Black Workers for Justice

Against the Current, No. 27, July/August 1990

an interview with Nathanette Mayo

Nathanette Mayo is the vice president of AFSCME Local 1194 in Durham, North Carolina. She is also an activist in the Black Workers for Justice, an organization of Black labor and community activists founded in 1982 with offices in Raleigh and .Rocky Mount, and a member of BWFJ’s Fruit of Labor Singing Ensemble. As a community organization based in the workplace, BWFJ helps workers develop proto-union organizations in their plants in the hope that these might lead to organizing drives—an uphill fight in the state with the lowest union density of any state in the country.

BWFJ also involves itself in numerous community struggles around issues of toxic waste and Black land loss in the highly segregated eastern North Carolina Black Belt, where many Black townships are unincorporated and hence unprotected and unserviced. Mayo toured several Midwest cities in March in an effort to promote BWFJ and foster solidarity around its struggles. Mike Flasher and Matt Schultz, members of Solidarity in Ann Arbor, interviewed her for ATC.

Against the Current: What is the history of your organization, the Black Workers for Justice?

Nathanette Mayo: The BWFJ grew out of the K-Mart Workers for Justice, eight years ago. Basically, a group of Black cleaning women were being sexually harassed, discriminated against in promotions, and the hiring record was pitiful. They came together to start a campaign around K-Mart.

One of our current members, who lived in the Rocky Mount area, got involved in the site. They formed the K-Mart Workers for Justice. After that campaign other workers came forward—there was a definite need in that area for Black workers to come together to deal with the problems. The organization just grew out of that.

ATC: Do they organize at the workplace as members of BWFJ, through local movements or as union numbers? That is, when you organize, in whose name do you do it?

NM: Well, BWFJ might hold a speak-out in conjunction with other community groups, or maybe an educational forum about issues that are of concern to people in the community and the workplace. Justice Speaks (BWFJ’s monthly newspaper) might hold a workshop on laying out newsletters or something like that. That has to be done by BWFJ.

Coalitions may be built with other community groups; sometimes, workers come forward through things like that. Or our members themselves may work in a plant and bring issues to our chapter meeting, then talk to other workers in the plant and form an organizing committee. Then the organization as a whole may take up the issues of that plant.

ATC: Can you tell us about the “Workers Want Fairness” campaign? And what are its relations with AFSCME Local 1194.(1)

NM: This is a campaign developed by BWFJ. It’s exactly as it sounds—a campaign for fair treatment of workers—with people from different workplaces. Local 1194 took it up. Any organization can decide whether it wants to participate. In this case Local 1194 said “yeah, we want to participate—bringing the campaign into the City of Durham workers’ union.”

There are basic things that we promote in the campaign, like the “Workers Want Fairness” buttons.

Just recently Local 1194and BWFJ cosponsored a labor breakfast of public service unions from Durham, Rocky Mount and Raleigh—the first time to my knowledge that they ever came together to talk about what’s going on in all three cities. They began to develop a work plan and a committee for dealing with the problem they all face.

Each workplace committee or local union that we have ties with can choose to take up the campaign and do their own activities to build it.

ATC: What approach does BWFJ adopt toward the official labor leadership? The AFL-CIO’s ambiguous relationship with its own Jobs with Justice Campaign, for instance, seems to provide yet another example of how some sectors of the labor bureaucracy remain incapable of moving past those anti-grassroots tendencies that have so frequently marked their organizing in the past.(2)

NM: Our thing is, you have to have rank-and-file unionism. The whole union bureaucracy that runs the unions isn’t viable if labor is to remain alive. Workers themselves have to be active.

The Jobs with Justice campaign itself is something I don’t know a lot about—I do know that it’s because of grassroots and rank-and-file activity that that campaign was started to begin with.

I think campaigns like ours help to make it happen all over. The word spreads. In North Carolina, the AFL-CIO has been helpful on some issues, while on others we’ve had to struggle with them. The meeting I mentioned before was held at their headquarters. The state secretary-treasurer, James Andrews, has been to some of our rallies and he sees that labor’s mind has to be broadened.

Companies and management have become much slicker. What worked in the past won’t work now, so labor officials are opening up a little more.

ATC: Do you see a two-fold process of getting the international unions in there to organize, while also struggling for rank and file democracy at the same time?

NM: First, the workers themselves have to be organized to build a good foundation for the international to come in. If the workers are well-organized, the union itself will be strong and active.

That can be coupled with the international coming in—but the international union with its business representatives can’t just come in and say, “sign these cards and you’ll get dues check-off” and whatever else. That doesn’t work–in the South union have never been very popular, because of the economic situation and the low wage scale.

There have been attempts by some unions to come in and do just that. Almost all the union drives done like that recently have failed. It’s going to take internationals willing to spend time, send some representatives and allocate the funds. Workers respond more when you deal with the specific problems they have—and in doing that you are also giving leadership training to people at the workplace. That, coupled with the energy of the internationals, can make them ripe for union organizing.

ATC: In Justice Speaks! there are some articles on grassroots environmental actions. Given that the General Accounting Office—responding to the demands of North Carolina activists(3)—conducted a study which found that some of the largest commercial toxic landfills in the nation are in the Black Belt, how do you approach environmental issues? Do you work with the mainstream environmental movement, despite the scant attention it frequently pays to race and class?

NM: I work with the Shiloh community, where I was born and raised. The company there was called Kopper, which has now been sold to an international firm called Beazer, based in England.

They treated lumber, the beams that are in structures. The sludge from that process was dumped into a pond on site, dumped into lagoons, they did farm applications—and that sludge contained PCBs, the polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxins, etc. It got into the water table and now half the wells are contaminated.

What we’ve done in the community and the Black Workers for Justice is to try to tie the workplace—where the wood is no longer treated, but it’s treated someplace else and brought into the plant, where the workers are still exposed to the chemicals—to what’s happening to the community as well as in the plant.

The community continues to be very active. They’re on the national Super-fund (Environmental Protection Agency priority cleanup) list. The community is much further along than we would have been without any organization. They’re at the point of an investigation and cleanup feasibility study, which usually takes 3-4 years; it’s been just under two years now. With the community and union being active—there’s a union there that we’re trying to reactivate—we’ve gotten a lot further than we would have been.

In terms of the environment, Shiloh recently won a citizens’ award for their environmental concerns. Students have been very responsive to what’s been going on in the community, doing research, bringing information, setting up health screenings.

Most people in the environmental movement aren’t concerned about that. In the area where I’m from, it’s forced on them because it’s in the news all the time. The students are also a big part of the environmental movement. Through working in the community they can raise those issues in the movement. I’ve been to the universities to talk about what’s going on in the Shiloh community.

The dumps and all this are in predominantly Black and poor communities. Most of them aren’t organized. They don’t have a support network and can’t deal with the companies and the city councils that do the dumping and allow it. We urge people concerned with the environment to look at where these things are going on and to realize the communities need to be organized.

It doesn’t mean going into the community and telling them what to do; but informing them. There may be plans for a toxic waste incinerator that people don’t even know about. Once they find out, communities are usually responsive. It usually just takes activists, people who are upon what’s going on, to have some contact with the community.

ATC: In the kind of situation you’re in, with the anti-union climate, how do community ties get formed? At the Cagle Chicken plant in Macon, there was reference to the fact that Black ministers kept people from being thrown out of public housing when the strike was going on. What relationship does the Black church have to your efforts?

NM: Historically the Black church has been a major part of the communities. Part of getting the community involved is not being ashamed. The job of the church is to serve the needs of its people. You don’t just keep your problems to yourself, but take them to your church.

A lot of ministers are being very open. If a worker doesn’t have a job he can’t come and pay his tithes. That minister isn’t going to be getting his tithes; it’s that basic, and a lot of ministers realize it. So they are opening their doors to get the members involved and support activities in the plant. The community in turn feels good about what’s going on.

ATC: Ministers need their tithes, politicians need their votes. We noticed the way Justice Speaks! discussed Edgecombe County.(4) And there’s a Black mayor in Durham. How responsive are Black officials after they’ve been elected? In the Durham area, now that the political structure is changing for example, how responsive is it to the “workers’ bill” that you are organizing?(5)

NM: Usually, the Durham workers with the Central Labor Council have a workers’ candidate screening process. We discuss issues that are of concern to the unions. We present questions to the politicians and decide who to support based on their responses. In the last election workers actually went door to door, handed out leaflets, giving people rides to the polling places, and Chester Jenkins is now mayor of Durham partly because of the efforts of Local 1194. And we don’t let him forget that.

Likewise in Shiloh, Morrisville, and Rocky Mount—people were elected partly based on the efforts of Black Workers for Justice because they supported issues that BWFJ and the workplace committees had been working on.

But the thing is to support people because they support the issues we are concerned with, not letting them tell you what they are going to do for you. You tell them, this is what you’re going to do for us. And if they agree, then you have to hold them accountable.

ATC: How did you become involved yourself, in politics and union activism?

NM: Well, my mom was very active and outspoken. I just happened to run into one of the organizers for the Black Workers for Justice, who’s now my husband. I went to a club one night with some friends, where they were doing a fundraiser, and he told me some of the things that BWFJ were involved with. I told him some of the things that were happening in the Shiloh community in terms of new development and unfair zoning laws.

He went out and did some research on the Shiloh-Morrisville area. My mom invited him to come to a meeting of her women’s club, which involves the most active women in the community. And he presented all the information and research he had collected. They decided, well, that we needed a broader community—we needed to invite other people to come. That’s when the Shiloh Coalition was formed, and I was elected coordinator. So I was right in the middle of community organizing. I just got pulled in. I got a job with the city of Durham, found that they had a union and got involved with that.

ATC: Did people in BWFJ come out of civil rights formations, like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)?

NM: Some of them did. We have workers from the plants, from the area churches, from the civil rights movement. Some were just in a situation where they couldn’t take it anymore. All different backgrounds. My husband was a member of SNCC.

ATC: You mention in Justice Speaks! that given the difficulties of North Carolina, where there’s a six percent union density, “discreet organizing” has to take place in the plants. What are the tactics and strategies in a plant where a strike is not a viable option?

NM: This involves secret workplace committees where workers aren’t prepared to go public because of the repression. That’s where the community support really is key, because people in the community or other members of BWFJ can go leaflet. The people inside can say, “I don’t know where that leaflet came from.” But it gets workers talking inside.

An article is written in the newspaper. There’s a radio show. Those are the discreet ways of organizing, so management doesn’t know which workers are involved but the word gets around. Then people in the plant can tell us what the response is. We can find out whether anything changed when a leaflet was passed out: Did conditions get better or worse? Did management go down to the Chamber of Commerce?

There are some advantages to having discreet workplace committees, but there is a time when they have to go public.

ATC: The organizing drive in Goldsboro around the Goldtex textile company was one place where such organizing did go public. Given that 80% of the workers had signed ACTWU cards in December, why did the union lose the union election this March?

NM: Racism played a large part I think the union organizers made a mistake by not explaining to the workers what would happen, that management would start to pit workers against each other along racial lines—that they would say things like Black folk are going to take over this union and white workers will be out of a job.

That mistrust among the workers played a big role. Some workers were given better positions—essentially they were paid off—and that played a big part in the loss of the vote there. I think the organizers could have at least neutralized a lot of what the company was doing if more educational work around the nature of racism and how it affects their organizing were done.

I know the workers weren’t ready, because of the whole history of how racism and mistrust is propagated in the South. It makes workers not see their own conditions, how everybody is exploited and treated badly. It takes the heat off the company and places it on the workers themselves. Management did a very good job of that.

ATC: Where does that leave an organization like BWFJ? Justice Speaks! says on its editorial page, “We’re for the national liberation movement of the Blacks in this country.” In the context of racism in the South, what would that look like at some time in the future?

NM: To begin with, Blacks in majority Black counties should have control over those counties—in a number of the counties in eastern North Carolina Blacks have no voice. But the way in which it is printed in our paper needs to be explained—that’s a mistake so-called advanced forces make. They use language most workers can’t really relate to or understand. But once it’s explained that what you’re talking about is “one person, one vote,” then they understand.

ATC: On the one person, one vote. There are a lot of places in the South where de facto disenfranchisement exists because of at-large elections. In this context, the recent organizing in Chattanooga—where progressive Black farces won a voting rights law suit over this–seems really promising. What kinds of possibilities are there for doing the kinds of things that SNCC did to get people to vote?

NM: People do vote—it’s a question of whether their vote makes a difference. Particularly in Shiloh and Morrisville, it took an active and very vocal community—Morrisville operated on an at large system too, which negated the possibility of empowering any Black political voice on council—to get things changed. Morrisville has now gone to a ward system, which means there is a potential for the council to be Black. This happened in Fremont too—they were then able to elect people to city council. But it takes active citizens pushing for change.

ATC: Do these campaigns usually grow out of other community struggles?

NM: They often grow out of workplace organizing since city councils usually have control over the conditions under which companies come in and operate. Usually the companies have members of their board of directors on council.

ATC: Black Workers for Justice will be doing an extensive tour this summer. What do you hope to accomplish—and how can unions in the North support these efforts?

NM: First of all, we hope through the tour for unions to become more educated about conditions in the South and how they affect workers in the North.

Out of that, we hope for unions in the North to adopt a union in North Carolina, to send resources or do research—other things to support the workplace committees in the South and for internationals to look toward the South for organizing. Just sending resources to our whole Workers Want Fairness campaign would be a big help.

And again, solidarity with the Black Workers for Justice means linking up with the workers in different areas and getting the internationals to look at the South as a very viable place for unions.

ATC: What is the resistance of the internationals to organizing in the South based on?

NM: It’s taking a risk. They would be putting people, money and time into a region that has been very anti-union. So it would be taking a big risk for them to come. They look at it as more feasible to play it safe and deal with what they’ve got—as opposed to “going out on a limb” and losing lots of time, money, and effort and still not get a union going. I think that’s the main thing keeping them out. They don’t realize there’s great potential for organizing there.


  1. The “Workers Want Fairness” campaign is shorthand for one of BWFJ’s most effective organizing strategies. Employed in numerous struggles often characterized by proto-union organizing rather than outright attempts to win union certification—a consequence of North Carolina’s extremely anti-union climate—it involves wearing buttons and passing out leaflets which, by emphasizing the rather non-threatening idea of fairness for workers, reach a much wider audience and prove much harder for management to attack. As Mayo said to us, “Who is against fairness?”
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  2. Jobs with Justice was started by the AFL-GO in the aftermath of the 1986 “Christmas massacre,” when tens of thousands of auto workers lost their jobs. Working to foster community coalitions in support of workers’ rights, it is currently active in over thirty U.S. cities, and is especially prevalent in right to work states in the South. Though initiated by the AFL-CIO, its grassroots character has led to friction with parts of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy, most notably in Denver over tactics for supporting the Eastern strikers.
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  3. In 1982 the first Black protest against toxic dumping took place in Afton, North Carolina (located in the 60% Black county of Warren) when 400 activists protested the state’s decision to open a site there for 32,000 cubic yards of PCB-contaminated soil, illegally dumped along North Carolina roadways in 1978. The GAO study that came out a year later reported that the nation’s largest commercial hazardous waste dump is located in Emelle, Alabama, where Blacks comprise 78.9% of the population. Combined with a dump located in ScotIandville, Louisiana–93% Black–it accounts for more than a third of the estimated land fill capacity in the United States.
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  4. Edgecombe County is one of North Carolina’s majority Black counties. Characterized by high unemployment, high infant mortality (17 per 1000 live births), and very poor health services–127 county beds and 21 doctors serve an estimated 60,000 people—Edgecomb’s County moves into elections this year through which the Black majority hopes to wrest control of the County from the white bureaucracy. BWFJ is very supportive of these efforts, and is working for a number of the candidates running.
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  5. This bill, sponsored by 1194 and a number of other Durham unions, came out of the Durham City Human Relations Commission and is currently pending. With provisions for job retention, more efficient arbitration procedures, and childcare as well as restrictions governing drug testing, the hiring of temporary workers, and plant closings, it would a firs in the South if it passed. Needless to say, it is being bitterly contested by the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce.
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July-August 1990, ATC 27

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