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Black Labor Powered Reconstruction’s Fight for Democracy. It Can Do It Again.

Collective actions led by Black labor historically pushed moderates to meet radical demands and continue to do so.

“Predominantly Black, unionized health care workers at Kaiser Permanente just led that sector’s largest strike,” Jemuel writes, talking about the power of “today’s multiracial front.” Here, Kaiser employees picket in Los Angeles, California, on October 4, 2023.

News spread fast across plantations in the antebellum United States. Enslaved Black workers tracking current events in 1860 quickly developed the widespread notion of an “emancipating army,” marching south to enact biblical vengeance. Panic among white elites confirmed Armageddon rumors, unlocking new space for open struggle.

Mass labor action at the point of production made Black workers the first offensive force to face the old Confederacy, later backed by both moderates and radicals in a pro-democracy united front. Black labor still leads broadly today, particularly in grassroots organizations.

In 1860, growing numbers of captive laborers freed themselves. A slow-moving walkout “to stop the economy of the plantation system” exacerbated prewar chaos in the old Confederacy, as W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in his 1935 deep-dive Black Reconstruction in America. Black labor seized the crises of war and secession as opportunities to demand humane conditions. “It was a general strike,” wrote Du Bois, “that involved directly in the end perhaps a half million people.”

Most strikers reached Union lines. Many tried to enlist. Their collective action narrowed President Abraham Lincoln’s options: either enforce the Fugitive Slave Act in the middle of a war with its authors, or formalize the inevitable. Union casualties at the Battle of Fredericksburg came to more than 12,000, just three weeks before Lincoln publicized the Emancipation Proclamation, which then made eligible for military service all those it “freed.”

Black labor was the war’s root and protagonist. Class struggle sabotaged the old Confederate war machine, sharpening southern points of production to bleed the royal rebellion and flood the southern countryside with a new proletariat. Almost 200,000 free Black workers then returned in regiments to crush the army defending their enslavement.

Georgia plantations emptied the winter of 1864 as northern troops left Atlanta smoldering for the Savannah coast. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman allowed the refugees to swell his “march to the sea.” On arrival, he met with Black faith leaders, abolitionists and the secretary of war, resulting in a radical act of redistributive racial justice.

Special Field Order No. 15 confiscated 400,000 acres of land, from South Carolina to Florida, and gave it to 20,000 free Black refugees. Lincoln’s Southern Democrat vice president opposed the move, and once in office, Andrew Johnson gave the land back to planters. Radical Republicans and other progressive forces pressured Congress to distribute 40-acre plots without success. The Freedmen’s Bureau seized plantations, transferring them to free Black workers, whom northern business hoped would eventually restore prewar output.

Economically independent Black workers were harder to exploit, but industrialists knew establishing a modern wage system in the South required their labor. Millions of experienced rural workers were ready to revive the means of cultivation, but first, they demanded proprietorship. Abiding progressive forces on land reform, northern business took the agrarian machinery out of planter hands and brought it back online.

Rather than lay face down in treason, guilty planters emerged from their conspiracy deprived of property and political power. The fallen aristocracy couldn’t conceive the enslaved had replaced them and retaliated against their surrender.

Black workers formed state militias to defend their political and economic gains, aided by the occupying U.S. Army. Even as it became a tool of democracy, the Army continued as an instrument of white supremacy. Westward conquest was blood-fueled industrial expansion bookending a war in which northern business backed southern labor against southern capital. Obeying conflicting moral interests, each with state power, the army drove Indigenous genocide while simultaneously protecting a multiracial governing proletariat from white terror.

By shutting down plantations and freeing themselves, enslaved Black workers compelled the federal government to side with democracy against dictatorship. Resistance grew into an uprising, and the U.S. reaped a second revolutionary war.

Northern business and southern labor aligned against planter counterrevolution. Factory owners with political sway over plantations controlled raw materials. Through steel, robber barons controlled the postwar rail rush. Concurring with industrialists to further strip planters of power, workers’ interest was and remains democracy.

The Freedmen’s Bureau set up social programs like schools and clinics requiring massive infrastructural development. Builders and suppliers from all over offered their services for a fee to construct a New South in the economic image of its victorious northern sibling. The united front included small capitalists chasing a state-planned economic boom, while middle-class reformers and wealthy philanthropists gave financial backing for the first national scale school system, following a petition signed by 10,000 free Black workers in Louisiana demanding tax funded public education, according to Du Bois.

Collective mass actions led by Black labor pushed moderates to meet radical demands. Occupying political space absent in the old Confederacy, the united front wasn’t a self-selecting group but an objective condition. Progressive forces pressed the gas, regressive forces pumped the brakes, and both fought to steer. Small capitalists hitched rides, taking advantage of an unregulated highway to collect tolls on refugee traffic.

Northern industrialists and business elites, profit-motivated against the old Confederacy as an economic rival, competed with labor-oriented radicals for leadership within the united front. Fearing workers’ economic power, northern business used moderates in Congress to install overthrown southern aristocrats as wage-paying land barons in the system known as sharecropping. Postwar plantations returned to planters of course operated higher rates of exploitation than those transferred to free Black workers, often family proprietors. Industrialists then saw an economic incentive to prioritize aligning former enslavers with the new mode of production.

Leaning labor-side in contract disputes with enslavers-turned-employers, the Freedmen’s Bureau expropriated planter property for redistribution. Planters saw the Freedmen’s Bureau as an existential enemy, punishing them for particularly bold business dealings. Radicals shaping the bureau saw the planters as defeated foes tacitly rescinding surrender. Unlikely allies had different approaches to a common enemy.

The Republican Party’s unofficial militant auxiliary, the Union League, went south in 1867 for a massive voter registration and membership campaign. Newly enfranchised Black men and their still disenfranchised communities formed self-sustaining chapters. Du Bois pointed to a radical coherence of Republicans, trade unionists and 48ers — European revolutionaries, many exiled following the national uprisings of 1848 — for a progressive program that pushed the bureau forward. These organizations and individuals, which he collectively called “the abolition-democracy,” were the united front’s fighting edge.

Black labor in the U.S. South was highly organized, holding Union League meetings in secret to evade the Ku Klux Klan while advancing an historic wave of progress. Their strategy involved picking collective fights with abusive rural bosses. The league armed workers with the ballot to defend their gains, and led on offense using the strike weapon.

Radicals in Congress made race-based voter suppression a constitutional crime with passage of the 15th Amendment. Eight months later, Black members of the league swayed the 1870 midterms for Republicans. Black men’s vote secured the presidency in 1872 for Ulysses Grant, an effective ally against ongoing white terror.

The Southern multiracial majority got the ballot and elected itself at the state level. Rewriting state constitutions, more than 1,500 Black officeholders established the right to a quality education; a fair trial; and in North Carolina, to the “fruits of [one’s] own labor.” Workers’ governing power expanded as economic relations capsized. The moves represented the height of the Black labor-led front before the regressive backlash of the Jim Crow era.

Today’s Multiracial Front

Class struggle to defend and expand the public sector has historically centered Black labor in building egalitarian racial progress. The Second Reconstruction, culminating in civil rights and Black power movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s, repeated the alliance between southern labor and backward northern capital. Pulling the united front, however reluctantly, into decisive conflict with southern capital, Black workers led the overthrow of Jim Crow. Multiracial leadership organizing mass movements might still push a Third Reconstruction process toward multiracial democracy.

Today’s GOP is the political organ of a cross-class white racial front, uniting elites of any region toward the antebellum-adjacent dream of near-total exploitation. Moderates move neoliberal free market policy, aligning with the extreme right to sustain racialized poverty by cutting public services. In union-dense blue states, the extreme right often draws the line on progress for regressive Democrats.

For example, corporate politicians in Connecticut used the COVID-19 pandemic to attack state-employed unionized health care workers, seizing on centuries of patriarchal racialization to sharpen the blade of value extraction. Across the country, a majority of public- and private-sector health care workers are Black women. Their mistreatment during the pandemic highlighted preexisting and ongoing socioeconomic disparities.

Livelihoods were on the line in 2021 when their union contract came up for renegotiation. Connecticut state health care workers rely almost entirely on the state legislature to fund their services along with wages and benefits, entering them into a political fight.

Across the table sat a Democratic governor born and raised in Connecticut’s wealth belt. Unionized health care workers supported him against the GOP, but now his neoliberal frame cut off their vision for progress. Market extremists yelled instructions from his corner, and the governor swung heavy, hoping austerity might drop workers in the first. Some of the sharpest cuts were for crisis intervention workers.

Although they’re seasoned fighters, state workers can’t legally strike, so they used unconventional tactics, applying pressure through protracted civil disobedience at commissioner offices, the state capitol and in the streets. They not only won funding, but their first non-concessionary contract in 20 years. That fight and previous ones similarly put Black labor in leadership of Connecticut’s united front. Labor and community coalitions representing over half a million people in the state moved forward on a path carved by Black laborers.

Recent strikes by the United Auto Workers have likewise been examples of multiracial class power winning historic gains. Predominantly Black, unionized health care workers at Kaiser Permanente just led that sector’s largest strike. The Black-led labor struggle cohering and expanding indicates potential for another hard break toward progress. “Those who would be free” said Frederick Douglass, “themselves must strike the blow.”

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