It was Tuesday, May 26, the same day the video of George Floyd’s murder by four Minneapolis policemen surfaced. James Curbeam was walking to his car outside a Lowe’s store not far from where he lives in Nashville, Tennessee, when a white woman approached him demanding to know, “Why are you following me?” Curbeam, who is chairman of the Teamsters National Black Caucus, told Truthout his immediate sinking thought was: How can I defend myself to the police when they come?
Fortunately, he de-escalated the mistaken encounter, but he remains shaken by how vulnerable he was, and is, by dint of being a Black man in the U.S. “I didn’t say anything to my wife about what happened until that Thursday,” he said.
Organized labor has a fraught role in relation to policing, to say the least. Since the inception of police departments, police have played a role in repressing worker uprisings. Yet the strength of police unions — including those within the Teamsters and other large unions like the AFL-CIO — is a major barrier to any kind of fundamental change.
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However, an increasing number of workers are speaking out about policing and demanding their unions’ attention in the current moment.
“While working people of America have had a knee on our neck for generations, for Black people, it’s worse,” Curbeam added.
Juneteenth — a holiday that originates in Texas, but is now catching hold nationwide — is observed on June 19. It celebrates the day in 1865 when enslaved people in Texas learned that their legal status had been favorably altered by the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier. Juneteenth 2020 is also the day that all 29 ports that operate with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) will be shut down from 9 am to 5 pm. Initiated by Bay Area Locals 10 and 34, and adopted by ILWU national on June 8.
“Looking at the tragedy that’s continuing to happen to Black and Brown people in this country, I’m heartbroken because I have to live with the fact that my children and grandchildren are going to be facing a terrible future unless I play a part in changing history,” Gabriel Prawl, former president of ILWU Local 52 in Seattle, told Truthout.
At a 2016 convention in Miami, he circulated a draft resolution proposing that if any Black longshore worker is killed by law enforcement anywhere, all longshore unions would take unified economic action everywhere. Prawl says he’s still waiting for such a resolution to be adopted but that Friday’s planned work stoppage was conceived in that spirit “and comes the closest to the aims of that proposed resolution of any action so far.”
Prawl — who is also president of the Seattle chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a policy advocacy organization for Black trade unionists — wants the police to “stop terrorizing Black people.” He’s also concerned about a jobless future due to automation.
“It’s the future of eliminating unions, of eliminating employers having to pay for pensions, Social Security and medical [benefits] for actual human beings working, so that more of the profit goes to the corporation. Automation will create more poverty in the world,” he said.
Multiple reports already point to high job loss due to future automation in occupations currently held by Black workers. Unions are being targeted for economic warfare, which is also a detriment to Black workers who, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, had in 2019 the highest union coverage rate among major racial and ethnic groups.
Specific to longshore workers, ILWU Oregon is on tenterhooks deciding how best to cope with the challenge of a $19 million judgment recently levied against it because of a work slowdown campaign against terminal operator International Container Terminal Services, Inc. (ICTSI) in Portland from 2013 to 2017. ILWU couldn’t comment, but according to a précis by ICTSI’s lawyers, the slowdown was part of a contractual dispute about the right to perform plugging, unplugging and monitoring of refrigerated containers.
Meanwhile, the continued viability of the Port of Oakland is imperiled by billionaire John Fisher, who hopes to develop its real estate for many non-port purposes, including a 34,000-seat sports stadium and thousands of units of luxury condos. Approximately 1,000 dockworker positions, predominantly held by African Americans, are at risk if the plan goes forward, and according to the Port of Oakland, the port and its business partners support more than 84,000 supply chain, distribution and logistics jobs.
Prawl freely admits these existential threats motivate ILWU’s outreach to resistance groups in the working-class struggle like the Movement for Black Lives.
“Labor has a responsibility to play a role in this resistance,” Prawl said, “because without the movement, labor will not survive.”
Chris Silvera, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 808 in Long Island City, New York, sees an imperative for unions to share resources with the grassroots in order to cement such strategic alliances, and soon.
“Many unions have no-strike provisions, so for legal reasons, we have to have a foil or buffers that cause us to not be able to get to work,” Silvera told Truthout. “Let’s say Black Lives Matter sets up a picket line around our job sites, and that’s what causes the shutdown.”
Holding out the prospect of labor’s ability to catalyze a general strike as a shimmering lure, Silvera says if the ILWU, ILA and Teamsters joined forces in a shutdown, “the country would have to come to an agreement about something very fast. That’s what we want to build.”
But he admits the Teamsters have been very conservative. “I don’t want to say racist but they tend to walk hand in hand from time to time, conservatism and racism.” Simply in terms of seats at the table, in 1975, there was one Black trustee serving on the executive board; by 2015 there were three; and now in 2020 they’re back down to one. A diversity committee was established and prepared a report of recommendations. But nothing of the committee’s findings has been presented at any of the three conventions that have come and gone since the report was concluded. Given those tendencies, getting Black youth to sign on as labor’s foils and buffers will be a difficult sell. “We have to stop pandering to the racists,’” Silvera said.
Beyond discussions of diversity looms a larger, glaring issue: The Teamsters contain police unions and have stood with law enforcement every step of the way, including legal defense funds for officers and the entrenchment of contracts that stand in the way of defunding policing, holding officers accountable for their actions, and getting police out of schools.
Given all of these dynamics, what might be the outlook for a general strike?
Writer and labor activist Bill Fletcher, Jr. told Truthout there hasn’t been a general strike in the United States since 1946. “In effect, there is no one of working age now who was ever involved in a general strike and we’re going to have to relearn how to do it.”
In his observation, conditions are similar to those in 1919, when the country was in a depression and a flu pandemic and was suffering white supremacist racist violence in 26 cities during the Red Summer that led to the Seattle general strike.
“In a global economy, any delay in logistics has an impact,” Fletcher noted about the planned port closures. “Can it reverberate? I don’t know.”
The People’s Strike is a united front of radical Black, Brown, Indigenous and allied resistance groups who, since May Day, have committed to organizing themed mini-strikes on the first day of every month. The aim of the People’s Strike is to help move the working class toward a global general strike, with or without organized labor’s leadership, by educating workers about the tactic of general strike and promoting democratic processes of governance such as people’s assemblies to make decisions about how to get there. The People’s Strike has also drawn attention to the need to expel police from unions.
“I think the problems in organized labor are deep,” Akuno told Truthout. “They’re rooted in compromises made generations ago, such as no-strike language in the contracts. Overall, their orientation is around a service model, rather than an organizing model, to put it nicely. Because of that, there are millions of workers who see some of these unions as being a hindrance.”
Akuno says he’s willing to bear the brunt of criticism for trying something new, and turns the questions back around at labor. “Do they feel the methodology that they’ve been applying is going to deal with this [economic] depression, which is still deepening? What is labor’s strategy? I haven’t heard anybody articulating one.”
He fears that to the extent there is a strategy, it’s dependent upon the economy reopening, but wonders if labor has an actual plan to reopen the economy safely.
“How are you going to deal with the austerity that’s already on the board? How’re you going to deal with more of your members being homeless because they can’t cover rent? While you’re waiting for employers to come up with an autonomous solution, let’s put people back to work under new conditions, under new relationships,” he says.
“Their lack of vision, lack of imagination, have led to a very cautious play, which … asks, ‘What’s in it for my members?’ Akuno says. “So, if it’s just about your members, just the very logic of capitalist competition being that those who are unorganized, by necessity, drive down wages and working conditions.”
Tough as it is, Akuno is not shying away from the conversation. “To people who say talk of a general strike is premature, we’re going to keep raising the question under these conditions because these issues aren’t going away.”