Minnesota Workers Took on the National Guard to Defend Black Lives

On Sunday, April 11, a cop pulled Daunte Wright over for air fresheners hanging from the rearview mirror and expired tags. Then she murdered him, saying she couldn’t tell her gun from her taser. The killing happened 20 minutes down the road from where Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd by kneeling on his neck.

Protests have erupted night after night since then, in Brooklyn Center where Wright was murdered and beyond. The repression by the mayor and governor has been savage. On Friday the 16th, for example, the Minnesota National Guard and the cops beat and gassed the protesters against police violence, shot them with rubber bullets, and then the cops arrested over 100 people. The National Guard had already been stationed in nearby Minneapolis and St. Paul as part of Operation Safety Net, calling up the Guard alongside the police and others to prevent or stop another anti-cop uprising during the Chauvin trial.

But two days before Friday’s attack, union members took things into their own hands. A unit of the National Guard was using the St. Paul Labor Federation Center as a staging area for launching attacks against protesters. A single union local president gave them permission to use the building, even though the building is used by dozens of locals. When union activists heard, they converged on the Center to push back.

Members of the Communications Workers of America, Minnesota Nurses Association, United Brotherhood of Carpenters, and other unions rejected the undemocratic decision and demanded that the Guard leave — an act of radical solidarity with the anti-racist protestors. A rank and filer from UNITE HERE points out that the union members didn’t just question the Guard’s presence. They started pushing the Guard — with members from working class and oppressed neighborhoods — to question what side they’re on and what class they serve: “Do you feel what you’re doing now is remotely close to helping people?” When the Guard drove off in its armored cars, they did it to chants of “Whose house? Our house!” and “What kind of power? Union power!”

The Guard’s eviction set off a small furor.

Labor Leaders Duck for Cover

Walz, the Democratic Party-aligned governor, stood shoulder to shoulder with Republicans and scolded the action as “unacceptable.” He’s the same racist politician who ordered the Guard to brutally quash the protests against killer cops last summer. Then, the Republican-led state senate passed a resolution heaping praise on the Guard, condemning the union members’ action and demanding punishment.

Some union leaders followed suit. Jamie McNamara, the Business Manager and Financial Secretary of the IBEW Local 10, also scolded the union activists. Along with the Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council, he called the National Guard working class saviors.

Kera Peterson, president of the St. Paul Regional AFL-CIO Federation, tried to split the difference between support and kowtowing to the political leaders. She wound up making a bewildering statement saying the Federation supports racial justice while also apologizing to the Guard gassing and shooting anti-racist protesters. William McCarthy, president of Minnesota’s statewide AFL-CIO, also tried to find a harmless compromise, and made a tepid statement that refuses to say anything or take any side at all.

The National Guard Isn’t Your Friend

But the National Guard isn’t some kind, peace-keeping force that keeps the “community” safe. For example, the Guard uses tear gas — a chemical weapon that the ruling class itself banned from use in war. According to the CDC, it can cause blindness and “immediate death due to severe chemical burns to the throat and lungs.” That’s just one constantly-used weapon in the National Guard’s “non-lethal” arsenal. And that arsenal is being used against workers and the oppressed — the people rising up against racism — to protect the killer cops that stalk Black and Brown working class neighborhoods.

This is nothing new. The National Guard has long been used as a weapon against protesters, the working class, and the oppressed. As a member of CWA 7250 pointed out:

One of the reasons that the National Guard was set up was to fight labor unions. That’s just a historical fact. The military has been used against militant strikers in this country again, again and again. They have been the armed soldiers that broke strikes.

In Ludlow, CO in 1914, the Guard slaughtered striking miners and their families. In Minneapolis in 1934, the governor used it to try to smash the Teamsters’ mass strike. In 1970 at Kent State, the Guard fired into a crowd of students protesting the Vietnam War, murdering four people. At Standing Rock in 2016, the Guard was called up against protestors of the Dakota Access Pipeline. And that same year in Philadelphia, the Guard teamed up with cops to trap, gas, and beat protesters against killer cops. This is just a sample of the Guard’s activities in the last hundred years or so.

The Guard recruits from the working class, but that does not mean our unions should kowtow to them. Like union members did the other night at the labor center, we have to defend ourselves and our movements from their attacks and call on the workers and oppressed in the Guard to desert their posts and join the fight against their real enemy: the rulers.

The Democrats Won’t Save Us

More than this, the critiques from Walz and some union bureaucrats try to take away the power of unions to fight racism, and replace it with faith in the system.

For the Democratic party, the answer is voting. This was the strategy during the massive BLM uprising last summer. It wasn’t just that Democrat-aligned governors like Walz ordered attacks on protesters against cop violence. The Democrats also co-opted the movement straight into the dumpster of the Biden campaign.

Our labor leaders in the AFL-CIO and beyond beat that same drum faithfully for Biden and the Democrats. Many are doing the same by falling in line behind the Minnesota governor. The message is the same: don’t fight back, the system will save us.

The co-opting worked. Now, the country is run by a Democrat, with a Democratic majority in the House and Senate. Minnesota is run by a governor in the Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party, the state’s affiliate of the Democrats. The mayors of Minneapolis and of St. Paul are in that same party. So are 12 of the 13 city council members of Minneapolis. And those Democrats constantly promise things will change, so we should all stop fighting back. We’re told Daunte Wright and George Floyd are dead because of accidents or “bad apples,” as opposed to the system that is rotten to its core.

This is the result. Cops are on pace to kill more than 1,000 people in 2021. That’s their pace every year, as it has been through all the uprisings after the murders of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and many many others.

And the murders of Wright and Floyd are just the tip of the iceberg of racism in Minnesota. The New York Times points out that, despite all the so-called “progressive” legislation in Minnesota, “the gaps between white Minnesotans and Black Minnesotans are among the widest in the country.” In other words, the politicians’ promises and policies aren’t solving the problem, they’re masking it. The Democrats won’t save us.

Boot the Guard — and Don’t Stop There

The action of these union members shows why unions must be an even greater part of the fight against killer cops.

The union activists at the St. Paul Labor Center gave us one small example, but there are others. Recently, ATU Local 1005 issued a statement that defends its bus drivers’ right to refuse to help cops repress protesters. This is a holdover from last summer, when bus drivers in several cities refused to use their busses to support the police crackdown on the BLM uprisings. Last summer, too, the ILWU shut down ports in solidarity with the BLM uprising.

These hints of worker power are small but meaningful and real. This power comes from the fact that unions are working class organizations that stand at some of the most strategic choke points of capitalism today: transportation, production, education, and healthcare. That means unions are fundamental to attacking the white supremacy capitalism needs to survive. Standing at capital’s choke points, we can squeeze.

In other words, we can refuse to transport cops or arrested protesters, and boot the national guard from our union buildings, but we can’t stop there. Kicking cops out of our unions will be key to taking away some of the protections that keep killer cops out of jail. Unions can strike, attacking the flow of the ruling class’ profits by walking off the job and demanding real social change. Teacher strikes mean kids — and a sizable number of working class parents — stay home, which can hamper the economy. We can’t forget that Adam Toledo, the 13-year-old recently murdered by a Chicago cop, was a student taught by Chicago Teacher Union members. A strike by the Chicago Teacher Union would play a major role in fighting back.

And strikes free us up to join the action in the streets. We can march alongside our class, shutting down traffic, showcasing our power, and adding numbers and protection to protesters already out there.

The ruling class can’t rule without forcing its workers to work. That means the battle against racism has to have union support, and use workers’ own weapons — walkouts and strikes, for example — to win real, lasting gains. Unions played a role in last summer’s BLM uprising, but a far too small one. That was one important reason the that the uprising ended without many lasting results.

But our unions also desperately need to join the fight against racism. White supremacy is excellent for the bosses and the ruling class as a whole. When Black and Brown people are terrorized through police murder and all the other forms of capitalist racism, the ruling class keeps the working class divided, frightened, and hyper-exploited. It’s just good business. White supremacy keeps wages down and the working class weak. We can’t beat build a powerful labor movement, and beat the bosses and capitalism, without militant anti-racism.

But anti-racist unions won’t just pop up on their own. We’ve seen enough proof that union bureaucrats will all too often sit on their hands, give tepid statements, or play lapdog to Democrats while they beg for favors. For a powerful, long-term movement that pushes our unions into militant struggle against cops and racism, the driving force has to be the rank and file organizing itself from the bottom up, like in SEIU Drop the Cops.

When the governor, his Republican friends, labor heads and others condemn the booting of the Guard, when they call for punishments against union activists like Cliff Willmeng and others — they’re dead wrong. Those workers deserve our fullest support and solidarity for helping link union power with the anti-racist fight against the cops.

There’s plenty more to do, but booting the Guard is a great step.