What Black Lives Matter means for labor

August 31, 2015

Delegates to the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions conference in early August put a special focus on discussing the importance of the labor movement supporting and participating in the Black Lives Matter struggle. Michael Billeaux, former co-president of Teaching Assistants' Association (TAA)-AFT Local 3220 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, gave the following presentation about his union's experience as part of a panel discussion about unions supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.

IN THIS presentation, I want to talk about what the TAA has been doing to support the Black Lives Matter movement, but more than that, I want to discuss the political motivations and arguments underpinning what we've been doing, and how we've been approaching it at a political and ideological level.

I want to begin by describing some of the facts about Madison, referring to the "Race to Equity" report, which documented racial disparities in Dane County, authored by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families.

Madison, of course, has a reputation as a very liberal place, with almost exclusively Democratic or left of Democratic leadership at the city and county level. That should, in a better world, come with a set of expectations about what that means for the most oppressed people living there--namely that they're better off than in less progressive places. But that turns out not to be the case, and in fact, Dane County and Wisconsin have some of the worst--indeed, dead last nationally--statistics on racial oppression. So I wanted to spend some time on what the scene looks like structurally:

Marching against the decision not to charge a Madison police officer for killing Tony Robinson
Marching against the decision not to charge a Madison police officer for killing Tony Robinson

In 2011, the county unemployment rate for African Americans was 25.2 percent, compared to just 4.8 percent for whites. Compare this to the respective national figures: 18 percent for Blacks, 8 percent for whites.

That same year, 54 percent of Black Dane County residents lived below the federal poverty line, compared to 8.7 percent of whites, meaning that Black people in Dane County were over six times more likely to be poor than whites.

Over 74 percent of Black children live under the federal poverty line, compared to 5.5 percent of white children. This ratio--13 to 1--is one of the widest poverty gaps reported for any jurisdiction in the entire country.

Black adolescents, while making up less than 9 percent of the county's youth, make up almost 80 percent of all those sentenced to juvenile correctional facilities.

While Black men in 2011 made up only 4.8 percent of the county's total adult male population, they accounted for over 43 percent of all new adult prison placements during 2012.

Dane County has the worst prison disparities of any county in the country. Wisconsin has the worst disparities of any state in the country.

The kinds of things that contribute to this include, for instance, the impact of the university on the local labor market. There's a lot of competition with a lot of white college graduates who end up staying in Madison, and very few job opportunities for less credentialed people looking for quality full-time work. Additionally, the racist admission practices of UW-Madison means there are few Black graduates in the city to compete for those better jobs.

Second, there's a sort of fractured ghettoization of the Black community in Madison whereby half of the area's low-income Black households are scattered across 15 different small, compact residential concentrations. Countywide, there's not a single aldermanic district, supervisory district, planning unit or even census tract that is majority Black.

That means there's very little concentration of the Black community that would allow for some political representation on the basis of these geographic units. This means that out of hundreds of local political posts, only a tiny handful of these are occupied by Black people, and that Black people in Dane County have few organizational centers or resources and these are scattered quite widely across the city and its outskirts. Again, we're seeing all of this in progressive Madison--I think this should be sufficient to make clear the total bankruptcy of the liberal leadership.

THEN, TONY Robinson was shot and killed on March 6 by Officer Matt Kenny of the Madison Police Department.

One common kind of response was "this shouldn't have happened here." There's this ideology about the Madison police in particular. You'll see otherwise very sharp liberals and progressives--who know in excruciating detail all the reasons that the NYPD, the Chicago Police Department, the LAPD or whatever other police department are deeply racist institutions--say: "But our police aren't like that, we have a different kind of police department."

This is based on community policing practices that have roots in reforms the Madison Police Department had to adopt after being particularly violent toward New Left demonstrations in the 1960s and '70s. So the attitude was: "this couldn't happen here." But looking at the statistics about Black life in Dane County, there should be no surprise that something like this could happen. So on March 6, Tony Robinson was shot.

As an aside, one of that tiny number of Black political figures in the area is Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, who, drenched in sweat on an unseasonably mild day in May, announced that he would not indict Officer Matt Kenny for the killing of Tony Robinson.

This--and, to a much greater extent, the situation in Baltimore after the murder of Freddie Gray--makes clear the bankruptcy of the strategy to build Black political leadership by accommodating to liberalism and to the Democratic Party, and I think one of the most important aspects of the Black Lives Matter movement so far has been to lay that bare.

SO THAT'S the Madison scene. As for what the TAA has done, we're still at the stage of trying to figure out how best to support the movement. The most obvious way has been discussing and passing resolutions at membership meetings and mobilizing members to attend demonstrations organized by the Young Gifted and Black (YGB) Coalition, the core Black Lives Matter movement organization in Madison.

This began back in October--our first general membership meeting last year--where we passed a resolution condemning the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson and calling out racist police violence, and endorsing a day of action in Ferguson for which we sent a delegation. We passed a resolution later, in February, endorsing the full demands of the YGB Coalition, with a commitment to educate our membership about those demands and the reasons the Coalition made them, as well as announce coalition events to the whole membership.

The Political Education Committee (PEC) of the TAA was reconstituted largely for this purpose. The new PEC is run by members committed to using the committee's resources--which in the past would mostly be put to use once every couple years for elections--for supporting education and involvement around Black Lives Matter.

After passing resolutions in support of the movement, we made a real effort to turn out members to YGB actions, including and especially after the shooting of Tony Robinson, and in that, we've been pretty successful. There was probably some action an average of once or twice a week at the height of activity in Madison--including blocking the main highway that goes through Madison, marches and rallies, going to county government meetings to demand no new money for jails.

So we mobilized members out to those and pretty actively updated the membership about those things. Again, though, it was mostly a matter of getting bodies at these protests organized by other people. When it comes to building support for Black Lives Matter in the broader labor movement--at the level, for example, of the central labor council of the AFT, our parent union--we haven't yet figured out how we're going to proceed, but I think this is the next big step for us.

The other thing is that the TAA was embroiled in a fight over the state budget this year, the cornerstone of which was a proposed $300 million cut to the University of Wisconsin.

What we did there--and I think this might have been our most important contribution--was from the beginning, we tied our work in opposing the budget to the Black Lives Matter movement and the demands being made by the YGB Coalition. We invited them to help lead our rally in opposition to the proposed budget and got them in on the ground floor.

In other words, we connected the movement in defense of public higher education with the demands of the YGB Coalition in Madison and the broader demands of the Black Lives Matter movement. I think that was something that we could be really proud of: framing the importance of both of those struggles by connecting them together.

Finally, we tried to engage both the local media and the national left publications, so we did a lot of messaging. My former co-president and I wrote a piece for Jacobin that we hoped would let people know about the efforts in Wisconsin and our political motivations. So there was this discursive strategy whereby we tried to convince other parts of the labor movement and other parts of the Madison lefty scene that this was the right way to approach the movement, and that it had to be taken very seriously.

I GUESS what I really want to focus on is that motivation--the deep political significance we think is attached to getting the labor movement writ large involved in the Black freedom struggle writ large.

We've been willing to lose a member here and there who didn't like what we had to say about Black Lives Matter, or that we got active in the fight for justice for Tony Robinson, or that we were going to be as active in the movement as we were. We lost people over that. Another comrade at this conference mentioned in his presentation that they faced this problem at the Rutgers local when they opted to support Black Lives Matter. But we calculated that it was just worth it to lose a few people if that's what it costs to win more members on this really fundamental question that the labor movement faces.

That calculation is based on an analysis of the centrality of the Black freedom struggle to the working class movement as a whole, and the notion that the struggle for Black liberation is a precondition for human liberation generally. I think this recognizes the deep historical thread connecting the centuries-old struggle for Black freedom in the U.S. and the struggle to organize the working class to fight for workers' power.

A thread connects us and the movement now to the years after the revolutionary Civil War: the period in which we saw the height of official Black power up to that point or any point since; in which we witnessed the widespread organization of the Union Leagues which functioned as vehicles for Black political power, but also in many cases as armed labor unions; in which the Paris Commune put the fear of God into the American capitalist class and raised the specter of working class unity across the racial divide; in which that ruling class pulled out all the stops to drown in blood any attempt to shatter the color bar; in which through Southern racist terror and Northern capitalist imperatives for uninterrupted profits, they succeeded over the forces of labor, Black and white.

Ever since, we've lived in the shadow of that ruling class victory over the forces of freedom--an unbroken thread, in other words, of white supremacist violence against working class unity runs from those times to the epidemic of police murders and the Charleston church massacre.

One of my favorite examples to put this into relief is "right to work." Right-to-work is today often considered to be part of the package of today's neoliberal reforms attacking unions. But right-to-work was first imagined by the Christian American Association of Houston, Texas, in 1936, far predating the neoliberal era.

The Christian American Association was closely associated to racist terror organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and American Legion, and they sought to stem the rising tide of the CIO, which itself sought to organize the American South. What did organization of the South mean if not the organization of Black workers? What did the organization of Black workers mean if not the advance of racial equality? You've probably seen the famous picture of the racist rally from back in the 1950s, with signs that say, "Race mixing is communism." That's how the white supremacists saw the labor movement in the South.

I bring this up because so much of what neoliberalism and austerity means for us now is the aggravation of all of society's most racist tendencies, the destruction of the forces pushing anti-racist agendas, the dismantling of the gains of the Black freedom struggle and so on. So that's what I mean--the labor question in this country has always been deeply, inextricably bound to the question of Black freedom, and when the Black freedom struggle advances, so, too, does all of labor.

In that way, the Black freedom struggle is a universal struggle. As Marc Lamont Hill once put it, the way to turn the public against pro-working class policies and politics in this country is to "make them Black." Right-to-work was designed to destroy unions for what they represented as an asset to the Black freedom struggle. But that strategy can only work when racism is left unchallenged. And that's why it's a fundamental question for labor.

I THINK that's one of the contributions that we can make in graduate employee unions at the level of our central labor councils, within our parent unions and so on. That, I think, is what motivated our thinking around the Black Lives Matter movement in Madison.

Another comrade in his talk this morning discussed the limits of allyship and the basis for solidarity. I think part of the issue here is that most understandings of allyship tend to draw, often with good reason, a pretty firm line between people who are supported and people who are doing the supporting. People not directly affected are called upon to be supporters. This is typically on strictly moral terms: "This is really bad, you should be really upset about this, if you're a moral and ethical person you should get involved on that basis."

I think there's a different logic of solidarity summed up in the phrase "an injury to one is an injury to all." Strictly speaking, it's not a moralistic logic. Rather, it's a logic that demands that labor must be made to see the stakes it holds in the Black freedom struggle, and the stakes are everything. That is the reason that Black liberation can't wait, that is the reason that there must be independent Black leadership, that is the reason that our organizing spaces have to be non-oppressive spaces.

I think all the reasons for those things, which are all the right impulses, are that everyone has a stake in the struggle, everyone has a stake in the independent vitality and validity of the Black freedom struggle; and the Black freedom struggle, independently and as such, furthers the aims of the labor movement, in the broadest sense.

To sum up, we get involved in the movement not just because oppression is bad, and you should be upset about it, but because the Black freedom struggle can have a massive positive political and social impact--and, most importantly, because the independent Black freedom struggle can exercise an enormous influence on the revolutionary development of the working class as a fighting force against capitalism.

I think that is what the labor movement ought to aim at if it considers itself a champion of the entire working class.

That's the political motivation underpinning our decision to get involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, and we're hoping to translate this into action aimed at winning bigger and bigger segments of the labor movement to that view--to a view that supports unconditionally the fight for Black liberation. I think that would be a massive step forward for not only the labor movement, but also the entire prospects for the left in the U.S. and internationally.

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