Black workers matter

Amazon warehouse workers organize in Bessemer, Ala.

For over 50 years, the wealthy and powerful have tried to claw back what was won by the Black liberation movement in the 1960s. Richard Nixon and the presidents that followed dramatically escalated the war against Black people in the United States.

Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton and fellow Panther Mark Clark were assassinated in their sleep in Chicago on Dec. 4, 1969. Billionaire New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller massacred the prisoners at Attica, killing 29 of them on Sept. 13, 1971.

An important part of this capitalist offensive has been the war on Black workers. The ruling class wanted to break free of its increasing dependence on Black labor in basic industry.

Fifty years ago, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft didn’t exist. The U.S. was the biggest producer of steel, although the socialist Soviet Union was right behind.

More cars and trucks rolled off U.S. assembly lines than anywhere else. Bethlehem Steel, Chrysler, General Motors and U.S. Steel were “blue chip” stocks and members of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. None of them are now.

By 1968, a quarter of the 3 million workers in U.S. steel mills and auto plants were African American. (“Organized Labor and the Black Worker, 1619-1981” by Philip Foner) 

Racist discrimination means that Black unemployment rates are double those of white workers. Yet in auto and steel, Black workers were twice as likely to be employed as compared to their percentage of the population.

This extraordinary development was the result of the Great Migration of Black people from the then-rural South to Northern cities. The growing number of Black workers concentrated in large workplaces became the basis for increasing struggle.

A thousand Black steelworkers had more power than a million sharecroppers. During World War II, Black workers shut down Pittsburgh-area steel mills over unequal pay. (“Out of the Crucible: Black Steel Workers in Western Pennsylvania, 1875-1980” by Dennis C. Dickerson)

Detroit became a fortress for Black workers. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a preliminary version of his “I Have a Dream” speech to 125,000 people attending Motown’s “Walk to Freedom” on June 23, 1963.

On July 24, 1973, two Black workers — Larry Carter and Isaac Shorter — turned off the power at Chrysler’s Jefferson Avenue plant in Detroit. This struggle against racist management began the first big sit-down strike in 35 years.

Deliberate deindustrialization

Capitalists didn’t like the growing power and influence of Black workers. The sit-down strike at the Jefferson Avenue plant sparked a revolt of Black and white, largely Polish-American, workers against unsafe working conditions at Chrysler’s Lynch Road Forge plant. (“Detroit: I Do Mind Dying” by Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin)

The United Auto Workers contracts that Black workers helped win by strikes became a model wage package for all workers. It forced many employers in nonunion workplaces to offer dental insurance and other benefits.

Black workers were the rock of the labor movement. Organizing drives among hospital and textile workers often depended on how many African Americans were employed in the workplace. Black women were leaders in these struggles. (“Upheaval in the Quiet Zone: 1199/SEIU and the Politics of Healthcare Unionism” by Leon Fink and “Hiring the Black Worker” by Timothy J. Minchin)

Capitalists counterattacked. The destruction of millions of factory jobs wasn’t just the result of automation and super-exploiting workers in other countries. Nor was it simply the declining rate of profit in heavy industry as discovered by Karl Marx.

Deliberate deindustrialization was a political decision targeting Black workers. Wall Street never forgot how African Americans shook auto plants in the 1960s and 1970s.

The League of Revolutionary Black Workers led wildcat strikes in Detroit. There was a Black Panther Party caucus in GM’s Fremont, Calif., plant, which is now a non-union Tesla plant. 

Forty years ago the communist leader Sam Marcy described the hatred by billionaires for Black workers:

“The ruling class now looks at the Black population differently than it did in the days of the Underground Railroad. … It now dares look upon the Black workers in particular as a surplus population along with the unemployed white workers.

“It looks upon them with disdain as a drain on their government budget, as a drag on their system and as a dangerous source of social convulsions. The ruling class dreams of replacing all blue-collar workers with a minimum of white-collar technicians in white coats.” 

The wholesale destruction of heavy industry in the Midwest caused the median income of African Americans to drop by 36 percent between 1978 and 1982. (Census Bureau, Historical Tables)

The capitalist class economically destroyed Detroit, just as it let Black people drown and starve in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Black workers are essential

Instead of concentrating African Americans in large plants, the capitalist state sent Black youth to big prisons. The 2.2 million poor people who are incarcerated in the U.S. are also members of the multinational working class.

Yet the super-rich can’t get away from their dependence on Black labor. This is shown by millions of African American essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic.  

It was Black workers in chains that paid the bills for the United States. Wall Street became the banksters for the slave masters.

It was enslaved Africans who paid the bills for the United States. Until the Civil War, two-thirds of U.S. exports were produced by slave labor.

Cotton alone accounted for half of U.S. exports in 1860. Thousands of miles of railroads were built by unpaid Black labor, like the prisoner John Henry. 

Reparations are overdue. As the December 12th Movement says, “They stole us, they sold us, they owe us.”

Black workers today are joined by millions of Asian, Indigenous and Latinx workers. Like a helper locomotive pushing a freight train over a mountain grade, the other oppressed workers will help overcome white racism. Millions of poor white people need a socialist revolution, too.

All eyes are on the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., where an 85-percent Black workforce is conducting a union drive. Whatever happens there, the freedom drive of Black workers is unstoppable.