Black Power in the workplace

February 22, 2013

Lee Sustar looks at how Black Power activists of the 1960s sparked a strike wave.

THE BLACK struggles of the 1960s are sometimes called poor people's movements--or even workers' movements. At one level, this is obvious, since the vast majority of Black Americans of the time were wage workers, and the Black community suffered poverty far out of proportion to their numbers in the overall population.

But there has been little analysis of Black militancy at the workplace--shop-floor struggles led by Black radicals in opposition to both the employers and the conservative trade union bureaucracy. Independent of the liberal civil rights leadership--and sometimes in open opposition--radicals took "Black Power" into American industry, triggering a national strike wave that won the support of a substantial number of white workers.

The strike activity demonstrated that a united struggle of Black and white workers against their employers was possible, even in a highly polarized racial climate in which liberal Democrats--both Black and white--joined the chorus of racists who condemned the Black Power movement.

The History of Black America

The strike wave of the late 1960s coincided with the most militant phase of the Black Power revolt. From 1967 to 1974, there was an average of 5,200 strikes per year, compared with a high of 4,000 in the preceding decade. More important, strike days averaged 49.5 million from 1967 to 1971, with a peak of 66.4 million strike days lost in 1970.

Rank-and-file initiative was central to this strike activity. In 1967, 14 percent of all union contracts were rejected by the membership at least once, a trend called "alarming" by the American Management Association.

Many of the militant Black workers involved in these strikes got their first experience of struggle in the streets, confronting cops and troops in the rebellions that swept every major U.S. city, starting from 1964. Rejecting the liberals who told them to patiently await job programs and improved housing, millions of Black workers tuned to an explicitly radical set of ideas and activities.

Rallying around the slogan "Black Power" and forming organization such as the Black Panther Party, Black radicals advocated a political break with liberals in favor of Black self-reliance, if not separatism. And by the late '60s, many Black militants began to direct their activity into the trade unions.

ALTHOUGH BLACK workers were largely excluded from craft unions, especially the building trades, Black labor had become increasingly important to basic industry in the post-Second World War era. Between 1960 and 1968, the proportion of nonwhite workers in the auto industry, for instance, rose from 9 percent to 14.8 percent.

The large industrial unions and fast-growing public employees' unions saw rapid growth in Black membership. A 1970 study estimated that Black workers comprised 20 percent of the membership in the AFL-CIO's largest unions.

These industry-wide figures don't reflect the concentration of Black workers in certain urban union locals. For example, United Auto Workers officials estimated in 1968 that nearly half the autoworkers in the Detroit metropolitan area were Black--an increase of 30 percent from 1963.

With the rise of the Black Power movement, Black workers developed shop-floor organizations based on Black nationalist politics. In 1968--the year of Martin Luther King's assassination, the general strike in France and the Tet Offensive against U.S. troops in Vietnam--Black union caucuses emerged on a national scale.

In many cases, Black caucuses arose in opposition to the union bureaucracy. In Chicago, the Concerned Transit Workers (CTW), an organization of Black bus drivers, attempted to unseat the all-white leadership of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) local, which maintained its power by permitting the predominately white retirees to vote in union elections.

The CTW organized a series of wildcat strike--the second of which lasted through the tumultuous Democratic National Convention held in Chicago. The CTW tried to organize a breakaway union among the 6,200 bus drivers, 72 percent of whom were Black, but lost support after District 241 leaders named eight Blacks to union office.

Despite this apparent failure, the Black labor militancy born in the Chicago bus yards soon had an impact on one of the most important strikes of the period.

In the fall of 1968, the CTW formed the Black Labor Federation (BLF), which found support at several key plants, including General Electric's Hotpoint factory in Cicero, Ill., on the edge of Chicago's city limits. In October, a BLF affiliate, the Afro-American Employees Committee, organized a sit-down strike to protest the racism of the union leadership.

At Hotpoint, Black militancy over racial issues provided a fighting example to white Hotpoint workers. Together, the workers elected a new, militant leadership to the Sheet Metal Workers local the following year--a leadership that supported the Black workers' demand for an anti-discrimination clause in the local contract. Hotpoint workers regularly organized mass pickets, as they led a national, multi-union strike against GE that began in October 1969 and lasted into the winter of 1970.

Some Black caucuses, such as those in the steelworkers' and teachers' unions, put their efforts into ousting the national union leadership. A few took a separatist stance and had little to do with whites, whom they regarded as "bought off."

But several Black caucuses, such as the Society of Afro-American Postal Employees, became centers of agitation for industrial struggle that necessarily involved white workers. Comprising over 20 percent of the 700,000 postal employees, Back workers were central to the weeklong, illegal wildcat postal strike in 1970.

Black postal workers were concentrated in cities where the strike was strongest. Organized against the efforts of union leaders, the illegal walkout was broken only when President Richard Nixon sent in the National Guard. The strike, denounced as "labor anarchy" by the Wall Street Journal, almost certainly involved the largest number of Black workers ever in a U.S. labor dispute.

EMBOLDENED BY the experience of street rebellions and other political activity, Black workers provided white co-workers with a fighting alternative to the union officials who opposed workplace activity. Concentrated in low-paid, unskilled jobs, Black caucuses organized against speedup, automation and unsafe working conditions--all of which affected white workers as well.

This isn't to say, of course, that the racism of white workers simply disappeared in workplace struggles, or that a large minority of white workers were sympathetic to Black Power demands. The success in the North of Alabama Gov. George Wallace's openly racist presidential campaign of 1968 points to a considerable "white backlash."

But the widespread strike activity in industries with large minorities of Black workers could only have been sustained if there was at least some consciousness of common interests on the part of both Black and white workers.

During the close cooperation demanded in these strikes, a minority of white workers followed the lead of the Black caucuses. At their peak, these strikes showed the potential for overcoming the tremendous racial division in the working class and hinted at the possibility of a racially united struggle for workers' power.

The most important of the Black union caucuses of this era--the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement in auto--will be the subject of the next column.

This article first appeared in the December 1987 issue of Socialist Worker.

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