Black Workers for Justice, Twenty Years of Struggle

Against the Current, No. 101, November/December 2002

Saladin Muhammad

THE BLACK WORKERS For Justice (BWFJ) is a mass activist workers organization. It includes socialists, radical working class and general members, who play leading roles in trying to link the immediate struggles in the workplaces and communities to a long term transitional radical program for Black empowerment/self-determination, social justice and social transformation.

BWFJ was founded in 1981. Its labor and political perspectives grow out of an analysis of the development of the U.S. national and global economy, the U.S. imperialist state, and the ongoing role of the U.S. South as a fundamental pillar of U.S imperialism.

The U.S. South is a major global region for international capital, with its 1.9 trillion in total Gross State Products making it the world’s fourth largest economy in the world. It has grown an average of six percent a year since 1991 with some changes due to the current economic recession.

Sixty-six of the seventy-five most industrialized U.S. counties are located in the eleven Southern states. Close to half of all new facilities built by foreign corporations in the United States during the 1990s were in the South.

Centrality of Black Workers

Major reasons for the strategic role of the U.S. South are the national oppression of the African American masses, the massive influx of immigrant Latino workers — many of whom are undocumented — sharper divisions among workers, low wages; this is the region with the lowest percentage of unionization, and anti-labor laws, including state “right-to-work” laws as permitted by Taft-Hartley section 14(b), which deny public workers collective bargaining rights and prevents private sector unions from establishing union shops.

New York state has more union members, 2.5 million, than all of the Southern states combined, 2.3 million.

The national oppression of African Americans in the U.S. South makes Black workers in the South the most exploited section of the U.S. industrial working class. The BWFJ thus bases its trade union and political perspectives on the principle of the centrality of the Black working class.

The struggle against racism and for political power and self-determination for African American people are key aspects of this principle in forging the unity of the Southern and U.S. working class. BWFJ has tried to create an identity, confidence and political presence of the Black worker and trade union organization in the U.S. South.

BWFJ believes that the struggle against African American national oppression must take on sharper Black working-class and internationalist features. It must put forward a perspective for, and be active in building, a strong rank-and-file democratic and radical labor movement in the U.S. South.

BWFJ has concentrated over the years on building and recruiting its main membership base among Black workers from the workplaces in North Carolina, Georgia and other parts of the U.S. South. Its main base has been in manufacturing; but since the late 1990s, it has been growing in the public sector with the formation and growth of the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union-UE Local 150, whose membership of more than 2500 members is overwhelmingly African American.

BWFJ has often described itself as a workplace-based community organization, meaning that the workplace is part of the community with other institutions that the masses must control.

BWFJ efforts to build a workplace-based rank-and-file infrastructure have shaped its identity as a labor organization, and for many workers as a trade union.

BWFJ’s identity was also shaped by a political climate in North Carolina influenced by two major developments in the late 1970s — the long J.P. Stevens workers struggle for unionization that included the firing of a large number of Black workers; and the racist Klan murders of five trade union activist members of the Communist Workers Party in Greensboro, NC.

Ideological Work and Organizing

BWFJ was both red baited and race baited during its first five or six years. Some of the Black clergy and progressive white support organizations were very suspicious of BWFJ. Some of the left accused BWFJ of “dual unionism” and “narrow nationalism” and implied that BWFJ was “dividing” the working class.

Within the African American liberation movement some accuse BWFJ of abandoning the struggle for African-American self-determination. It was therefore necessary and important that BWFJ project its own program and do some ideological work among its members.

In 1985 BWFJ sponsored its first workers’ school and created its newspaper Justice Speaks, where it began to project its struggles and program. It also began organizing the Black Workers Unity Movement (BWUM) to try and expand a Black workers’ movement more widely throughout the country.

BWFJ helped build community-based institutions that identified with the Black workers’ and African American liberation movement. These include Peoples Health (screening) Clinics, which have sponsored hand clinics to screen for carpel tunnel injury and that have to establish contacts for organizing in the poultry industry; and the Community Empowerment Alliance that brings together community organizations and progressive officials from several towns and major Black majority subdivisions into a People’s Assembly to decide common demands and priorities for community empowerment and development.

Despite BWFJ’s consistent promotion of the need for trade unions in the U.S. South, the major unions kept their distances. This led many workers within and outside of BWFJ to raise questions about the commitment of unions to organize in the South and about racism in the unions as it relates to their willingness to emerge out of an infrastructure that was built and led by Black workers.

Organize the South

In 1985 as part of the BWUM, BWFJ attended the Labor Notes Conference where it began to promote its program and perspective throughout the rank-and-file trade union reform movement. By 1989 BWFJ was focusing on building a national solidarity movement around organizing in the U.S. South. Support committees were organized in several cities in the East and Midwest regions and one on the West Coast. The Organize the South movement began to impact the trade unions from below in terms of pushing some toward organizing in the South.

By 1991 several unions had approached BWFJ about organizing in North Carolina. But it was also now faced with the question of how this embryonic rank-and-file workers’ movement maintains its character and grows as it enters the largely business union and bureaucratic top-down culture of the national trade unions.

The Organize the South Solidarity movement network positioned BWFJ to play a leading role in mobilizing thousands to demonstrate in Hamlet, NC in 1991 in support of workers and victims of the tragic fire and explosion at the Imperial Food Company.

The Hamlet struggle helped to further project BWFJ nationally as a labor organization in the South. By 1997, BWFJ began to project its work and make contacts internationally through its links with the Transnational Information Exchange (TIE).

BWFJ has been organizing “non-majority” unions for the past twelve years as part of its labor organizing strategy. These are unions that form outside the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) process, and who lack a majority of the workers at the particular worksite, formal employer recognition and a contract.

They were called “minority unions,” but we started using the term “non-majority” to avoid confusion from being viewed as “racial minority unions.” These are open unions in the worksite, with elected officers and a dues system, using the protected concerted activity provisions under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and establishing alliances with community organizations.

This is partly an attempt to shape a “new trade unionism” as we call it; a rank-and-file fight-back unionism that begins the process of organizing and establishing unions around the issues on the shop floor, not the formal NLRB election.

BWFJ members are also organizers and leaders in the independent United Electrical Workers Union (UE), and in AFL-CIO unions, engaged in building caucuses in the Postal Services and shipbuilding industry in North Carolina and Mississippi. BWFJ also conducts labor education through the Southern Center for Labor Education and Organizing (SCLEO).

Addressing Weaknesses

BWFJ has been engaged in a Renewal Campaign since April 2001 trying to rectify some problem areas, recruit new blood and develop new leadership. Organizationally BWFJ lacks adequate resources to develop and maintain a full time general staff, and to conduct consistent education, training and national and international outreach.

Our central and most experienced leadership is spread out in several locations, seriously impacting organizational institutions, division of labor and key areas of strategic work. Our recruitment, consolidation and political development of new members have suffered, partly because of the overextension of cadre and because our emphasis on recruitment has been toward building the trade unions and community-based organizations.

BWFJ is part of the African American liberation and labor movements. Its work is thus impacted by the major political and organizational challenges facing these movements.

Politically the labor movement and left, including the African American liberation movement in the U.S. South and nationally, are weak and fragmented. Trade union, working-class and African American national political consciousness is therefore weak because it lacks a clear pole that reflects the strategic unity of these forces.

BWFJ participation within the Black Radical Congress and meetings to build a labor left represent its effort to make a contribution toward addressing these weaknesses.

To subscribe: Send $10 (individual) or $15 (organizational) to Justice Speaks, P.O. Box 26774, Raleigh, NC 27611.

ATC 101, November-December 2002