From Fri Apr 20 17:51:32 2001
From: Saladin Muhammad <>
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] 20 Years of Black Workers For Justice
Precedence: bulk
Date: Fri, 20 Apr 2001 17:39:55 -0500 (EST)

Twenty Years of Black Workers For Justice

By Saladin Muhammad <>, Freedom Road Magazine, issue #1, Spring 2001

This year Black Workers For Justice celebrates its twentieth anniversary. For two decades BWFJ has fought dozens of local battles in the South in defense of workers’ rights and the Black community. And for two decades, BWFJ has worked to win recognition for the central role of Black workers in the struggle against the oppressive capitalist system we live under.

Black Workers For Justice was born in a struggle at a Kmart store in the city of Rocky Mount, North Carolina in late 1981. Three Black women workers were fired for challenging the racial discrimination by the local Kmart management. The fired workers first tried to gain support from established Black civil rights organizations and church leaders who, while receptive, were cautious. They asked the workers to give details showing they had obeyed work rules—raising the bar for them to win support. Male chauvinism—constant questioning of the women’s own perceptions—was clearly a factor.

The Kmart workers then turned to some Black worker activists who had recently relocated to the area. Together they began to develop a Black working-class perspective and organization. Their approach was that Black women workers must take the initiative, present their own demands, and call on other community forces to join them in a united struggle. From its inception the new organization faced varying degrees of anti-communist suspicions and red-baiting but was not intimidated.

BWFJ was motivated by a political perspective that sought to build on the local Kmart struggle and spark a movement to organize Black workers—in the US South and nationally—into a conscious and leading political force. This perspective was influenced by a trend that went back to the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in the late 1960s with their slogan, Black Workers Take the Lead. This trend had re-emerged in the African liberation support movement of the mid-1970s, which viewed Black workers as a leading force for Black liberation and radical change. It led many Black student activists to go into the factories, post offices and other employment sectors to become part of and reattached to the working class.

Black workers were clearly seen as a key base by the new communist movement that grew out of the New Left during the 1970s. Yet some Black liberation organizations which identified themselves as revolutionary nationalist, rather than as part of the New Left or the communist movement, also began to emphasize organizing Black workers at the workplace as a primary base for their political, organizational and ideological development.

The Main Task for Black Workers

This developing Black workers trend had two main tendencies. One saw the main task of Black workers as challenging, exposing and isolating the Black bourgeoisie for their collaboration with US capitalism and imperialism. This tendency saw the African American liberation movement as an auxiliary to a revolutionary workers movement that would be led exclusively by a multi-racial and multi-national communist party. This meant that the Black working class, as the largest layer by far of the African American oppressed masses, would not have independence from the predominantly white US working class. The effect of this would be to downplay or eliminate the right of African Americans to self-determination.

The formation of BWFJ was influenced by a second tendency. It saw the main task of Black workers as organizing a conscious, radical and independent mass base and leading pole within the African American liberation movement. It also saw the Black workers movement as an organized and active expression of the working-class demands and leadership of the African American liberation movement within the US workers movement, especially the trade union movement—thereby contributing to an anti-racist and anti-imperialist radicalization of the US working class.

BWFJ focused on making Black workplace struggles key issues for the larger African American community in Rocky Mount and as far beyond as possible. Raising shop-floor issues in the church and bringing them to the community organizations and civil rights groups was and is standard practice for BWFJ members.

Voting Rights Struggles

In 1983 three members of BWFJ were part of a lawsuit against the town of Rocky Mount for violating Black voting rights. Our acting as plaintiffs on the lawsuit was key in helping to shape the political identity of BWFJ as an indigenous worker organization in the Black community. This countered the image of labor organizations as outside, impersonal forces—which is how the trade union movement, in particular, often appears to the Black community.

The late Abner W. Berry, a founding member of BWFJ, veteran freedom fighter since the 1920s, and member of the US Communist Party until the 1950s, was one of the main plaintiffs and strategists for BWFJ’s participation in the suit. He saw it as an opportunity for BWFJ to offer leadership in a key battle in the African American struggle for self-determination. It would help to highlight the importance of organized Black workers to the broader Rocky Mount and North Carolina Black communities and could provide some community protection for the workplace organizing of BWFJ. With the trade union movement on the defensive after the Reagan administration’s attack on the air traffic controllers union (PATCO) in 1980, the group’s leaders felt that BWFJ would become isolated and defeated without the support of the broader Black community.

Key BWFJ organizational components developed out of its participation in various struggles. The Justice Speaks newspaper began in 1981 as a regular leaflet during the Kmart struggle, and had, by 1983, become a newsletter connecting the various struggles and BWFJ committees that had developed. The annual Dr. Martin L. King Support for Labor Banquet was initially a fundraiser for buses to the 1983 Dr. King national holiday demonstration held in Washington, DC. Workers and activists from four main workplace and community struggles formed the initial core of the Fruit of Labor, BWFJ’s cultural arm and singing group.

Relating to the Rainbow

The 1984 Jesse Jackson presidential campaign with its strong pro-Black political power and pro-labor message, created a political climate that allowed BWFJ to more widely agitate, organize and mobilize Black workers at the workplace and in the communities. While uniting with the main issues and energy of the Jackson campaign, BWFJ decided not to form Rainbow Coalition chapters, fearing that Jackson might subordinate the Rainbow to the Democratic Party. BWFJ related to the Rainbow Coalition forces, forums and program as a united front, maintaining independence to express disagreements where necessary. This independence allowed BWFJ to place emphasis on consolidating and developing key organizational components and political relationships in the course of Jackson’s campaign.

In 1985 the first BWFJ Workers School was organized, drawing workplace and community leaders and activists from six North Carolina counties. African American history, labor history, the role and use of a workers’ newspaper, the importance of Black working-class culture, and the need for women’s leadership were some of the main topics. Abner Berry and former SNCC leader Don Stone taught at this three-day Workers School.

Following the 1985 Workers School, the various BWFJ embryonic organizational components began to take off. Justice Speaks became a monthly newspaper within a year. A Women’s Commission and Trade Union Commission were formed. Annual Workers Schools were organized, and regular steering committee meetings were held. This allowed BWFJ to better focus on implementing its program and summing up the work.

The Women’s Commission

The formation of the BWFJ Women’s Commission in 1987 was an important development, not only for the group but for the general Black workers trend, whose leadership had been largely Black men. Instead of being just an internal commission that mainly reviewed and summed up work, it also became a semi-external, public women’s organization, incorporating members beyond BWFJ’s own ranks. The Women’s Commission led the organizing work at the Rocky Mount Undergarment plant beginning in 1989.

This basic consolidation gave BWFJ confidence to forge links with other Black worker activists and to help form the Black Workers Unity Movement (BWUM) in 1985. BWUM was an agitational, educational and organizing network focused on regrouping and expanding the Black workers trend and promoting a call for a national congress of Black workers.

BWUM was limited in its geographic locations and in its concentrations in key industries and sectors. However, its impact showed itself at the Labor Notes Conferences beginning in 1986 and around the Labor Party Constitutional Convention in 1996. There, BWUM pushed for the creation of a Black caucus, which led to the inclusion of key planks in the Labor Party Program. This experience exposed BWFJ to the rank-and-file trade union democracy movement and labor left that was made up mainly of whites from areas outside of the South.

Labor Notes Conferences helped BWFJ to make contacts that were vital for launching the Organize the South Campaign and undertaking Midwest and East Coast tours beginning in 1991. Key contacts, including leaders of Labor Notes, attended the 1989 BWFJ Workers School held in Rocky Mount and participated with organizers and workers from various workplace committees in shaping the direction of the Organize the South Campaign. Organizing around the tragic fire at Imperial Foods in Hamlet, North Carolina, which killed 25 workers and injured 56 due to fire exits’ being chained shut by management, helped to draw attention to the Organize the South Campaign.

Union Organizing and International Ties

In 1994 BWFJ was key in helping to form the North Carolina Public Service Workers Organization of rank-and-file and labor support activists in public sector workplaces at eleven locations in seven counties. This laid the foundation for the eventual emergence in May 1997 of the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union-United Electrical Workers Local 150 as a statewide local with over 2500 members to date.

In 1997 BWFJ’s work to Organize the South expanded internationally through connections with the Transnational Information Exchange (TIE), an international workers network organized in Europe and some Third World Countries to foster labor solidarity and to empower workers to resist corporations’ global production schemes.

BWUM, Labor Notes and TIE forums enabled BWFJ to discuss and understand its work and strategic role within a larger national and international trade union, working-class and pro-socialist context. This influenced major BWFJ decisions around strategic questions and created organizational pressures to function more as a cadre organization. There was a constant push within the leadership for a disciplined division of labor capable of maintaining and building on these relationships and for focusing sustained attention on these new alignments.

New Questions and Tasks

The membership growth within BWFJ itself has been far smaller than the numbers recruited into the workplace committees, unions and community organizations and institutions that have been built by BWFJ. To build a Black working-class presence and leadership in the African American liberation movement and in the broader workers movement, we need a greater consolidation of BWFJ and a larger Black workers movement. Therefore, BWFJ must place a major emphasis on expanding throughout the US South, training a wider layer of politically and ideologically committed cadre members, and working harder to develop a popular mass Black workers movement and culture—in its own right and in the form of BWFJ in particular.

There have been differences within BWFJ around questions of primary organizational focus, racial composition and the political character and aims of the struggles. Some see BWFJ as mainly a statewide organization responding to spontaneous worker and Black community struggles. Others see it as a conscious Black working-class organization with a political program aimed at empowering, radicalizing and mobilizing the working class and African American communities around short- and long-term needs and interests. We have united across these differences around a program that seeks to politicize immediate struggles and transform them into more conscious and wider challenges against the racist and sexist system of corporate rule.

The history of BWFJ has shaped its anti-capitalist vision and program around questions of democracy, social and economic justice, human rights, women’s equality and international solidarity as fundamental pillars for a radical social transformation and a new society.