Sean Cummings looks at the role of organized labor in the ongoing anti-racist rebellion, arguing that rank and file organizing is the key to deepening labor’s role in the resistance.
On Sunday, June 7th, 200 hundred postal workers and supporters, carrying a banner that read ‘Postal Workers Demand Justice for George Floyd,’ marched from the burnt-out Post Office on Lake Street to the site of the murder of George Floyd. The site has become a memorial to Floyd and to all those killed by Minneapolis racist police department. This demonstration by unionized workers, many wearing the name of their local on a shirt or placard, is one of many small actions taken by trade unionists since the beginning of the uprising following the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
Bus workers in both Minneapolis and New York have taken official and unofficial actions to protest the murders and continuing brutality of the police. In the Twin Cities the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005 issued a statement that its members will not transport police or be used by police to transport arrested protesters.
Dockworkers in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), historically one of the most radically antiracist unions in the country, stopped work across California for nine minutes on June 9th, in solidarity with the ongoing protests. The union has voted to shut down 29 West coast ports on June 19th.
Teachers unions across the country have long called for police to be removed from schools. In Oregon primary teachers have been organizing small protests with students demanding that the state remove police funding and invest it in services such as universal pre K.
The connection between the increasing investment in Police Departments, the pandemic, and the austerity measures which disproportionately harm black and minority communities are being explicitly drawn by labor activists. Speaking in Labor Notes, Minneapolis ATU member Doni Jones said:
Labor needs to look at the source. Once you take the color out of it, you say poor people. Poor people are getting screwed out of their jobs, poor people are losing benefits. There are a lot of people who would never march for black lives, but we need to convince them that poor white people have the interests of poor blacks. This is about everyone. We all need health care, we all need better wages, we all need job security.
The coming onto the stage of the struggle by organized labor is an exciting development in the movement against racism and state violence. Working class people have been involved in the uprising from its very beginning but mostly as individuals. The statements now coming from local unions demanding, amongst other things, defunding the police and investing in social services, mirror those of a protest movement moving from cosmetic changes in how people are policed to questioning the very role of the police itself.
The union brass, deeply wedded to the capitalist state and its representative, the Democratic party, have been slow to react. The AFL-CIO has rejected calls to exclude police unions (including from the Writers Guild of America), saying “We believe the best way to use our influence on the issue of police brutality is to engage our police affiliates rather than isolate them.” The AFL-CIO has a shameful history of racism and exclusionary policies that it has shockingly failed to acknowledge, even in the midst of the uprisings. Their most recent statement spoke of the damage inflicted on their HQ in D.C and used their platform to divide protesters into the good “non-violent” and the bad who “only play into the hands of those who have oppressed workers of color for generations and detract from the peaceful, passionate protesters who are rightly bringing issues of racism to the forefront.”
This prevarication and attempt to divide the protest movement has not worked, and indeed, through their actions, rank and file trade unionists continue to be at the heart of the movement.
The task of socialists is to deepen this rank and file movement. Passing statements of solidarity from locals, organised actions, and solidarity like that of the bus drivers is needed. Trade unions can play a part in moving this movement forward and winning real change. What the ruling class fear most is that working people organize, not just for surface change, but real racial justice; which means both safety from violence, and economic justice for black and minority workers.