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Black Labor and the Big Mission

by GLEN FORD

Never before in U.S. history has an actual decline in the economic fortunes of workers across the board been so clearly the deliberate, planned result of public policies. The crisis for working and unemployed Americans is general and unremitting – a steadily downward path to absolute insecurity – precisely because those are the conditions sought by the rich who control the U.S. government. The Corporate Agenda requires, not just the breaking of unions, but the shattering of morale in society as a whole, to render the populace timid, tame and grateful for whatever breaks good luck or corporate favor might bring.

For Black workers, the Bush regime’s six-year, blitzkrieg-like offensive against the last vestiges of the social contract is not a totally unfamiliar experience – African Americans have never been more than partially covered by the U.S. social contract, which has at any rate always been tissue-thin and non-binding on the rich. Today, all pretense of social reciprocity and fairness is being systematically eliminated as a matter of boardroom and public policy, a prerequisite of the corporate-engineered global Race to the Bottom.

In this rapidly darkening environment, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) holds its 36th Annual International Convention in Chicago, May 23 – 28. Last year’s convention brought 1,500 delegates to Orlando, Florida, under the theme, “Continuing the Fight for a New Economic Order.” This years theme is “Lessons Learned, New Vision for the Future” – but a more accurate sense of the urgency of the moment is conveyed in conversation with William Lucy, a founder and president of the CBTU, and Secretary-Treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Lucy cites as the main enemy the “social, political and economic philosophy” shared by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the rich, and the administration that represents their interests. This Corporate Agenda results in the average CEO earning more money on his first day on the job than the average worker makes in a year – an agenda backed to the hilt by a government that strangles the ability of employees and society as a whole from fighting back against such outrageous economic inequalities.

This same Corporate Agenda has produced stagnant or declining incomes, double-digit unemployment for Blacks, a crisis in home foreclosures and bankruptcies, the return of rising crime and poverty rates, and prohibitive college tuitions.

The picture is bleakest for African Americans with union jobs. In 2004, 55 percent of the organized workforce that lost their jobs, were Black, although Blacks made up only 13 percent of unionized workers – a catastrophe that continues to unfold. Still, Blacks remain the most stalwart element of organized labor. Labor Department figures show African Americans are the mostly likely to be union members, at 15.1 percent, compared to 12.2 percent for whites, 11.2 percent for Asians, and 10.4 percent for Hispanics. But in fact, African Americans are even more demonstrably pro-union than the membership numbers show. Studies have consistently shown that the descending order of willingness to join a union is as follows:

Black women
Black men
Hispanic women
Hispanic men
White women
White men

That’s why Blacks are called “joiners,” a group to be avoided by anti-union employers when deciding where to locate plants and offices. And that’s also why African Americans who issue blanket denunciations of unions as hostile “white” institutions should be reminded that they are also referring to fellow Blacks, who often make up a disproportionate share of membership and from whose ranks the most militant change-makers emerge.

Chicago: a Cradle of Black Unionism

It is fitting that Chicago host this year’s CBTU convention. In a remarkable lesson on which group of workers has historically shown true solidarity, Black Chicago meatpackers, systematically excluded from white unions, formed their own and signed up many thousands of members. Ultimately, the Black union effectively absorbed faltering white locals, creating the conditions for non-racialized collective bargaining. Black Power and real Union Power emerged in the Windy City.

Black women have been comparatively more central to union organizing than their white female counterparts, just as Black women played (and continue to assume) more prominent roles in Black activist and electoral politics than white women. African American women are the most enthusiastic and militant “joiners” of all.

If the U.S. labor movement is to make any headway in confronting the rapacious and hyper-destructive Corporate Agenda, it must transform itself into a broader social-change and resistance force. Almost alone among worker confederations on the planet, American unions have generally failed to challenge corporate domination of the society at large, confining their demands to shop floor, wage and benefits issues. Raging racism and male chauvinism further crippled U.S. labor, as it excluded the very groups with the most stake in waging battle against entrenched power: minorities, especially Blacks, and women.

CBTU President William Lucy senses that many white males in union leadership finally understand they have no choice but to demand a new social contract – one that is far broader and social democratic than the previous white gentlemen’s agreement that is now being ground into dust by unrestrained capital. Lucy puts forward the following core principles:

Anyone who wants to work should have a job;

Anyone who does work should be able to live in dignity with healthcare and retirement security for their family;

Every worker should have the opportunity to form a union and bargain collectively;

All workers should share equitably in the prosperity of a strong American economy.

These are also fundamental principles of the larger historical Black Political Consensus.

A Labor Agenda such as this is anathema to the Bush men and the corporations they serve. They know that none of these goals can be achieved absent the defeat of their own Corporate Agenda. But capital meets and deals every day, on Wall Street and stock exchanges and board rooms around the globe, relentlessly attempting to shape human existence to its own advantage in transactions that move at the speed of light. These self-serving oligarchs, however, have a great weakness. They are numerically few, and rely on the rest of society to form the basis of the over-privileged lives they lead. When society fights back, the rich are in trouble.

GLEN FORD is executive editor of the Black Agenda Report. He can be contacted at Glen.Ford (at) BlackAgendaReport.com.

 

 

 

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