Almost one year has passed since driving rain saturated and flooded the rivers, homes, and lives of eastern North Carolina. Passing through the lush green fields where enslaved Africans once toiled, one is reminded that the South’s blessing and curse has always been her land. When Hurricane Floyd struck the Black Belt South, eastern North Carolina was already contending with centuries of white supremacy, poverty, and an indignant fear of worker unity.
Black Workers for Justice (BWFJ), a community- and workplace-based organization in the southeastern United States, responded that summer of 1999 with a flood relief project that distributed supplies to hundreds of black, Latino, and Native American families who were neglected by the governmental programs.
BWFJ has a long history of taking on the difficult task of organizing workers in the South, one that has often involved violent backlash, massive worker displacement, and vicious red-baiting.
Over its 19-year existence, BWFJ has established a monthly newspaper named Justice Speaks, workplace committees, workers’ schools, a workers’ center, and North Carolina’s first statewide public workers union. Most recently, it formed the African American/Latino Alliance, together with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee and others.
ORGANIZING THE SOUTH
BWFJ grew out of a struggle in 1981 led by black women workers who were unjustly fired at a K-Mart in Rocky Mount, NC. The workers took a petition to key community and church leaders and asked for help in addressing the racism and sexism at the Rocky Mount store, but almost all refused to support their struggle.
"So some of us who had been involved in labor organizing met with the workers and drew up some demands," remembers Naeema Muhammed, a founding member of BWFJ. "Out of that we formed the Black Workers for Justice at K-Mart and when we formed, we [also] became an organization in the black community."
Muhammed relates, "Our analysis going into the K-Mart struggle was that black women suffered triple oppression as females in an oppressed race and then at the workplace. Our goal was to help them realize that we do not have to be at the bottom of the totem pole and we were going to have to take ahold of that ourselves. We wanted to make that an intimate part of the organization’s structures and goals."
In an effort to build a movement uniting community activism with labor organizing, BWFJ’s founding members, many of whom were influenced by Marxism, implemented a series of principles that established the organization as one of the few working-class institutions committed to addressing all forms of oppression in the fight for liberation.
When union organizing in the 1980s was at one of the lowest points in North Carolina history, Black Workers for Justice saw an opportunity to organize workers by using several strategies which included worker speak-outs, pushing for pro-union legislation, and forming in-plant committees as the basis for building trade unions. Saladin Muhammed, chairperson of BWFJ explains, "Our purpose for BWFJ is to build leadership within the rank-and-file to lay the foundation for building trade unions. We also work to establish within the black community a culture of labor organizing that the Civil Rights movement did not address."
While BWFJ’s work is expanding across the South, most of its organizing is based in North Carolina–the state that currently holds the lowest percentage of organized workers and some of the highest rates of workplace injuries.
BLACK WORKERS TAKE THE LEAD
While BWFJ’s struggles have helped win victories for workers of all races, the organization sees its all-black leadership as fundamental to its mission to organize within workplaces and help workers deal with the everyday injustices within their communities.
Saladin Muhammed explains, "Workers have to identify with the struggle against racism and understand it to be an injury, like getting injured by a machine. To build a solid working-class movement, white workers are going to have to identify with the struggle against racism and unite with people who have been superexploited. This is how the leadership of the black worker becomes inclusive, not exclusive."
Southern politicians have historically used weak environmental and labor laws to attract businesses, but, because few states place standards on how long plants must stay before relocating, corporations have treated the region as a stepping stone before moving further south. Between 1993 and 1996, the South suffered almost one-third of the country’s net job losses, as corporations sought even lower wages and fewer unions than the South’s elected officials could offer.
During this period, BWFJ launched the Workers Want Fairness Campaign, a movement to build plant committees throughout eastern North Carolina for auto, textile, city, and manufacturing workers. The campaign "brought national attention to the South," says Ashaki Binta, director of BWFJ. "Through national solidarity tours, we made an appeal to the AFL-CIO to organize more in the South and recognize the industrial base that had developed in the region."
Ida Bodie, a member of BWFJ, saw the Southern textile industry become one of globalization’s earliest victims. "Our jobs kept going down because the company was shipping the products to Haiti. This started waking the employees up so we figured we weren’t going to have jobs soon."
A few months after BWFJ discovered that Rocky Mount Undergarment was sending more and more of its work overseas, the company laid off six women workers without prior notice. Two of the women together had worked 60 years for the company and believed they were terminated because of their age. BWFJ offered assistance to the workers, two of whom were white, and began to publicize the struggle.
Through the Workers Want Fairness Campaign, BWFJ brought the undergarment workers together to speak out about globalization, racism, economic exploitation, and ageism.
Bodie remembers, "One worker had been at the plant for over 30 years. Her hands were crippled and when she stood up, her body had almost frozen in the same position she’d sat in at work all day. But she defended the company and was against organizing all the way until they’d fired her. If it wasn’t for BWFJ [helping her to understand what happened], she would have lost her mind she was in so much grief."
Ultimately, none of the six women were rehired. But the struggle at Rocky Mount Undergarment helped position BWFJ to fight for 800 workers at the nearby Schlage manufacturing plant.
BREAKING THE LOCK
In 1988, Schlage Lock announced it was relocating its Rocky Mount, NC, plant to Tecate, Mexico. The company had promised to compensate its workers with severance pay, retirement, and health coverage, but it reneged on its promises. BWFJ also discovered that more than 25 workers had died at the plant from work-related cancer and that Schlage was dumping toxic waste into the surrounding area.
BWFJ won back the benefits the company promised and pressured the government to declare the area a Superfund clean-up site. Then BWFJ led a trip to Tecate for workers to visit the relocated plant and speak with Mexican workers.
The Schlage Lock struggle signified an important victory for BWFJ. "In many respects our work [at Schlage] reflected that of a community organization and a labor union. It was important for workers to understand that BWFJ was not looking out only for the interests of black workers and that we didn’t want to exclude anyone," says Ajamu Dillahunt, an editorial committee member for BWFJ’s monthly newspaper, Justice Speaks.
More recently, BWFJ scored a major victory by leading the formation of North Carolina’s first public service workers union, United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE) Local 150. Barbara Prear of BWFJ is the local president and Saladin Muhammed is the lead organizer. In its five-year history, Local 150 has grown to represent service workers at 14 of the University of North Carolina’s 16 campuses, the state Department of Health and Human Services, and the state’s largest mental health hospital.
BUILDING NEW ALLIANCES
During the last 10 years, North Carolina has ranked third in the nation in immigrant population growth. Mostly Latino, the immigrant population has grown 110 percent to 165,000. Multinational corporations are pitting them against existing workers, depressing wages for both.
In response, says Dillahunt, "We took the opportunity to meet with FLOC [Farm Labor Organizing Committee] President Baldemar Vel½squez, and talked about the need to build a closer relationship in North Carolina [where] we have two unions [FLOC and UE Local 150 representing public service workers] facing similar situations. Although they are in different sectors, neither have formal standing in terms of labor law and they are comprised mostly of people of color."
This seemed like a natural partnership, especially since FLOC was gathering thousands of petitions to the Justice Department calling for the freedom of Mumia Abu-Jamal.
In February 2000, Black Workers for Justice initiated a meeting to address interracial worker organizing in North Carolina. Out of this, BWFJ, together with FLOC, UE Local 150, the North Carolina Occupational Safety and Health Project, and the Raleigh Postal Workers Union, formed the African American/Latino Alliance. Its purpose is to unite workers and build the two communities which make up the majority of the working poor in the South.
Since its formation, the African American/Latino Alliance has launched a national petition drive demanding amnesty for undocumented workers and collective bargaining rights for public workers. It developed an outreach plan for targeted areas of North Carolina where Latino and African American workers live and work close to one another.
Ajamu Dillahunt feels the Alliance is timely. "In a lot of communities around the country the [black-brown] dialogue comes as a result of some serious conflict. That’s not the kind of position we’re in, so we want to try and quickly get to the point where we’re having a [proactive] discussion on the basis of the fundamental issues affecting workers in both communities."
"Looking at globalization helps provide answers and point out the similarities of how white supremacists have responded to black resistance to racism and to each group of immigrants. It was logical for us to look for an alliance with the Latino community and try to find common ground there. If our efforts did nothing else but help emerge a perspective that both communities can use to relate to each other, I think this Alliance would have served a very important role."
As BWFJ approaches its 20th anniversary, the African American/Latino Alliance charts an innovative direction for the crucial work of organizing in the South, the region where the United States’ appetite for exploitable labor and free trade began.