The CIO was one of the most successful anti-racism movements in US history
The following is an excerpt from the book Intersectional class struggle (2021AK Press).
In the 1930s, a new type of union, a “industrial” which welcomed all the workers in a single workplace established itself as the vanguard of the workers’ struggle. Previously, unions and employers both had a long history of racism and support for white supremacy. Certain jobs were reserved for whites and black workers were kept away from factories and union premises. This had catastrophic consequences for the working class. For example, in the 1919 Steel strike, employers intervene 30,000 Black and immigrant workers to break the strike organized by white workers and their racially exclusive unions. Long barred from joining these unions and the labor movement in general, black workers crossed the picket lines. With this, the employers restarted production, defeated the strike and prevented the workers from organizing for the next 15 years.
In the 1930s, as the labor movement pondered how to win during the Great Depression, the lessons of the 1919 Steel Strike loomed large; labor movements would have to be anti-racist and intersectional if they were to win. The strength of the model of industrial unionism was that it required overcoming racial divides in the workplace. New organizations, such as the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), held anti-racism trainings to help black and white workers organize to fight against employers. He formed interracial social groups and sports teams, challenged public displays of racism, and highlighted the treatment black workers faced on the job. This was largely the influence of communist and other leftist union organizers, for whom anti-racism had long been part of their labor organizing practice. But at the root were ideas that black and white workers have a common enemy in capitalists and capital, and that efforts to divide workers by race weaken the power of the working class. With these labor campaigns, along explicitly anti-racist lines, unionization at places like General Motors in Flint or at US Steel plants finally became possible.
According to historian and civil rights activist WEB Du Bois, the CIO was one of the most successful anti-racism efforts in US history. “Probably the greatest and most effective effort toward interracial understanding among the working masses,” he writes, “came into being thanks to the union. He believed that shared class interests were a mechanism for overcoming entrenched racial hostility. Because of the IOC, the workers “in the steel and automotive industries have been thrown together, in black and white, like colleagues striving for the same objects. Because of this there has been an amazing spread of interracial tolerance and understanding. These white supremacist-shattering victories were won through intersectional class struggle; in the words of Du Bois, “Probably no movement of the last thirty years has succeeded in reducing racial prejudice among the masses. Black workers have been harmed the most by racism and white supremacy, but white workers have also been harmed as their unions have been broken up and their standard of living eroded by siding with employers in support of white supremacy over solidarity of the working class. In short, all workers have a collective interest in defeating white supremacy and labor market competition together. In practice, this often means prioritizing black freedom struggles or civil rights movements to build that solidarity.6
Like these other examples, the contemporary struggle against incarceration and police violence is intersectional. In Michelle Alexander’s book on mass incarceration, The new Jim Crow, Alexander links the issue of policing and American racism, the fact that the capitalist incarceration system disproportionately detains and imprisons people of color, to the class stratification of American society. She argues that the modern incarceration system is just the latest manifestation of a centuries-old process of enforcing a permanent black underclass in America. As a lawyer, Alexander emphasizes voting and restrictions on civic participation. But in his work, it is clear that mass incarceration, as well as the systems of Jim Crow and slavery, have much broader impacts on the black working class and on the class as a whole. Incarceration is a mechanism of social control: it permanently disrupts the ability to work, disrupts family relationships, isolates and alienates people from one another. For Alexander, mass incarceration is an appendage of the capitalist state that enforces a rigid structure of racial class stratification.
In another example of the power of labor to challenge white supremacy, in Florida in 2018prison workers went on strike for a month to refuse poor conditions and unpaid work, which they called “slave labor.” Similar strikes in California and other states led to a nationwide prison strike later that year. By focusing on their labor, a major source of their power, prisoners were able to challenge the prison-industrial complex, one of the major institutions of white supremacy.With this emphasis on work and direct action, intersectional strategies of class struggle benefit social movements and group empowerment, even away from the traditional workplace.They also show how to approach the complex intersections of state power, white supremacy and capitalist exploitation.
In all of these examples, the structure of black oppression is indelibly imbued with class structure. In his book, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, activist and scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor explores the origins and causes of the Black Lives Matter movement. She argues that at the base of the “Black Awakening in Obama’s America” was a black community stratified into classes. Those who were best placed to benefit from the legacy of the civil rights movement were able to integrate into American ruling circles, such as the Obamas, the Powells, the Whartons and others. The rest of black society has been left behind, increasingly criminalized and given over to neoliberal policies that have left communities to face crushing poverty and militarized police on their own amid the war on crime. dope. The result is that black protest has sprung from below. Through direct action, primarily riots and disruptive protests such as the blocking of highways, the movement was able to push the issue of murderous policing onto the national agenda. In some cases, he was able to achieve significant gains, such as limiting police access to military equipment.
This is not to say that race is fundamentally a matter of class. That is to say that these questions are intersectional – and not just between race and class. For example, police violence is also gendered, as routine police violence is a deadly manifestation of ““toxic” masculinity. It is also gendered in the relative invisibility of women and trans people killed by police violence. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor argues, without a basis in emancipatory revolutionary class politics, it is unlikely that we can adequately address the racism and injustice of police brutality and other issues that concern us.