In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. published Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, in which he assessed the state of the civil rights movement after the passage of the Voting Rights Act. In it, he argued that the movement had reached a crossroads. After winning civil rights legislation, Dr. King argued, “The paths of Negro-white unity that had been converging crossed at Selma, and like a giant X began to diverge.”
Where did Dr. King go amid this impasse? He went to Memphis to support sanitation workers. He also followed welfare mothers as he sought to build a coalition — the Poor People’s Campaign — of poor folks. He continued articulating a politics synthesizing anti-imperialism as well as labor and civil rights.
We could be heading toward a similar synthesis. While 2020 was a resurgent year for the movement for Black lives — as hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest state violence, advance abolitionist demands to defund the police, and to confront structural and symbolic vestiges of racism and colonialism at the center of our modern world — 2021 was a resurgent year for organized labor and workers.
As labor intellectual Kim Moody reports: “There were 124 strikes by these [private-sector] workers across industries in 2021.” Despite its defeat, the “BAmazonUnion” drive in Bessemer, Alabama, captured the nation’s attention earlier this year. Workers at John Deere, represented by the United Auto Workers, struck for the first time in three decades. Graduate students at Columbia went on strike for a second time this year last month and are seeking improvements in pay and working conditions. Even Starbucks workers at a Buffalo café successfully won recognition as the company’s first union in the U.S. Organizers there built on a two-year effort to recruit employees to Starbucks Workers United (SWU) by building support and encouraging them to join their organizing committee before announcing its unionization drive in August.
Like the 2020 uprisings for Black liberation, the context of the COVID-19 pandemic makes this strike activity remarkable. Workers and unions are taking action as the labor market tightens due to increased hiring and what has been deemed “The Great Resignation.” As more workers have recognized that their jobs do not love them back, as labor journalist Sarah Jaffe puts it, more are recognizing their individual power to quit, stay out of the job market or switch careers. According to Moody, 73,320 workers have participated in labor strikes in 2021, which for instance, does not even approach the 4.4 million Americans who quit their jobs this past September. This moment is clearly an opportunity to build more solidarity through labor organizing, education and militancy.
The 2021 labor actions, as well as the 2020 anti-racist and anti-colonial uprisings, have also taken place in the context of a growing right-wing authoritarian counterrevolution. The 2020 uprisings seemed to knock the reactionary right on its heels, but then it regained its footing when then-president Donald Trump deployed federal law enforcement to cities where anti-racist protests were taking place, and members of his administration targeted anarchists and anti-fascists in cities like Portland, Oregon, while denying the existence of structural racism.
Counterrevolutions, as Herbert Marcuse argued in Counterrevolution and Revolt, are “altogether preventative.” This seems to be the case in 2021 as reactionaries have launched a broad attack against racial justice by rallying support for law enforcement institutions and individuals like right-wing teenager Kyle Rittenhouse, who are willing to kill in the name of protecting private property. State legislators across the country are also passing what historian Timothy Snyder has called “memory laws” restricting the teaching of anti-racism, not limited to critical race theory and The 1619 Project. White power groups also continue to organize openly. Meanwhile, pro-police Democrats remain instrumental in this counterrevolution as New York City Mayor-Elect Eric Adams ran on attacking demands to defund the police and promising to strengthen the city’s police forces. Democrats in “blue cities,” such as Austin, Texas; Washington, D.C.; and Oakland, California, have increased police budgets since the 2020 uprising.
Recently, mainstream media outlets buttressed support for law enforcement with sensationalist coverage of organized robberies at a time when property crimes remain at historic lows. This coverage helps strengthen calls for “law and order,” which threaten to reverse momentum gained by the movement for Black lives in the wake of the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
While capitalists continue to resort to tried-and-true tactics to thwart labor organizing outside of public view, the counterrevolution has not launched such a broadside against labor yet. However, congressional Republicans continue to block paths toward labor action and unionization with their opposition to the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act), which would invalidate right-to-work laws, shield workers from employer interference in unionization efforts, and institute “card check,” which allows for union certification after a simple majority signs union cards.
While the movements for racial justice and workers’ rights often heavily overlap — most Black and Brown people tend to both express an anti-racist politics and support unionization — there is an opportunity for more coalition building between anti-racist activists and this burgeoning labor movement in 2022.
We saw creative instances of this solidarity in 2020. In June, workers from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) shut down 29 ports along the West Coast in solidarity with those protesting the police-perpetrated murders of Black people and in commemoration of Juneteenth. Then, later that summer, workers from the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) Local 3550 of the American Federation of Teachers engaged in an “abolitionist” strike in response to the University of Michigan administration’s attempts to reopen campus amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like the ILWU, GEO sought to mobilize in solidarity with the movement for Black lives, for Black students and students of color on campus. According to graduate student unionists Alejo Stark, Jasmine Ehrhardt and Amir Fleischmann, GEO issued a series of demands for a “safe and just” campus that included “disarming, demilitarizing, and defunding campus police as well as severing ties from both Ann Arbor police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.” The ILWU and GEO joined other unions, such as the Chicago Teachers Union and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America who also expressed the view that confronting structural racism and state violence is key to their organizing.
It is possible that this coalition could grow beyond the labor movement in 2022. It might build upon the work of organizations devoted to abolishing debt, such as the Debt Collective, and the myriad of reproductive justice organizations that center racial justice in their analysis and organizing. Joining these coalitions in 2022 seems especially imperative as the Biden administration seems hell bent on restarting loan payments instead of fulfilling its campaign promise to cancel additional debt for all borrowers and the Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, putting women and any person who might need abortion services at physical risk.
This forging of coalitions between movements in the new year must be grounded in a robust analysis of the material conditions that have given rise to these forces. For example, the policing of workplaces and spaces with concentrated poverty — as well as the steady decline of workers’ power — is connected to massive layoffs and the emergence of more precarious work in the wake of transformations of mass production. The transformation of production and work, working parents’ inability to save for their children’s higher education due to wage stagnation and rising education costs, and the federal government’s de-emphasizing of Pell Grants in favor of extending loans, have created more incentive for prospective students to borrow. Moreover, as many reproductive justice activists and organizations have contended, abortion bans will hurt those most economically vulnerable, especially Black and Brown people, as many will not have the money, nor resources, such as time away from work and reliable transportation, to seek abortion services.
The climate is ripe for building coalitions based on these intersecting issues, as we might be in the middle of a massive social transition. As sociologist Paolo Gerbaudo claims, the pandemic may be hastening the fall of the neoliberal order. We seem to be at a three-way intersection: Many of those in the center are trying to halt any reform efforts that could help most Americans in the name of fighting inflation; right-wing authoritarians are seeking to restore a racial and class dictatorship; and those on the left are growing more urgent in calls for a progressive — even radical — vision of democracy. We also remain at the intersection of various emergencies.
The U.S. has surpassed 800,000 deaths in the pandemic. The capitalism-driven climate crisis killed workers in an Edwardsville, Illinois, Amazon warehouse and a candle factory in Mayfield, Kentucky, in what is probably the worst series of tornadoes in this country’s history.
Just as Dr. King and others refused to allow a political impasse to obstruct efforts to build solidarity and power, we must continue developing grassroots power to address the violence of the capitalist state and to supplant a murderous political and economic system. We must also respond to the growing counterrevolutionary threat on the right and the moderating impulses in the center by building solidarity and coalitions among nascent progressive movements and upsurges. Not only do threats of state violence — which include capitalist divestment, debt, the protection of capitalists’ private property rights, infringements on reproductive rights, and the climate crisis — bind us together, so do our desires to overturn these forces.
We can join together to establish more radical forms of democracy, restore the commons, and develop more humane ways to protect each other and build a more just, equitable, flourishing world.
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