a better world
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  1. Finally Got the News & the League of Revolutionary Black Workers

    June 22, 2015

    A Black autoworker working on an assembly line

    This is a brief talk I gave at a screening of Finally Got the News, a film created by the League of Revolutionary Black Workers to document their project. The screening was organized by the Brooklyn branch of the International Socialist Organization.

    The talk was intended to be short. The scope of the introduction is necessarily limited. My main priority was to contextualize the League as a positive response to the Great Rebellion of 1967. They wanted to channel that the spirit of the Rebellion on the streets onto the shop floor. Second to that, I wanted to emphasize the League’s focus on working-class politics and their specific position with regard to inter-racial solidarity.

    One thing I would have liked to fit in if I had the chance is the aftermath of the struggle of the League, in particular the law-and-order backlash in Detroit and what it may be able to tell us about the rise of mass incarceration in general. Mass incarceration on the scale of the United States is historically unique. No other state has locked up so many of its own population in this way. I’m sympathetic to the argument advanced by people like Michelle Alexander and Christian Parenti that mass incarceration arose out of a conjuncture between the law-and-order backlash to Black Power and the economic crisis that hit in 1973.

    The Rebellion opened a dramatic period of uncertainty for the city, where competing forces struggled for influence over Detroit’s black working class and control of the shop floor. As law-and-order regimes spread across the country, Detroit Police mounted a vicious campaign of repression and were particularly explicit about the need to discipline Detroit’s Black population. The state’s need for discipline and order grew as crisis erupted. Demand for labor plummeted. Detroit lost over 90,000 jobs between 1970 – 80. Many of those workers had probably participated at some point in a wildcat or the Black Power struggle, or had otherwise been sympathetic to militant, radical politics in some form or another. The established regimes of law-and-order became revitalized with yet another new crisis of social control.

    This is a topic I’m interested in exploring more and will probably write about here and there.

    INTRODUCTION: THE GREAT REBELLION

    The League of Revolutionary Black Workers was formed in the aftermath of the greatest urban uprising of the 20th century and aimed to carry the militant energy of that insurrection to the factory floors of the U.S. auto-industry.

    Finally Got the News was created by the League to illustrate the conditions that Black autoworkers faced and to document their resistance. It is not only a fascinating cultural work from a dramatic period of urban revolutionary struggle but an invaluable resource for political study and inspiration. In the context of the movement to make Black Lives Matter, studying the League in their own words provides valuable visionary guidance and raises crucial questions about the complex relationship between Black labor, capitalism, and working class struggle.

    To introduce the film, I want to briefly set some of the historical context to help frame the screening and the discussion to follow.

    HISTORICAL CONTEXT and DEVELOPMENT

    On an early July morning in 1967, a party was being held at an after-hours bar in Detroit to celebrate the return of two soldiers coming back from Vietnam and seeing off another about to depart for the war.

    Detroit police raided the party and violently arrested the mostly Black patrons. An angry crowd began to gather outside the building as the partygoers were dragged down the stairs from the second floor of the building. “Don’t let them take our people away!” yelled an onlooker, “Look what they’re doing to our people. Let’s kill them whitey motherfuckers!” A bottle was thrown. And the Great Rebellion had begun.

    “We said it couldn’t happen here. Things were too good,” was the report given from a local newscaster to his television audience. Indeed, Detroit had become known as the “Model City” of the Great Society era. But much like contemporary “post-racial” mythology, this was a liberal illusion meant to obscure racial violence and poverty. The rebellion of ’67 exposed the illusion and opened a new stage in the Black struggle.

    The rebellion shook the local liberal establishment. The city’s future became uncertain and control over the shop floor would become strategically invaluable territory.

    Black workers made up almost three quarters of the workforce in Detroit auto-factories by the late 1960s. And by virtually every measure, they faced worse working conditions than their white counterparts, who often held more seniority and worked in skilled trades.

    The Great Rebellion exposed the vulnerability of the city government, auto-company management, and the timid union bureaucrats. Marty Glaberman, a long time socialist and a close comrade of C. L. R. James, reported to the British International Socialist Journal in 1969 that, “The power of the black industrial working class was indicated,” during the rebellion, “by the fact that the July days saw the shutdown of three giants of American capitalism: Ford, Chrysler and General Motors.”

    General Baker, a shop-floor leader at Dodge Main and co-founder of the League, was fond of recalling later in his life that he had begun to recognize his own power as a worker during the rebellion when he realized that the only people allowed on the streets during the rioting were autoworkers travelling to and from the factories.

    The mood on the streets of Detroit following the uprising was militant but unorganized. Baker along with others who you’ll see in the film, including John Watson and Ken Cockrell, Sr., aimed to organize that mood into a coherent political force through the publication of Inner City Voice, a monthly revolutionary newspaper.

    Its creators viewed ICV saw the newspaper a vehicle for political organization and education. They sought to connect with and sharpen the militant mood on the streets by providing a radical political analysis in clear and accessible language. It was intentionally modeled on Lenin’s classical vision of the revolutionary press. It was the “scaffolding” (to use Lenin’s metaphor) for their movement’s theoretical and practical activity.

    ICV quickly gained a devoted readership in spite of repeated political repression and censorship. In a test of their growing influence, a coterie of shop-floor militants close to the ICV and led by General Baker, organized a 5,000 strong wildcat strike at Dodge Main in May of 1968. The Great Rebellion had arrived within the factory gates.

    The Dodge Main group called itself the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement or DRUM. Their efforts inspired Black workers in plants and industry around the region. Revolutionary Union Movement groups began to form at Ford, Chrysler, UPS, and elsewhere. The League was formed in June 1969 to help coordinate and spread these groups.

    POLITICS of the LEAGUE

    The League was set apart from other movements of its time by its unwavering emphasis on working class politics and leadership. One League co-founder, Mike Hamlin, explained to Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin in the book, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying that,

    “We came to believe that the working class had to make the revolution, had to lead the revolution, and that we had to concentrate our energies on workers…Community organizing and industrial organizing are linked up. They go together. The working class should lead the community effort.”

    The task of organizing the working class as a whole meant directly confronting racial division and hostility within the working class. While the League actively put forward class wide demands that were in the interests of both Black and white workers their energy was focused on the organization of Black workers.

    The League argued that capitalism has always relied on the hyper-exploitation of Black labor, from slavery to the modern “plant-ation,” and that maintaining class exploitation required both disciplining Black labor and dividing the working class along racial lines.

    John Watson, perhaps the most influential political figure in the League, argued in an interview for the magazine The Fifth Estate that,

    “If you look at the history of the black liberation movement over the last 200 years, you’ll find that there have been numerous coalitions, alliances, mergers, between black and white workers. Almost every time that this type of organization has developed and moved to the point where it was actually threatening the system, the system resorted by attacking the movement through racist campaigns.”

    In addition to building solidarity with white workers, the League also published materials translated to Arabic to build bridges with Detroit’s large Arab immigrant population and published material in solidarity with the struggle against the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

    FINALLY GOT THE NEWS

    Finally Got the News was seen as an extension of the League’s propaganda. It was viewed as a tool to carry their politics to a mass audience.

    Viewed today, the ideas in the film may seem to be an ancient artifact from a moment radically unlike our own. Forty years of neoliberal backlash have rendered shop-floor militancy a rare gift. However, I believe everyone who watches the film will be inevitably drawn toward considering many of the questions posed by today’s struggles for Black Lives and social equality.

    Further resources:

  2. Dearborn Heights fast food restaurant pays $12 an hour

    June 13, 2013

    270966_10150289634784997_1697305206_nA Dearborn Heights fast-food (or quick-service, is there a difference?) restaurant has opted to pay their employees $12 an hour. This is following the wave of strikes and walkouts led by fast food workers across the country, including a historically unprecedented strike of over 400 fast food employees in Detroit in May.

    Of course, this employers decision to raise workers’ wages has nothing to do at all with the strikes–nothing.

    Parker and Moorhouse said their decision to pay higher than average was a practical decision, not one based on current events….

    “We did this because, in our mind, it was the right thing to do,” said Moorhouse, a sales and marketing consultant. “This is a too hard of a job to pay minimum wage. So far, we haven’t lost any employees and we sleep well at night knowing that.”

    It’s interesting that the article, nevertheless, felt the need to clarify that this has nothing to do with the strikes at all.  Regardless, this is a positive development, in my opinion, in so far as it legitimizes–to some degree–the demands of low wage workers for a higher wage.  I hope this doesn’t have the effect, however, of tempering the movement’s demands for a $15 an hour wage and union recognition.  Likewise, I hope the movement doesn’t begin to look toward employers for a solution, and continue to rely upon workers power and the strike to win their demands.  I don’t see any reason yet to suspect this will happen, but the potential for this tendency to arise once the bosses start to make concessions always exists, and needs to be consciously countered.

    Fight for fifteen and a union, and nothing less!

  3. Hold your burgers! Hold your fries! We want our wages super-sized!

    May 20, 2013

    My latest for Socialist Worker is now online. It’s a report from the recent fast food workers strikes that took place in Detroit.

    DSC_0123THE STRIKES in Detroit, backed by a coalition that includes the Service Employees International Union and other labor organizations, comes at a moment of existential crisis for organized labor in Michigan….

    The potential, however, for actions by low-wage workers fighting for justice to galvanize the labor movement was well illustrated at the strike’s closing rally at the headquarters of the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT). The DFT was hit hard when former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm put the Detroit Public Schools under emergency management in 2009. As a result, the DFT headquarters is largely abandoned and is up for sale.

    But on May 10, the energy of the hundreds of low-wage, unorganized fast-food workers and their supporters, marching and protesting after a long day of historic strike action, provided a hopeful contrast to the large, yellow “For Sale” sign hanging from the façade of the DFT headquarters.

    Read the rest here.

    There were plenty of inspiring stories that I didn’t share in this article for the sake of space. Maybe I’ll write more here soon.