobs during the first four years of the Bush administration, and in the face of the U.S. labor movement’s splitting in two, last year – or, more likely, because of these cataclysms – Black labor has emerged more militant and with its internal solidarity intact.
“There has been a split in labor,” said Robin Williams, Associate Director for Civil Rights and Community Action for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, “but there has not been a split in the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists [CBTU].” Williams' own union was among those that withdrew from the AFL-CIO less than a year ago to form the rival Change To Win federation. But the 1,700 delegates to the CBTU’s annual convention in Orlando, Florida, May 24-30, were united around fundamental issues – Black folk’s issues, if you will.
When African Americans are once again forced to be the primary upholders of worker solidarity and labor principles, when it is African Americans that bear the brunt of corporate de-industrialization, and when Black labor must fight a multi-front war for racial, social, and economic justice, and world peace, then it is logical and righteous that Blacks appropriate these issues as uniquely their own. As always in America, the most despised and pilloried must ultimately lead those whose vision is damaged by relative racial privilege and delusions of Manifest Destiny.
“We have a responsibility to offer an alternative economic vision to working families and to those who are economically dispossessed,” said CBTU co-founder and President William Lucy, in his opening convention address. “We must explore new concepts to build partnerships among the progressive religious community, the trade union movement and the investment community.
“The future of Black workers – and, therefore, the future of the families, communities, churches, businesses and organizations that they support – will be unanchored if we don’t stop the loss of good-paying union jobs to low wage countries, to automation and to privatization.”
By necessity, Black labor finds itself unable to save African Americans unless it strives to rescue the nation and humanity at-large from the depredations of hyper-capital. The banners flanking the speakers at the Disney Contemporary Hotel’s convention center expressed the breadth of the project: “CBTU at 35: Continuing the Fight for a New Economic Order.”
The struggle for a “new economic order” has always been at the core of African American politics. The abolition of slavery required a new economic order. Jim Crow was an economic – as well as social, political and legal – order; we needed a new one. Those who have always tried to order us around and kick us down are constantly building their own self-serving “orders” – the current regime being a global capitalism managed by home-grown racists armed to the teeth, who harbor a quasi-religious belief that they embody the essence of civilization.
Many of our fellow Americans – including members of the House of Labor – view the rich perpetrators of world disorder as mistaken human beings who can be convinced to act more responsibly. History has taught Black people a different lesson: a man whose actions consistently result in killing you, intends to kill you.
Continuity of Black Struggle
William Lucy first voiced the call for a “new economic order” at last year’s CBTU convention, in Phoenix. The venue for the focus on economic matters would be Gary, Indiana, site of the 1972 National Black Political Convention that ushered in – for better or worse – an almost exclusive concentration on electing Blacks to political office, entrepreneurialism, and individual Black penetration of corporate America.
Shortly thereafter, the roof began to cave in for many of those African Americans not included in the upward mobility formula. Students of Hip Hop believe that this urban youth culture was born of neglect and disdain on the part of the newly mobile Black classes – a political, economic and spacial separation that now represents possibly the greatest obstacle to the exercise of collective Black power.
Organized Black labor occupied a kind of middle position in the post-Gary 1972 social configuration. An integral element of the urbanized Black masses, yet more secure than others in employment, Black unionists were also privy to the machinations of both white workers and corporate America. It was – and is – a unique prism, of critical value in an era when two distinct currents of Black reality were coming into being. American apartheid was hardening in its impact on the urban masses, through a madness of incarceration, deliberate defunding of public education and cities in general and, with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, the rise to national power of the Hard Right. At the same time, a minority of African Americans were nibbling – and a very few gorging – on the fruits of no-boundaries capitalism. Larger numbers moved to precarious suburban – but overwhelmingly Black suburban – lifestyles.
When the bubble burst as Bill Clinton exited the White House, everybody’s roof caved in. The Bushite’s – practitioners of disaster capitalism – unleashed on the nation and world the disasters of their corrupt dreams. The New Order was clear: there would be no order at all, but the rule of force and money. Between 2000 and 2004, Black union membership shrank from 2.5 to 2.1 million.
By 2005, it was high time to go back…somewhere. CBTU chief Lucy chose Gary, Indiana as the actual and metaphorical destination.
“Fifteen-hundred people came through” the high school that hosted the March 2006 National Black Peoples Unity Convention in Gary, “the most important single economic discussion in the Black community this year,” said Ron Walters, professor of political science at the University of Maryland, College Park, and one of the organizers of both the 1972 and 2006 events. “I think [Gary 2006] was the first time we focused on the economic status of our community…the tremendous and urgent crisis that we face,” Walters told the CBTU convention’s Town Hall meeting in Orlando, two months later.
It is evident, however, that at this late date in predatory capitalist development, when the institutions of government have been thoroughly corrupted by a racist and amoral class – abetted by their Black and Brown camp-followers – the resistance requires tools that were not developed during the 34 years since Gary I.
“We can’t depend on the federal government, they don’t give a damn,” said Dr. Walters. “We need to create centers of public policy” to confront the array of rightwing think tanks that operate against us. "We have the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. Well, that’s not enough.”
“We need liberation-oriented economics to pull all this together… We need a science of how to win under capitalism.”
Only people power beats money power – an even iffier proposition when money power also controls state power and military power. The possibilities that seemed so promising at the 1972 Gary convention now recede under the onslaught of capital gone crazy.
“There has been a weakening of the labor compact,” said Dr. Julianne Malveaux, noted economist and political commentator. “People with good jobs and benefits are an endangered species.” She was specifically referring to Black people. That’s not just a shame, it also means that political bases and resistance resources have been lost – a tsunami of destruction during George Bush’s first term in office, alone.
What is to be done? Dr. Malveaux, Ron Walter’s co-panelist, appeared to ponder his “win under capitalism” thesis. The stark realities of official, slash and burn economics call into question the possibilities of finding a niche in the capitalistic organism big enough to fit enough Black folks to justify the effort. “Economic development and economic justice are not necessarily the same thing. There is an aspect of capitalism that has absolutely nothing to do with justice,” said Malveaux.
Justice has always been the well-spring of the Black political imperative. How does one mobilize Black people power against corporate money power and state power, without invoking justice? How, without a rage against mass Black incarceration – the scourge that destroys the Black community and all its institutions with Nazi-like efficiency?
And in the end, how does one mobilize masses of Black people when the flow of capital – and white people – back to the cities shrinks our majorities beyond the tipping point, a process that is well under way?
“Whites are moving into formerly Black neighborhoods, and they’re not even scared,” said Malveaux, to the knowing laughter of the audience. “Urban America was always a political base for us. We need to look at gentrification from an economic and political perspective.”
The time for looking is limited. Capital transforms landscapes, especially demographic ones. Beginning around sixty years ago, the great capital investment in a previously nonexistent suburbia sculpted the political and racial contours of the United States. Most people now alive were shaped by that mighty wave of capital, as were the events that are celebrated every February as constituting the modern civil rights movement. Now, we have reached the end of that cycle. (See all five parts of the BC series, “Wanted: A Plan for the Cities to Save Themselves.”)
We must go back even further than Gary 1972, to a fundamental reassessment of Black people’s resources: primarily, our solidarity, the single legacy of slavery and Jim Crow – the “oneness” that was once enforced, but is now taken for granted – that is worth nurturing and preserving. Only people power beats money power. As Bill Lucy explained to the Orlando convention, we are rapidly running out of everything but ourselves.
Excerpts from William Lucy’s Speech
“In no city can anyone ever suggest that a leader of the CBTU ever sold out their community or their organization – we do not sell out. It’s as simple as that.
“For the past six years we have had the most devastating government for working people. Six years of government, of the rich, by the rich and for the rich. Six years of government cloaked in deceit and deception, supported by lies and alibis.”
“The failed policies of this administration are visible in every segment of our lives. Jobs, education, healthcare, economic development, pensions and retirement security, Social Security, prescription drugs, trade or immigration.
“Unemployment is up and wages have been stagnant since 2001, forcing desperate working parents to get a second, and sometimes a third job or max out their credit cards just to make ends meet. The average household now carries eight thousand dollars in credit card debt.
“Worker benefits continue to disappear. Only 46 percent of America’s workers now have a pension, with the numbers dropping each year as corporations line the pockets of corporate management at the expense of workers. Adelphi, Delta, United Airlines symbolize the greed and arrogance that permeates corporate America.”
“The future of children and grandchildren is being strangled by Bush’s war in Iraq and his tax cuts for the rich elite, which have driven our national debt to $8.3 trillion. That’s $28,000 for every man, woman and child in this nation.”
“This administration and their corrupt allies in Congress have looted the federal treasury, treating it like their personal ATM machine and ripping off the taxpayers.
“From refueling aircraft at the Pentagon to body armor, from war material to hot dogs in the cafeteria, they have found a way to steal from the American taxpayer. Their level of corruption is only exceeded by their level of incompetence and dishonesty.”
“And no place was Bush’s incompetence, racism and hypocrisy more visible than with the federal government’s response to the hurricane disaster in Mississippi and New Orleans.
“The whole world, and especially the people from the gulf region, will never forget the incredible incompetence, indifference and cronyism shown by this administration in the aftermath of one of the greatest natural disasters of our time.
“We must end this madness.”
Black Condition, Not Black Problem
“Today, one out of every two American children who happen to be Black lives in poverty, compared to one out of every seven white children.
“Today, more than 800,000 young men who happen to be Black are locked into a criminal justice system that punishes white offenders less frequently and less severely.
“Today, the average Black family earns 60 percent that of the average white family.”
Going back to Gary means rethinking the whole deal, since 1972 – maybe since Emancipation. However, the Black union leaders gathered in Orlando in May, most of them middle aged repositories of wisdom for their families and neighbors as well as their fellow unionists, were hungry for more mundane and immediate advice: How do we survive the Great Theft and Disorder?
“What’s the difference between income and wealth,” asked Chaka A.K. Uzondu, facilitator of a workshop titled, “Closing the Racial Wealth Gap.” About 40 unionists filled the meeting room. “People tend to focus only on income but the disparity in resources is much more dramatic in wealth than in income.”
In fact, although Black income is less than two-thirds that of whites, white household wealth is eight times that of Black families. “Inequality is growing enormously,” said Uzondu.
Wealth gets a family through hard times, or pays for a college education. Income can be cut off in a moment. Thus, the precariousness of Black life, even among higher income African Americans.
Kenny Diggs and Petie Tally, young union activists, handled the nitty-gritty “All Politics is Local” workshop. The question before the room was simple: “What actions can we take to create change?”
Five groups organized themselves to answer the question as it related to different issues areas: affordable, quality health care, jobs, immigration, retirement security, education. A cluster comes back with its assessment on how local and national policies interact in education:
At another workshop, facilitators Foster Stringer and Ann Mitchell explained the gory details of the legislative atrocity TABOR, the so-called “Taxpayer Bill of Rights.” TABOR is the ultimate poison pill – the Hard Right’s stealth weapon to “starve the beast” of taxation and, thereby, what’s left of the social safety net. Pushed by the troglodyte National Conference of State Legislatures and a host of rightwing think tanks, the state constitutional amendment “restricts revenue or expenditure growth to the sum of inflation plus population change; and it requires voter approval to override the revenue or spending limits,” according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Mr. Stringer, of the American Federation of Teachers, shows a map of where TABOR is moving across the nation.
“If TABOR had existed when Bill Clinton was president, that surplus by law could not exist,” he said. “If TABOR becomes part of the state constitution, you’re locked in.”
An informed organizer’s obligation is to “educate our union members as to what that is all about. How are we going to fix Louisiana and Mississippi and Florida if we can’t raise the money. It will have to be taken from other areas.”
“The general public honestly believe that TABOR will not affect basic services: health care, education, transportation, the environment. You as union members have the credibility to make this case.”
Toxic Katrina Politics
The term “environmental racism” was unknown to the delegates in Gary, 1972. However, in the full flower of “disaster capitalism” – as Clark-Atlanta Prof. Robert Bullard, of the Environmental Justice Resource Center, dubs it – Black unionists have jumped in with all four feet. The CBTU affiliate CARAT (Community Action and Response Against Toxics teams) is active in the dumping grounds that we call Black communities all across the nation.
When Katrina hit, the Black CARATs were there. Beverly Wright, a New Orleans home owner and community activist, told a packed room of unionists how CARAT saved her house and block – at least for the time being.
As Ms. Wright explained it, 179 volunteers helped rehabilitate her block. They included unionized steel workers, Hampton University students, and ten young prisoners from New Orleans in bright orange jumpsuits. Bush’s boys were either absent or actively sabotaging the rescue.
“FEMA was supposed to pick up the dirt. They did so for two days and never returned. We were left with big mounds of dirt,” said Wright.
Then a hostile state agency jumped in. The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality disputed residents’ claims that flood sediment was contaminated. A bureaucrat “went on TV,” said Ms. Wright, to show he would eat the dirt. “We said, if he eats dirt for ten years, then we’ll believe him.”
Nobody in government lent an effective hand. “The mayor had no plan for us. The government had no plan to repopulate our neighborhoods. They were trying to destroy our project by leaving dirt in the streets.”
“They are trying to turn New Orleans East into green space. But our whole block is returning except for one 80 year old lady.”
Wright reports that 27 houses on the block were rehabilitated by volunteers in 12 intensive work days. “Twenty-five other neighborhoods want to do the same thing. Twenty-eight neighborhood associations all meet once a week. All of them want to come back.” In New Orleans, we witness the classic, lawless war of capital against people. In words and actions writ large and infinitely racist, capital cannot help but telegraph its intentions. “Developers are looking at this property and salivating. I have a lakefront property,” said Ms. Wright, who hopes to remain in her city through CARAT’s “Safe Way Back Home” initiative.
The next day, at another CARAT workshop (the organization holds an overlapping annual conference with CBTU), Black unionists grouped by state for an exercise in “Community Risk Mapping.” The task was to create a hypothetical list of hazards and short- and long-term risks to communities, and a plan of action.
Laverne Mayfield, director of community outreach for the International Chemical Workers Union, related to BC a real-world hazard CARAT confronted in Cincinnati:
“We found that styrene was being stored in a railroad tank car at a plant near a poor and working class neighborhood. The inhibitor agent [that stabilizes styrene] had run out. If there had been a fire, the fire department would not be able to put water on it, because water causes styrene to explode. Meanwhile, people are getting sick. The chemical plant should pay for cleanup of this poor community.”
Black Women Are Everywhere
When the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists was born in 1972, 35 to 40 percent of the delegates were women – the most striking characteristic that sets Black organizations apart from white ones. Approximately the same ratio – maybe more – obtains today. The CBTU’s National Women’s Conference is extraordinarily popular – and basic to the bone. These sisters take care to deal with the fundamentals.
“We’ve got to adjust to change if we are going to retire comfortably…and not wind up going to work at age 70 or 80 to survive,” said Anita Patterson, chair of the Women’s Conference.
The women of CBTU have gotten the message: hard times are upon us, and we must change our habits and practices. “Our money doesn’t stay in our community very long, does it?” said author T’Angela Floyd, rhetorically.
Loan officer Ladonna Smith declared, “Our credit is our character” and, “Bad money management is putting some of us, not all of us, in bondage.”
Certified financial planner Kimberly Stewart dissected the Bush partial privatization Social Security scheme, which is based on the Chilean model imposed by former military dictator Augusto Pinochet. “The actual results from Chile show that more than 80 percent of those who [invested their retirement money in the private sector] have less to retire on than those who left it in the government plan.”
People must ask, “Is the investment going to get me through this week, or get me through this life.”
Financial planner Augustus “Gus” Olalere, provided an overview:
“Companies are continuing to divest from pension funds, and putting the money elsewhere. The laws have no teeth, no substance. We must hold our elected officials accountable.”
Olalere urged consumers to insist on “defined benefit” retirement plans that detail the actual benefits retirees will get, rather than “defined contribution” plans that say only what the corporation will contribute. “A recent study showed that more than 80 percent of people with some form of retirement plan actually don’t have enough money for retirement.”
The lesson: Black women are getting into survival mode. That’s an ominous sign, but we’re glad somebody senses the danger.
The Men of Words
We have left the “men of words” for near last, because they are widely visible, whereas the people who organize on the ground often do so in relative obscurity.
Operation Push chief Rev. Jesse Jackson was fresh from what he believed to be a great Black victory in New Orleans, where Mayor Ray Nagin won reelection. Nagin had marched with Jackson and thousands of others in April in New Orleans. Therefore, the former Republican and consistently rightwing politician’s victory should be seen “in terms of redemption, revival,” said Jackson. The reality is much more complicated.
In times of crisis, the last thing we need is simplistic formulations. (See Sanyika, “Nagin’s Re-Election As Mayor of New Orleans,” in this issue.) The perception and reality of Nagin’s victory are quite different things.
But the Reverend’s take on immigration was keyed to Black unionist’s clear knowledge of the world. “Today our economy needs guest workers to undermine organized workers,” said the Baptist preacher.
Jackson called for a $100 billion budget to reinvest in our cities. Knowing that would not occur as an initiative of congressional Democratic leadership, no matter what happens in November, Rev. Jackson turned inward, to the Black body politic. “We need to change the direction, not just the leaders. Why can’t we take a portion of our pension funds…to use the workers’ money to reinvest in our cities.”
Why not, indeed? The answer is: it would require a monumental education campaign among Black unionists to understand and reconcile their fiduciary and political obligations and then put both in service of their people.
Let the process begin. “Our” cities are running out of time.
New People to Organize
We are also past time to begin figuring out what the African American political relationship will be with immigrants, most of them Latinos – part of the new demographics of cities that are no longer our own political bases. Only a bar stool fool doesn’t know when the “last call” lights are flashing. Blacks must work overtime to understand the political and social motivations of the new population – whether the immigrants reciprocate, or not.
So swiftly has the immigrant population swelled, large sectors of Black America have failed to adjust to the new paradigm, which is no longer Black-White. Who are these people? “A lot of immigrants came because they were fearing political execution,” said Patricia Campos, of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA) and an activist in the Unite-HERE union. Campos is the daughter of undocumented workers from El Salvador, where the United States caused at least 70,000 people to be slaughtered in a brutal civil war.
“Who are the criminals? The immigrants – or are the criminal corporations like Wal-Mart?” The massed CBTU members nodded their answer.
“We should not let people like (CNN’s) Lou Dobbs tell us that the worker next to you is your enemy. He’s not your enemy. The enemy is the government that has ignored this issue.
“We live in dangerous times. After September 11 our government led us to believe that the reason it happened was because of insecure borders.
“We were attacked by criminals, not by immigrants!” [applause] “If we go around attacking nations whose governments we don’t like, we will continue to have people coming to the United States.”
No less than military aggression, U.S. imposition of corporate schemes such as NAFTA devastate rural economies, pushing populations to the urban centers (Mexico City is one of the world’s largest, with a population approaching 20 million) and north to the border. ”Hunger is greater than fear,” said Campos.
African Americans have studied the familiar enemy – white racists – for generations. We must perform the same due diligence in the presence of a new population, mostly poor people of color who know full well the workings of racism in their own countries. We are obligated to school them in the peculiar racial realities of the U.S. – and then move on to joint action.
No one leaves home if there is a viable choice. African Americans in the cities that have become home to the new population have no choice but to grapple with their immigrant neighbors and co-workers – as we do with ourselves – to find common ground. “If we don’t organize immigrants, this [labor] movement will continue to dwindle,” said Campos. “As labor leaders, it is our responsibility to…make undocumented workers a part of the system, with all the rights of other workers. If we don’t defend their rights, who will defend our rights when we are attacked?”
The young labor organizer invoked the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, which are part of her Latina American lexicon: “We will either live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
A Sharp Tongue
“There’s an epidemic of ‘Negro Amnesia’ in every region of the country,” a trimmed-down Rev. Al Sharpton told the Saturday morning crowd of Black laborites. “People can’t remember where they came from, how they got here.” [“That’s right”]
The malady has obvious symptoms, marking three successive stages of affliction, said Sharpton. Victims of Negro Amnesia uncontrollably utter inanities such as:
Both Sharpton and Rev. Jackson were speakers at the March National Black Peoples Unity Convention, in Gary. Where some might see same-old-same-old, others see continuity of the Black conversation – a conversation that is being incessantly interrupted by forces from outside the African American community.
“Wal-Mart is buying Negro leaders,” said Sharpton, pausing to measure the effect of his words. There are all kinds of arrangements: “Long-term leases…short-term leases…campaign season leases.”
The National Action Network leader and former presidential candidate railed against “all the talk about ‘new Negro conservatives’ and their ‘new strategies.’ There ain’t nothing new about Negroes being scared. They have a laboratory where they’re making Negroes now. They all act like the race issue is settled.”
The corporate signature is plain on the growing list of bought-off African Americans, and Black labor recognizes the handwriting. Sharpton knew his crowd.
The New York-based preacher challenged Black America in general:
Black labor had succeed in bringing 1,700 activists and organizers together, at Disney World. But Sharpton is right. African Americans possess infinitely more skillsand material resources than in 1972. And we have the benefit of having made massive mistakes in the two generations since MLK and A. Phillip Randolph, from which we must learn – and quickly.
What a Difference a Year Makes
Just a year ago, during the Phoenix CBTU convention, the AFL-CIO was preparing to split. Insurgents led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Teamsters demanded an overhaul of the federation that would have resulted in the purging of most Blacks from the executive council. (See BC, “No Real Labor Reform Without Blacks,” March 3, 2005.) The effect would have been to roll back Black and minority gains achieved in 1995, when the AFL-CIO expanded its council to better reflect the diversity of the membership. To many Black unionists, it appeared that 2005 labor reform and white backlash went hand-in-hand.
Black labor was reeling:
The CBTU and other minority constituents of the AFL-CIO had not yet recovered from their near-total shutout from labor’s and the Democratic Party’s electoral activities in 2004. The handwriting seemed to be on the wall – independent Black organizations not wanted.
But the CBTU, by far the largest of labor’s minority constituent organizations, fought back. They organized Town Hall meetings across the country, and made it clear that ”white” labor – because that is how they were behaving – would find that shunning Black workers would be an even more horrendous mistake than splitting the AFL-CIO.
In 2004-2005, Black labor successfully faced the federation down and – rather than being purged – won an even greater role on the executive body. CBTU Executive Vice-President Willie Baker, recently retired as International VP of the United Food and Commercial Workers union (now part of the breakaway Change To Win federation), noted that “minorities and women on the AFL-CIO executive council will increase by 50 percent.”
“There ain’t no labor movement without us,” Baker told the opening session of the CBTU convention. “We were considered expendable when the debate over the future of labor started a few years ago.”
The labor federation did split, with the Change To Win faction spinning off in its own orbit. But Black labor did not.
At Disney’s Contemporary Hotel convention center last week, all one saw were Black folks in struggle – together, bound by their own history. The CBTU’s leadership and membership spans the divide between the AFL-CIO and Change To Win, almost as if it isn’t there. In truth, the labor dispute is white folks’ problems, which will be solved largely by Black folks’ intervention, just as America’s structural flaws have always been identified and confronted chiefly by African Americans.
When Blacks hold high the banner of solidarity, they affirm the principle to everyone else.
Among the many resolutions passed by the CBTU’s 35th annual convention in Orlando, at least one has the force of history behind it. By unanimous vote, delegates urged – demanded! – that labor “Make the House Whole,” meaning the House of Labor. The AFL-CIO and Change To Win were told to identify the critical issues that divided them and to take action to reconstitute the American labor movement.
Only Black solidarity could marshal the moral authority to make such a demand. And only solidarity will bring us through the crisis of Capitalist Disorder.
Glen Ford and Peter Gamble are writing a book to be title, “Barack Obama and the Crisis in Black Leadership.”
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