Date: Mon, 22 Nov 1999 01:59:09 -0500
Calling All Black Organizers
By Bill Fletcher, Jr. <firstname.lastname@example.org>, November 1999
I recently had a discussion with some folks from the AFL-CIO's Organizing Department. They have been recruiting organizers into the union movement through a more than decade old program called the "Organizing Institute". As part of this program they have visited historically Black colleges and universities to encourage young African-Americans to consider devoting themselves to the life of a union organizer.
The results have been complicated and have given me pause.
It's not that they have not been able to recruit young activists. They have. Rather, the more disconcerting problem which they have encountered is the prevailing ideology on many of these campuses: instead of encouraging activism, students are encouraged toward entrepreneurialism. This should not be particularly surprising since this has been the dominant theme on Black campuses since time began. What the Organizing Institute folks found, though, which was disconcerting is a very low level of political activism generally, and a low sense of `class', that is, a sense of class struggle and the importance of class, within the general student body.
There are certainly exceptions. At Jackson State University (Mississippi), under the leadership of Dr. Leslie McLemore, efforts have been undertaken to build a labor studies program which unites the African-American experience with the history of trade unionism in the USA. But Jackson State is unique. Labor history, and particularly the proud role which African-Americans have played in working class struggle is all but ignored on too many of these campuses. One consequence of this is that class, as a socio-economic category-with profound political implications-is ignored.
I was struck and troubled by the discussion I held with the individuals from the Organizing Department because we are living through a period where class is increasing in importance for African-Americans, and where African-American leaders and organizers are badly needed within the ranks of organized labor.
Class has always been an important category in the Black experience. Whether it was internal, e.g., which sections of Black America were considered leaders [lawyers, doctors, business people, ministers], or external, in this case the fact that the majority of African-Americans have been and continue to be working class, Black America has lived with the reality of class. Nevertheless, the ever present dominance of white supremacy, particularly during the Jim Crow years, often subordinated class issues to matters of race. Toward the end of the 1960s, the situation became more complicated when many of the political victories won by the Civil Rights Movement held a disproportionate benefit for the Black middle stratum, and less tangible benefits for the Black working class.
Since the 1960s, and particularly since the late 1970s, there has been a widening gap within Black America between the rich and the rest of us. This has mirrored a similar trend within US society as a whole. The demands and issues of the Black professional-managerial and business strata have diverged significantly from those of the Black working class. This is not to say that we have witnessed a declining significance of race, but to borrow from University of Massachusetts-Boston professor Dr. James Jennings, we have experienced an increasing significance of `class'.
The increasing significance of class, however, has not been addressed regularly or precisely within Black America, with the notable exception of left-wing/radical critiques of political and economic trends. It has certainly not been addressed on most campuses, including those which are historically African-American.
One of the implications of our failure to address class within Black America can be witnessed in struggles which have taken place at Black Entertainment Television (BET). In the last several years, local unions of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) have found themselves at war with a company management apparently insensitive to the demands and needs of its workforce. More recently, a struggle ensued over the fate of comedians (not exclusively Black) who have received a pittance for their participation in one of BET comedy programs. These struggles have been all-but ignored in the Black press, with the notable exception of the coverage offered by the Tom Joyner Morning Show (a nationally syndicated radio program) of the comedians fight for justice. Within Black America we get very uneasy discussing issues of class as they play out within our own experience and among our own people.
In addition to the general importance of class, and why it needs to be addressed more explicitly within Black America, there is the historic juncture within organized labor. After years of lethargy, and an inconsistent fighting spirit, changes are underway within the national trade union movement. There is a growing awareness that we must either organize, or we will probably not make it past the first decade of the 21st century. Organizing, particularly given the changing demographics of the US workforce, means organizing workers of color and women workers. Within that large and growing group, Black workers can play a decisive role in shaping the new labor movement.
Let's consider the South. If there is any hope of changing the politics of the USA, it must be based on reshaping the South. The choke hold which reactionary politics have had on the South, and the suppression of its Black population have had a profound impact on the national scene, as is so graphically illustrated when one examines the Republican majority in Congress.
In order to overturn this situation, the Southern working class will need progressive organization, and unionization could prove to key to transformation. If that is the case, then the unionization of the Black worker moves to center stage. If for no other reason-and there are other reasons-than this, Black organizers are desperately needed to help to unionize the South.
Given this situation of flux, Black organizers and Black working class leaders can play a critical role in reshaping organized labor. This is not only a matter of organizing other African-Americans, but increasing our clout within the trade union movement in order to format the agenda of a new movement for social and economic justice.
It is this reality which makes the situation on Black campuses, and specifically, among Black student youth, hold such importance. This is not an academic question, though it involves academia. It is a question which goes to the heart, soul and mind of Black America and to the very basic question of which way forward: the illusion of get-rich-quick via entrepreneurialism, or the necessity of uniting the African-American freedom struggle with 21st century class politics.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is Assistant to the President of the AFL-CIO, as well as a long-time activist in the Black Freedom Movement.
The views expressed in this article are his own.
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