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Labor Must Make Defense of Black Lives Its Own Imperative

Black trade unionists are calling on the labor movement to unite in defense of Black lives.

As activist Savina Martin, center, with the People's Forum, speaks, Anthony Meeks, with SEIU Local 888, throws up a fist during an SEIU members rally in front of the State House in Boston on "a day of reckoning" for Black Lives on July 20, 2020.

Black trade unionists across the U.S. are calling on the labor movement to defend Black Lives Matter protesters and to fight racism in their own ranks. The attacks by police and increasingly violent armed racist militias evoke the memory of many such violent incidents against Black people in earlier periods, from slavery to segregation to the civil rights era.

For Labor Day 2020, Truthout reached out to Christopher Silvera, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 808 in Long Island City, NY; Elise Bryant, executive director of Labor Heritage Foundation and president of the Communication Workers of America’s Coalition of Labor Union Women in Washington, D.C.; and Cleo Silvers, a former member of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in Detroit in the 1970’s and member retiree of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) District 1199 in New York City, for their analyses and thoughts on preparation for community defense.

Fighting Racism in Labor’s Ranks

Christopher Silvera has found that members of his union who are in what he terms “the militia mindset” have the exact same demands as unions — wages, pensions and healthcare — but their solutions are based on white supremacy.

“Many were in the military, in Afghanistan, and they’re frustrated,” he says. “They think they can achieve these demands by way of racism and getting rid of immigrants.”

This has played out with elite unions attempting to raid the craft unions and separate them from the greater unions with the goal of getting middle-skill level workers to think they’ll get a better deal, according to Silvera.

“They’re using racism to split the unions,” he says.

Some workers, worried about their futures, are falling for it. Silvera recalls a recent Labor Day parade in New York City with a marcher who had a confederate flag on his Harley-Davison motorcycle.

“Now what is it about being in a union and the Confederacy that you don’t understand, when everything that the Klan stood for was anti-union?” he wonders. “But they don’t have this knowledge so they have a contradictory relationship with the union.”

Some local unions have started to stand up to militias in much the same way as they have against police brutality — the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 has passed resolutions and marched against police violence and fascism. They were prepared to counter-protest the Patriot Prayer in San Francisco in August 2017, but the far-right group backed down.

“Once they heard organized labor was marching against them, they were no longer in the mood,” Silvera says, adding that this is precisely why national leadership should be in unison with Black Lives Matter. “If the electricians and the building trades were in these marches, it would let people know that this is unacceptable. Leaderships’ inaction is allowing the militias to breathe, the way they allow the Klan to breathe.”

Militias, the Klan and slave patrols are all on the historical continuum of what Silvera calls “a chronic level of oppression of the Black working class, but ultimately of the whole working class.” He thinks the tradition is being ramped up now because “capitalism has become completely desperate.”

Capitalism’s broken promise towards young whites which fueled Occupy has also fueled the militias, which in his analysis function as gangs to capture any and all advantages for white workers only.

“What was Occupy? A movement of young white college kids who realized that ‘holy crap, I’m going to have $50-60,000 student debt and a Mickey Mouse job to go with it and I can’t pay it off and I can’t live the life that I thought I was going to live,”” Silvera says.

Labor has to step into this space to push back and become a leader in anti-militarism and anti-vigilantism in its capacity as “military wing of the working class.”

“We have to speak up, we have to start leading marches as labor,” Silvera argues. “If we don’t we’re going to continue to have these problems with state fascism. And when fascism rears its head, one of the first things it goes after is the union.”

Silvera, who is running for general president of the Teamsters in 2021, hopes the rank and file will flex their muscles with the power of the purse.

“Members, especially Black members who are suffering, are going to have to refuse to pay dues to an organization that refuses to share our voice with the world. What do we want? We want the national leadership of the AFL-CIO to call the Fraternal Order of Police and tell them to ‘rein in your boys.’ We want them to say, ‘These are our workers, our members, and you all can’t treat them like this.”

He says if the FOP won’t take corrective action to stop the police killings of Black workers and future workers, the AFL-CIO should kick them out.

No Place for Police Unions

Elise Bryant is a member of the Washington-Baltimore News Guild (United Auto Workers (UAW Local 1981) as well as Communication Workers of America (CWA)/Newspaper Guild Local 32035.

Bryant is critical of national leadership for not taking action on police and militia violence and hopes that pressure from the locals will push them to defund and disaffiliate police unions from CWA in particular and AFL-CIO in general. On September 3 at her Local in Washington, D.C., which is comprised of 60 percent people of color, Bryant facilitated a discussion and passage of a resolution urging those actions. A record 169 members attended online, mostly young people.

“With the murder of George Floyd and police murdering Black people on a regular basis, and brown people, the idea was we had to make a stand right now,” Bryant says. “These people can’t have a labor family when they’re murdering members.”

She views the moment of the George Floyd rebellion as an opportunity to hold the labor movement’s feet to the fire in dealing with racial inequality, but she doesn’t expect change to come from the top.

“No change in any social justice movement ever came from the top,” she says. “It always comes from the grassroots.”

Bryant is looking at training, conferencing and perhaps holding a town hall meeting as spurs to action. As director of the Labor Heritage Foundation, which she calls “the cultural arm of the resistance,” she’s looking to the creation of artistic works to inspire it — such as these pieces composed in homage to George Floyd’s humanity: “$20 Bill” (a song for George Floyd) by The Fox Run Five and “No Justice No Peace” by 15-year-old JustLove, the Talkin’ Union Spoken Word Winner. LHF promotes and preserves the arts and culture of the U.S. worker by conducting labor arts exchange workshops and producing live performances. A Labor Day concert of songs to foster the consciousness of workers standing up for their rights will be held on September 7 at 8-10 p.m.

“The power of a hundred or a thousand people chanting or singing at the same time is remarkable in changing the aerodynamics of the space,” she says, “but also the energy.”

They’ve created two jazz labor operas. “Forgotten” is based on a murder in the Ford Rouge plant in 1937, during the organizing of the United Auto Workers. A scene from the Ford Hunger March massacre of 1932 is depicted and the names of the fallen are called out in an act of communal remembrance. The second opera, “Love Songs from the Liberation Wars,” is about the struggles faced by Black workers, mostly women, in organizing the tobacco industry in Winston-Salem, NC, during the 1940s. It was the first use of the hymn “We Shall Overcome” as a movement anthem.

“We’re trying to talk the UAW into sending us around, wherever they’re organizing in the South where they keep losing a lot,” she explains. “Send this show! Take me there, let me get a cast from the local community and create art, to engage both sides of the brain.

“There could not be a labor movement with slavery, and white trade unionists need to understand that,” Bryant says.

Taking Up Self-Defense

Cleo Silvers was a member of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, a rank-and-file membership organization founded in Detroit in 1969 to unify Black labor groups. It was born from a multiracial wildcat strike — a strike that bypassed the union leadership. LRBW was organized to combat the relegation of Black workers to the worst jobs, unequal pay and harsher discipline than white workers. It took leadership positions in worker struggles, and ultimately demanded and won the inclusion of Black workers in union leadership.

“Militias, the Klan, and Nazi organizations like to come into our communities and either scare us or intimidate us with violence. They’re training for that. One of the things we have to do is we have to fight back,” Silvers says.

“We cannot allow ourselves to be intimidated or be cowering in fear,” she says. “We have to stand up to these characters who impose themselves in our community, especially now when we’re demonstrating and making demands, and they’re pretty clear these demands are legitimate, and that if responded to properly will bring equality between ourselves and the rest of society. They don’t want to see that.”

In her view police departments function as a militia toward Black communities and communities of color.

“One of the reasons we’re faced with so many killings of Black males is the number of vicious inhumane characters in the police departments themselves that are either militia members or right-wing ideologues.”

She remembers the encounters with many right-wingers inside the Dodge Truck and Auto plant where she was organizing in the 1970’s.

“If they got a little courage from alcohol or something, they would get belligerent and attempt to confront us or physically intimidate us if we were alone,” she recalls. “At that time in my life I was not afraid of anything and I made it clear that anyone messing with me would get a good ass kicking.”

Similarly, in New York City, Silvers says when that element tried to hold demonstrations at City Hall, members of 1199 SEIU were organized and ready to confront them.

“We were prepared to skirmish with them but the cops were always present to defend the outnumbered white supremacists,” Silvers recalls. “These scum know even today that some of our union rank and file will be out there to deal with and confront them.”

Her efforts to confront Nazis has been motivated by holding the memory of labor’s martyrs, such as the five men in the Communist Workers Party who were killed defending Black textile workers from the Klan and the American Nazi Party in Greensboro, NC, in 1979.

“The militia members came in with guns and shot them up; they killed people and the police stood by. Medical workers got shot up, one of the doctors got killed,” she recalls. “Nobody anticipated they would come in their cars with guns and would begin shooting.”

Her sense is that most working people are ready, willing and able to stand up against the racist militias and Klan and “would be the first ones out there.” Silvers reports that inside District 1199, the rank and file is fighting for the leadership to take a strong stand in support of Black Lives Matter.

“Usually labor has its head down from anything that smacks of self-defense, because that’s really what we’re talking about,” she says. “It’s important to have some leadership in the labor movement that is willing to stand up and fight organizations like the Klan and right-wing militias.”

Silvers sees the Trump administration as practicing divide and rule, because “other than that, they absolutely cannot” maintain their power.

“They’re trying to back us down, the same way they’ve done historically. People are angry about it,” she says, “but are more determined than anything.”

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