On April 1st 1968 the first contract between Local 1716 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME, pronounced “AF-smee”) and the City of Hartford, Connecticut went into effect. At that moment, AFSCME sanitation workers were locked in an all-out strike in Memphis, Tennessee. The International Union as a whole had grown sharply under the leadership of insurgent socialist President Jerry Wurf, bringing in workers of every category and employed at every level of government by the thousands, in the spirit of Martin Luther King’s axiom, that “all labor has dignity.” King’s support for the Black Memphis strikers had been enlisted by Rev. James Lawson. The strike began with the deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker on the job, and ended with King’s martyrdom just three days after Hartford’s own municipal workers started a new chapter under an AFSCME contract. The same struggle that claimed their lives and gave birth to Local 1716 of course neither started nor ended there.
The road that leads through such fortresses of racial capitalism like Hartford and Memphis is long and winding, and to map it from start to finish would be as circuitous as America itself. Here however workers from all walks of life might come to feel some of the weight of the historic mission of Black collective action on the job in a world where labor creates all wealth.
In 1963, Council 16 of the AFSCME sought and won a city referendum on the question of legalizing collective bargaining for Hartford’s municipal workers. Thirty years prior, private sector unions were routinely outlawed as criminal conspiracies on little more than the grounds that it involved workers meeting together away from the ears of their bosses. Public sector workers’ time to organize the unorganized had arrived, and Hartford of course was already ahead of the curve when Connecticut passed the Municipal Employees Relations Act in 1964. Union rep. Dominic Badolato, later a powerful legislator, sparred first with the City’s Corporation Counsel over the legality of whether workers could campaign for the referendum, and then later litigated repeatedly against AFSCME’s decades-long nemesis, the Connecticut State Employees Association and their affiliated “management-controlled” City of Hartford Employees Association (CHEA). CHEA tried repeatedly and failed at the state labor board to block AFSCME from uniting white collar and blue collar workers under one roof of solidarity. Today Local 1716 counts among its members the workers of the Hartford Public Library.
Headlines warned of strike talk and Local President Ernie Pillon slammed City Council as “the unholy seven” counting Ann Uccello among their number for failing to budget for proper raises for the 834 members of Local 1716, while spending generously on the Hartford Police Department. (3-3-1966 Hartford Courant). In fact, Hartford Republicans accidentally did 1716 a big favor by dropping a huge spending package for HPD on the municipal government’s lap without prior notice, which the City’s negotiators later regretted because of the spending precedent it set for bargaining with the new Local.
In 1963 AFSCME Council 16’s Union News-Views monthly Connecticut newspaper delivered what was sure to have been (at the time) considered a blistering editorial denunciation of their future International President, penned by union rep Bill Czuckrey, and in 2022 reads with more than a little humor, which will only do for one to read it themselves.
Without a doubt it was a local manifestation of the international campaign orchestrated by Arnold Zander’s ruling faction. Such attacks also included a dissident Massachusetts union leader’s car being dynamited, and a leaflet featuring an anti-Semitic cartoon of Wurf being circulated around New England. At the same time, the popularity of Wurf’s union reform program also won vocal support from many at the embattled International conventions of that period, including at least one Connecticut delegate who wanted greater member control of his local. Zander had placed many locals under his own direct control. By 1966 the same newspaper that smeared him three years earlier trumpeted Jerry Wurf’s plan to address their annual convention on October 7th and 8th at the Statler Hilton Hotel in Hartford. In that short time he had achieved a major upset in challenging the powerful union boss and former mentor Arnold Zander, who had hired Wurf in 1947 as an organizer. Asked about AFSCME’s growth in those years, Local 1716’s Dom Batolado said simply, “I can give you the answer in two words—Jerry Wurf.” Indeed while Zander was still President he had directed Wurf to help strengthen and consolidate Badolato’s Council 16 by bringing the affiliated locals around Connecticut into compliance with dues collection and other measures.
Wurf, like a great many working class Jewish New Yorkers of his generation, had his beginnings first with the (Stalinist) Young Communist League and then the (eclectically anti-Stalinist) Young People’s Socialist League, though by the McCarthy Red Scare years he nearly quit his organizer position with AFSCME over his disillusionment with the brutal anticommunist assaults and scabbing on other labor leaders, along with the eagerness of his own leaders to please the political class in exchange for favors. By the 60’s he was less the radical and more the reformer, seeing public sector unionism as a tool for perfecting an otherwise good economic and political system. He was however nonetheless committed to the right of public sector workers to strike when necessary and spoke fluently in the only language that management understands—militancy, which could often be forceful or even creative. In one instance when fighting Mayor Robert Moses for union recognition for Parks Department workers, Wurf organized a demonstration featuring zoo workers on display in a cage in front of city hall.
His predecessor Zander was a Scandinavian “sewer socialist” similar to Bernie Sanders, holding that publicly-funded civil services that employ white collar professionals were sufficient to achieve a just society, and made a policy of trading favors with government employers rather than confrontation. Wurf, a disabled person all his life who taught himself to organize coworkers with audacity and take disruptive action against abusive and exploitative bosses in New York City’s cafeterias, saw the need to overturn the complacency and corruption in organized labor and create a blue collar movement for justice that embraced any worker of integrity regardless of trade, identity or ideology. For his trouble he was chased from job to job by both union reps and bosses until finally avoiding starvation when he was given a break by Zander and granted leadership of District 37 AFSCME in New York.
Wurf’s organizing crusades of several decades took shape under the long shadow of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Founded in the dark days of the Great Depression as an alternative to the conservative and racist American Federation of Labor, the CIO was the last great undertaking of the 20th century in a long line of efforts to fulfill labor’s historic mission of hammering racial capitalism to the point of its total defeat with the strategy (though hardly unified) of uniting the entire multiracial working classes of the United States under one roof with the strike as its weapon of choice. With that vision it attracted an army of organizers including a diverse array of socialists and communists with decades of experience who agreed amongst themselves on little more than the need for a stronger labor movement, as well as many former members of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association who hoped to achieve economically what Garvey did not deliver politically. At its height it claimed five million members in affiliated unions such as the United Mine Workers, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (headquartered in Memphis), the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) among others.
UE waged a number of large and successful strikes in its strongholds of Hartford and New Britain in the mid- and latter 20th century, including during the national strikewave following the Second World War that hit the Pratt & Whitney Tool facility (the building still standing on Capitol Avenue, now lofts) and the Hamilton Standard propeller plant, escalating to a city-wide general strike that garnered the support of Rev. Edward Peet of the historically-Black North United Methodist Church on Albany Avenue. (The same church which in 1980 hosted a dinner commemorating the Soweto Uprising of South Africa organized by the Connecticut Anti-Apartheid Committee, of which AFSCME Local 1716 was a member). The latter part of the 1946 UE strike also featured a mass meeting in Hartford of over a thousand people under the union’s auspices calling for federal intervention to end southern lynchings.
AFSCME never joined the CIO, but Jerry Wurf recruited numerous organizers to wage campaigns across the country who got their start in a who’s-who of the CIO’s most storied and most radical affiliated unions. Also conspicuous was the central role of AFSCME organizers such as Joe Ames and James Farmer who were also members of the Congress on Racial Equality, an organization Wurf claimed along with Farmer to have helped found. Farmer initiated and led the first Freedom Ride in 1961. CORE, a majority-white organization, emerged from what you might call the “militant pacifist” left of the Second World War era, which included many anarchist and socialist draft refusers who were housed at the Danbury, Connecticut federal penitentiary. Though these men were committed anti-fascists long before the United States soured on Mussolini and Hitler, they presciently held that militarism could only lead the US down the path to fascism.
While incarcerated in Danbury, dozens of them (including Adam Clayton Powell) struck against racial segregation in the cafeteria by refusing work and meals. The successful strike also led to the warden quarantining them away from the general population to minimize the spread of rebellion, where they effectively formed a thinktank of unprecedented future political influence. They were able to engage in group study, debate, and plan for what to do once they got out. Despite prison authorities’ efforts, the movement against segregation and poor conditions spread to draft refusers around the country and included the likes of longtime AFSCME collaborator and Civil Rights leader and close advisor of MLK, Bayard Rustin. In this episode, Connecticut played host to one of the multitude of threads that led to the most powerful campaigns of organized noncompliance in the early Civil Rights Movement. When the Wurf insurgency took shape in AFSCME, his caucus named itself the Committee on Union Responsibility, COUR, which they pronounced as “core” as an appeal to AFSCME’s Black membership.
Wurf also claimed that “The body supply for the early Freedom Rides came from [his New York AFSCME] District Council 37. When white thugs moved in to beat up Blacks who used a chain of hamburger joints in New York, we took our heaviest and fattest laborers and legally and properly saw to it that Black people had access to this chain. When they needed bodies to picket airlines because they wouldn’t hire Black staff, our union in New York led this.”
Memphis and the Promise of Industrial Unionism
Memphis was one of numerous sites of sustained multiracial worker organizing across the country that characterized the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) from 1935 to 1955. Its affiliate the United Rubber Workers organized the Memphis Firestone Tires plant; the Inland Boatman’s Union joined forces with the conservative American Federation of Labor’s affiliated International Longshoreman’s Association to wage the Great Riverfront Strike in 1939. Alzada Clark led the majority Black female workforce of the United Furniture Workers in a failed strike in 1949, but tried again with greater success after the AFSCME sanitation strike victory with the support of Coretta Scott King. While previous Memphis CIO efforts focused on organizing at the economically crucial “point of production” and transportation, the city’s sanitation workers’ own labor proved essential in its own right to the local power structure. As the Memphis strikers voted to ratify their agreement with the city, AFSCME Council 4’s Dom Badolato suggested garbage strikes have the best chance of gaining public attention compared to city hall clerks—the public sees it and smells it before long.
1968 was a year in which a towering pile of contradictions in our world (within both global capitalism and national governments around the world) piled higher than authorities of every description could manage to compensate for, except by unleashing the forces of violent reaction. Wurf and his lieutenant, P.J. Ciampa tried at first, as usual, with the gentlemanly approach of settling the strike that the workers themselves had launched at a moment of horror and outrage. But soon they found the same intransigence and brutality that had caused local leaders like T.O. Jones and Bill Lucy so much difficulty in preventing unnecessary deaths like those of Cole’s and Walker’s in the first place. What’s more, the local power structure took particular hostility to the Northern “outside agitators” who they accused of ordering the strike like some kind of mob hit, and resolved to never recognize the union as the workers’ representative. “Memphis took an immediate and deep dislike to the gruff, brash Ciampa. Downing Pryor, the city council chairman, lamented that Ciampa [an organizer of numerous previous affiliations with CIO unions] ‘acted like a Sicilian anarchist or a hood.’” (Jerry Wurf: Labor’s Last Angry Man) Nonviolent escalation by the union quickly resulted in violent reprisals by the scabs-with-badges and the courts alike against strikers and union leaders.
Taking an active part in the strike, Wurf committed his International Union and a number of its AFL-CIO (which merged in 1955) affiliates to victory, in tandem with the Committee on the Move for Equality (COME) which formed as the Black community’s umbrella organization for strike support. Chief among them was Memphis’ Rev. James Lawson, another draft refuser-turned-CORE activist who had gained notoriety for organizing the Nashville, Tennessee chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “snick”) an organization which was to be one of the very first organized expressions of Black Power following the assassination of El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz (AKA Malcolm X) and the demise of his Organization of Afro-American Unity. If CORE was at the forefront of the Black freedom movement in the post-WW2 era, SNCC was the one to follow and it took on a distinctly Black southern working class identity.
Before his assassination, King was cast as an instigator of violence and communism, and immediately after misremembered (for decades to come) as a staunch opponent of Black Power “extremism.” In 1966 he helped lead the March Against Fear from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi in response to white supremacist violence, beginning at James Lawson’s church. King brokered the unlikely coalition of the Urban League, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), CORE, SNCC and the Deacons for Defense, a group that started in Louisiana to engage in armed community self-defense against Ku Klux Klan terrorism. In contrast to the draft refusers that founded CORE, most of the Deacons were veterans of the Second World War or the Korean War.
The stark divergence of these two realities of the Black experience in times of war abroad, and their re-convergence in the struggle at home is virtually never highlighted in tellings of this history. The draft resistance movement waged against America’s most popular war, embodied by CORE; and Black socialist labor leader A. Philip Randolph’s Double-V movement that sought victory over fascism abroad through military service, in tandem with victory over Jim Crow at home. Two decades later they joined together on foot on the road from Memphis to Jackson.
Compromises were made that preserved the integrity and dignity of everyone involved, and it wasn’t accomplished through dictates or coersion. Among the march witnessing this historic alliance in motion was 24-year old Memphis native Coby Smith. He was the son of a union steward for the United Auto Workers at the International Harvester factory, where desegregating the union local proved a protracted and violent effort. Smith’s father was also close to George Holloway, the Black CIO union leader at the Firesetone Tire plant and veteran of many years of struggles for dignity on the job who counseled the sanitation workers in the early days of their organizing. Holloway’s own father had been a member of the most important Black labor organization of its time, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters led by A. Philip Randolph.
Coby Smith along with the acerbic decolonial Marxist Charles Cabbage were leaders of Memphis’ Black Organizing Project. BOP had no formal ties to any outside organizations, sporadic funding and bore the brunt of the blame anytime there was a finger to point for a broken window at a protest. They spearheaded numerous community programs with staples of Black Power organizing in that period, from education to helping youth find work, but what they’re most remembered for is the notorious Black youth club they started, called the Invaders. They were named after a popular sci-fi series featuring shapeshifting aliens as a thinly-veiled allegory for communist infiltration, and their ill-defined membership allowed a legion of Black kids a sense of solidarity and belonging. With the surging unpopularity of the Vietnam War, their slogan was “Damn the army, join the Invaders!” While there was much posturing about constituting an urban guerrilla force, former members and scholars alike acknowledge that they were, more than anything, playing on white fears as leverage to keep the state at bay with its strikebreaking.
Lawson and King understood more than others in the strike movement the need to have the BOP at the table for strike support. When they were, they could be counted on to run security. When left out of the loop, demonstrations became harder to control. MORE’s strategy hinged on inflicting economic damage through boycotts against white Memphis businesses that were trying to break the strike. Though it didn’t suit the image that clergy was trying to present to the media, property destruction and attacking scabs has always been a part of the labor movement—things that sanitation strikers themselves naturally did in Memphis as well. Strike leader T.O. Jones felt enough kinship and trust in the young militants to have them guarding the Memphis AFSCME office.
Before an assembly of 25,000 strikers and their supporters on March 18th, King delivered one of his last speeches. Overwhelmed by the outpouring of solidarity from the unexpectedly massive turnout, he closed with these nearly unscripted comments:
You know what? You may have to escalate the struggle a bit. I tell you what you ought to do, and you are together here enough to do it: in a few days you ought to get together and just have a general work stoppage in the city of Memphis! And you let that day come, and not a Negro in this city will go to any job downtown. When no Negro in domestic service will go to anybody’s house or anybody’s kitchen. When Black students will not go to anybody’s school and Black teachers…
King, a longtime friend to organized labor and himself a leftist was drowned-out by applause as he called upon Black Memphians to unleash the labor movement’s Holy Grail of direct action: the general strike. On Monday April 1st, a press conference was held to demonstrate the Black united front that had formed in the wake of rampant police violence at a large and chaotic demonstration on the previous Thursday. It included representatives of the Invaders, AFSCME, COME and King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, all calling for a national mobilization to Memphis on April 8th to end “plantation rule” united under the banner of Black Power. King’s general strike seemed almost at hand.
On April 4th 1968 a hundred American cities ruptured and burned. Barbour Street in Hartford was among those heaviest hit by the national rebellion in the city. “‘I believe King did the right thing,’ said Clarke King who, in 1968, was an angry 21-year-old. ‘But what moved America to say something was wrong were the riots and kids saying, ‘We’re not taking it anymore.’ … It changed the way that we, as Black people, were respected.’” Hartford native and a lifelong resident, in 1965 Clarke joined the United Auto Workers when he was hired as a heat treater at the Colt firearms factory, and later for many years was President of AFSCME Local 1716. He also founded the Greater Hartford African-American Alliance and was involved in the national organization the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. “I was a militant,” King said. “My father used to say, ‘You gotta be like [Martin Luther] King, you gotta be peaceful.’ But we said, ‘If you hit me, I’m hitting you back.’” … “In part, as a result of the riots, the city’s Black community became more mobile, King said. Those who could started buying homes that white people sold in middle-class neighborhoods like Blue Hills. His father was one of them.” (Courant 4-6-08). 400 Hartford High students also marched downtown to demand to speak to the mayor, and 150 Weaver students marched on the newly-constructed Constitution Plaza which housed the Chamber of Commerce that had recently recommended a $3.5 million cut in the Hartford school budget.
In the years after the strike was won, police and others in authority continued their campaign of retaliation. The inheritors of Black Power youth organizing in the city, known as the Memphis Mobilizers under the leadership of Herman O’Neal and Don “Joey” Williams, would fight for years afterward alongside AFSCME, clergy, Democrats, the NAACP and the Concerned Teachers of Memphis in a broad front of social struggle called the United Black Coalition (UBC). Maxine Smith, leader in the 1961 integration effort in Memphis public schools and one of only two women to serve on the board of the Memphis NAACP, welcomed the Invaders into the fold as well. UCB carried on the struggle, supporting the victorious Local 1733 of AFSCME as their membership grew to include the strikers at St. Joseph Hospital. AFSCME would go on to have 17 chapters in the city and was led by more Black women by the mid-70s such as Oretha B. Strong Jones at John Gaston Hospital. When the UBC resolved to push for more Black teachers and Black school leadership, the Mobilizers were at the vanguard by calling a series of snowballing strikes called Black Mondays to the tune of tens of thousands of (militant, at least some of the time) students and thousands more teachers, cafeteria workers, half the dietary staffers at area hospitals and other public employees at various times. King’s general strike lived on through the Mobilizers.
Detroit and Labor’s Broken Promise
“On the heels of the assassination of Martin Luther King (April 4, 1968) Africans in the U.S. responded with 131 urban rebellions. This mass activity reached the point of production less than a month later as speedups and other conditions in the plant sparked that wildcat at Dodge Main, a factory where more than 75% of the work force was African. The African people’s movement in this new period of struggle was coming of age.” (Internationalism, Pan-Africanism and the Struggle of Social Classes, 2000)
The United Auto Workers formed the backbone of the CIO at the height of both organizations, wielding such unconventional direct action tactics as the sit-down strike to force companies such as General Motors in Atlanta, Georgia and Flint, Michigan to recognize the union and bargain over wages and conditions. Chrysler soon followed and by 1937 membership ballooned to 150,000. In 1950, UAW President Walter Reuther negotiated the Treaty of Detroit covering the workers of Ford, Chryslter and General Motors in exchange for a long-term promise of no strikes. Later Reuther became a leading contributor of funds to moderate Civil Rights organizations in the South.
Although Reuther had taken the tactic off the table for his own members in exchange for a seat at the table, the sit-down strike was adapted to the Civil Rights Movement in the form of the sit-in as Black Americans fulfilled the theories of Afro-Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James. A leading figure and theorist of the international Pan-African movement from the 1930s and many decades after, and an acclaimed sports writer, James stood out in the socialist movement by articulating the idea that while white supremacy is founded upon capitalist exploitation of Black labor, at the same time Black people constitute a vibrant and distinct political bloc with its own agency. Unlike many anti-capitalists of his time, he did not reduce the struggle for racial equality to a question of union representation, or socialist organizations adopting the correct position on “the Negro question.” He glowingly wrote about the Montgomery bus boycott in the same breath as the decolonization of Ghana, and had his friends Louis and Lucile Armstrong pass along a copy of his seminal text The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution to Martin Luther King after meeting with him and Coretta Scott King in London in 1957.
C.L.R. James lectured in a variety of places including Britain, New Haven, Connecticut, and Detroit, Michigan where he mentored the generation of Black activists who took the city by storm following the 1967 rebellion. By that time the city had already had many years of Black Power, New Left and countercultural activity, and its own chapter of SNCC had been expelled from the national organization in 1960 for daring to advocate militant direct action in not only the South against Jim Crow, but against Northern racism as well. One such ex-SNCC member was James Forman, who by the end of the decade became a leading figure in the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.
The League started as a unifying citywide federation between a series of rank-and-file organizations based on the “shop floor” of various workplaces throughout Detroit which called themselves Revolutionary Union Movements, or RUMs. Chief among them was the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, or DRUM. For decades Black UAW members struggled to make union leadership deliver on its CIO-era promise of “social unionism,” a program of implementing social equality in society among the races through union organization. In reality, the UAW practiced tokenism while keeping the mass of Black members relegated to the most dangerous and lowest paying work in the auto manufacturing plants, while shutting them out of the grievance process outlined in the contract. The system was derisively called the “plant-tation.”
Activists drew some lessons from the ’67 Detroit rebellion, the bloodiest of all urban rebellions of that period, sparked by police violence. One, that working class Northern whites could be counted on to some extent when fighting the power structure. A majority of the snipers arrested were found to be Appalachian hillbillies. More importantly, the only Black people the police permitted to travel city streets during the rebellion carried company badges from the auto plants they worked at. From that they drew the conclusion that the local power structure (administered by the Democratic Party) saw their only value at the assembly line, overriding the state’s inclination to use them as target practice. The men who went on to form the League began agitating through an expansive print run of propaganda directed at Black industrial workers for wildcat strikes—organized stoppages prohibited under the contract, and without the blessing of the UAW bureaucracy.
Ironically it was during a white-led wildcat picket in May 1968 that gave the organic Black leadership among the Dodge plant workers the opportunity to go across the street to a bar and have a caucus of their own over drinks.
Chrysler was getting ready for a grueling work speed-up and a retool of the assembly line for the next year’s car models, followed by “an almost total temporary layoff.” Because of the workers intimate technical knowledge of production, they identified a key point of leverage. On May 2nd they threw up a picket line that attracted four thousand angry Black workers who refused to cross, beginning the first DRUM protest against speed-up’ and discriminatory management practices. Production at one of the world’s most profitable factories was halted. A delegation of six DRUM members went to UAW headquarters to tell Local 3 President Ed Liska that DRUM intended to negotiate with management from a position of power and issued an ultimatum: negotiate on behalf of Black workers or resign.
Although the wildcat strike was led by a coalition of workers, including Polish women and Black men, punishment following the action was disproportionate. Seven people, including five Black workers, were fired following the action, with all but two, General G. Baker Jr. and Bennie Tate, eventually rehired. Following the strike, nine workers from the plant formed close relationships with the editors of The Inner City Voice newspaper and decided to form the first Revolutionary Union Movement.
Following the creation of DRUM, the workers and the editors began to circulate a newsletter inside the plant with the same title. The newsletter was designed to build political consciousness among Black workers and articulate their main concerns. It targeted the work conditions in the plant, the plant’s bosses, and the leadership of the UAW. One of the largest actions that DRUM organized was a wildcat strike which took place on July 7, 1968. The strike addressed both the working conditions in the plant and the inability of the UAW to represent and address the needs of Black workers in the auto industry. The rally and wildcat strike brought together a number of Black community groups and radical white organizations, and was deemed a success by the leadership of DRUM.
A number of other revolutionary union movements began developing at other plants throughout 1968 and early 1969, including the Ford Revolutionary Union Movement (FRUM) and Eldon Avenue Revolutionary Union Movement (ELRUM), both of which carried out increasingly militant and successful actions against the bosses in their factories and the UAW leadership. The spread of RUMs was not only limited to the auto industry, with developments among the United Parcel Service workers (UPRUM), health workers (HRUM), and among Detroit News workers (NEWRUM).
With the rapid growth of this powerful new movement, DRUM set its sights on UAW as a test of both organizations’ strengths and integrity. They resolved to run a slate of candidates for union leadership of Local 3. In the film Finally Got the News, Chuck Wooten recalled the experience:
Our man was Ron March. Most of the old-line guys told
us that we didn’t have a chance. They said we didn’t
have experience we didn’t have a platform. All that
kind of crap. We went out anyway. Ron pulled 563
votes. The next highest guy was a white worker who had 521.
There were other candidates, so we had to have a
runoff election. Immediately after that, the Hamtramck
police department began to move in a much more open
way. They gave us tickets on our cars and just generally
harassed us. One day about fifty of us were in the union
hall, which is right across from the police station. The
mayor of the city and the chief of police came in with
guns in their hands. They told us to stop making trouble,
and we said all we wanted was to win the election. We
asked them why they weren’t harassing the others.
While we were talking, a squad of police came through
the door swinging axe handles and throwing Mace
around. That gave us an idea of the kind of repression
Black workers seeking to make a revolutionary
organization would face. It tipped us off about what
would happen when we tried to create a Black labor
struggle to be part of the Black revolution.
John Watson adds in the film:
DRUM suspected the union would cheat. We arranged
observers for every candidate and machine. Black workers
were incensed when the levers for our candidates
would not go down. We were in a toe-to-toe battle with
the bureaucracy just to make it halfway fair. When the
local saw that it could not steal the election, it called for
help. George Merrelli, the regional UAW leader,
stormed into the hall with his entire fifty-man staff. They
were armed and had the additional support of a contingent
of police. They evicted the workers and occupied
the hall. The voting machines had not even been sealed.
The next day the union said Ron March had come in
third with only 943 votes. There wasn’t even a runoff
election. Of thirty-five candidates, only two DRUM
people were elected. A week before, in another factory
in the city, the ballot boxes had been confiscated by the
police and held in the police station overnight. These
acts demonstrated the UAW would risk outright scandal
rather than let Blacks assume any power. It didn’t matter
whether DRUM won or lost in this election. What
counted was that the enemy lost by being forced to
provoke the anger and raise the consciousness of
thousands and thousands of workers.
To Watson’s point, DRUM people at that time understood that even if their entire slate had somehow won, little would change in UAW unless they could sustain the strategy that had up to that point yielded such success: workers taking direct action at the point of production, much the same approach that built the CIO three decades prior. The League quickly became a force that the Detroit power structure realized it could neither stamp-out or contain
At the height of the League’s power in Detroit it had expanded to include broad layers of the multiracial working class, including those working in hospitals and schools. Modibo Kadalie (then E.C. Cooper) a Vietnam-era draft refuser from Georgia had been involved in supporting striking students at Highland Park Community College to demand Black studies in the curriculum and was fired in the process. Afterward he joined the Central Staff of the League which carried out most of the day-to-day operations under the direction of the Executive Board. Kadalie was also one of a number of League members at that time who were mentored by C.L.R. James, whose socialist organization (called Facing Reality) had taken a keen interest in the League. FR was made up of an older generation of lifelong revolutionary organizers who had developed in-depth analyses not just of capitalism, Black liberation and the labor movement, but also the failures of Stalinism. Though James was far from the only Black socialist that had become disillusioned with authoritarian leaders, unlike many others it didn’t cause him to become more moderate or conciliatory toward ruling class political parties like the Democrats. Instead he drew inspiration from the 1956 Hungarian Revolution against Soviet rule, when workers rose-up and ran their country through the same style of mass democratic workers’ assemblies and councils upon which both DRUM and the Russian Revolution were founded. It took 17 Soviet divisions—and the last bit of the Communist Party’s credibility among the world proletariat—to restore control.
At that time the Executive Board of the League, like many in the Black Power movement, had come to embrace leaders like Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh, all of whom stressed the importance of a centralized, top-down command structure for revolutionary organizations. Accordingly, the Executive Board provided theory on behalf of the rank-and-file and instructed the Central Staff to implement it through an ever-widening collection of programs that scattered League resources away from their previous organizing at the point of production. While they did self-produce such impressive efforts as the classic League propaganda film Finally Got the News, Central Staff and rank-and-filers alike were given no input and the supposedly democratic alternative to the UAW held no elections.
Kadalie and others on the Central Staff tried but in 1971 ultimately failed to democratize the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. The Executive Board tragically repeated the failures of the Communist Party by resorting to the purging of dissidents rather than grapple with their own shortcomings, and found themselves unable to enforce discipline among the rank-and-file without the leadership of those they expelled, leading to the dissolution of the League.
Pan-African Workers’ Action
In 1981 Connecticut Voices for Withdrawal recorded the testimony at the legislature of Union President Howard E. Fargo:
AFSCME Local 1716 represents almost 700 municipal workers employed by the City of Hartford. On March 3, 1981, we voted to support the bills (HB #5740 and HB #6347). Our initiatives are in line with the policy of both our own International Union and the AFL-CIO. Divestment also clearly follows the intent of our International Constitution which states in part that our objectives are “(T)o work with our brothers and sisters in other lands towards the improvement of the conditions of life and work in all countries … and towards genuine fraternity of all workers.” We see our stand as an affirmative response to the request for international support from trade union groups such as SACTU (South African Congress of Trade Unions ).
The Local along with other labor and community organizations in Hartford (and statewide) was a member of the Connecticut Anti-Apartheid Committee. They sought to help put an end to the oppression of Black people across southern Africa. CAAV of course played one small part in the international effort.
Rickey Hill, a comrade of the League’s Modibo Kadalie, in writing an introduction to one of Kadalie’s volumes, talks about his time at the Southern University of Baton Rouge and joining the Black Stone Society. He relates their involvement in organizing in support of Black members of the International Longshoremen’s Association Locals 1830 and 1833 in Burnside, Louisiana who were protesting the importation of chromium ore from Zimbabwe (then still referred to by its colonial name, Rhodesia). One of the national organizations to emerge from the rubble of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, calling itself the Black Workers Congress, was one of many groups that came together to form the African Liberation Support Committee (ALSC) and led a boycott against businesses profiting from colonialism in Africa such as the New Orleans Wholesale Jewelers as well as Polaroid.
Kadalie, after leaving Detroit became a leading member of the Atlanta chapter of the ALSC, an ambitious show of Black unity in the United States in the 1970s. The steering committee for their inaugural African Liberation Day mobilizations included the MLK’s Southern Christian Leadership Council, Jamil Al-Amin (formerly H. Rap Brown), Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael), Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton, Betty Shabazz (widow of Malcolm X), the National Welfare Rights Organization, and numerous politicians. In and of itself ALSC didn’t end up having much longevity, but they lit a spark that burned for decades under different banners. Kadalie’s own mentor C.L.R. James’ earliest political work involved giving birth to modern Pan-Africanism in the form of the international campaign against the Italian Fascist colonization of Ethiopia in 1935. The protest campaign included Enfield, Connecticut’s Paul Robeson, the world famous Black operatic vocalist, actor, and Communist blacklisted from working in his own industry. Before having his passport revoked, Robeson played the lead in James’ theatrical production in London, England, Toussaint Louverture – The story of the only successful slave revolt in history which preceded his history text on the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins.
Not to be left out, the ILWU got in on the action as well. Herb Mills, a Local 10 leader and historian, explained:
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) has a long history of rank-and-file action in support of domestic and international issues of social justice. That history for its Local 10 of San Francisco dockworkers began in 1935—less than a year after the monumental 1934 west coast maritime strike—when it refused to load nickel, brass and zinc destined for the Italian Fascist war machine then ravaging Abyssinia [Ethiopia].
If the United Auto Workers represented the broken promise of the CIO’s social unionism, we can look to the west coast to raise our spirits. The ILWU was led by Australian Communist Harry Bridges. Longshore work throughout the 20th century had a distinctly radical flavor, in no small part due to the workforce’s international character. Working the docks, warehouses and ships that came and went put them into close contact with people of many persuasions they might not ever have otherwise had the opportunity to encounter, people who often were fleeing political persecution from across the globe. In Philadelphia, the mainly Black membership of Local 8 of the IWW Marine Transport Workers Industrial Union fought to desegregate the work gangs in order to foster interracial worker solidarity in fulfillment of the union’s large revolutionary vision. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, AKA the Wobblies) controlled the Philadelphia waterfront from 1916 well into the following decade.
Harry Bridges built the most left-wing of the CIO unions quite deliberately, and his own Local 10 based in the San Francisco Bay Area teamed with a cadre of socialists, communists and Wobbly rank-and-filers (Bridges himself had been a Wobbly in his youth) who had gotten word that they were welcome to find work on the docks. Together they organized and became a powerful force in one of the most economically important ports in the world. When Black workers came in large numbers to the Bay for work during the Second World War, many became members of Local 10. But when the war ended and work became more scarce, the question of seniority was posed to the membership. But rather than sticking to the old policy of “Last hired, first fired” familiar to Black workers, the decision was brought to a vote to agree to a cut in hours across the board, Black or white, rather than discard the new members who had finally found a modicum of respect on the job with an integrated union. After the war, Bridges sought to replicate the Local 10 model, expanding inland and pressing other Locals to also embrace multiracial industrial unionism up and down the coast, though in places like Los Angeles white resistance was stiff. Nonetheless, Local 10 at that time boasted the most integrated body of any kind in the entire country, union or otherwise.
Peter Cole writes in Dockworkers Power:
On October 10, 1963, the year after Local 10 longshoremen refused to unload South African cargo (to be discussed shortly), nearly one hundred people protested a South African Marine Corporation ship in Brooklyn, and Local 1814 longshoremen—as planned—refused to cross this community picket line; this action consciously copied the earlier San Francisco one verbatim. A decade later, in 1974, ILA longshoremen in Mobile, Alabama, refused to unload South African coal. Although their primary motive was respecting a picket line of Alabama union miners (largely white and concerned about their own jobs), the mostly black longshoremen also sympathized with freedom movements in South Africa and Rhodesia, especially after hearing from the North American representative of the Zimbabwean African National Union. Also in the 1970s, radical Black and white longshoremen radical Black and white longshoremen in Baltimore and other ports occasionally protested Rhodesian chromium.
In 1976 members of Local 10 created their own Southern African Liberation Support Committee (SALSC), where Pan-Africanism and socialism once again blended together with a mix of worker direct action and gathering tons of supplies for African liberation movements in an act of mutual aid.
Not opposed to consumer boycotts or government sanctions, radical unionists believed working-class power to be strongest on the job and so, accordingly, pushed to boycott South African cargo. Direct action tactics harkened back to the IWW, the most radical union in the early twentieth century; recall the ILWU motto and most basic principle was and remains “an injury to one is an injury to all,” a slogan crafted by the Wobblies. The SALSC received rhetorical support for boycotts from the ILWU leadership, in July 1976, when the International Executive Board “instructed the titled officers to communicate with all locals regarding a boycott of all South African cargo, and to report back at the next meeting.” SALSC laid further groundwork by getting Local 10 members to pass a resolution condemning “The white minority governments of South Africa and Rhodesia [that] have by so-called law denied to the black majority of people in both nations basic human rights that in effect makes the white minority state the master and the black majorities the slaves.” Local 10 activists soon targeted South African cargo shipped by the Dutch company Nedlloyd. In late 1976 and early 1977, community activists coordinated with the Longshore-Warehouse Militant Caucus to protest the docking of the Nedlloyd Kimberley. Then, on Easter Sunday 1977, SALSC coordinated a two-day boycott of the Kimberley, part of a week of union actions worldwide against apartheid. A sympathetic Local 10 dispatcher selected workers committed to refusing to cross a community picket. Approximately five hundred people, many from churches, cheered the workers and hoisted banners declaring, “Apartheid is crucifixion.” Though the protestors were friendly, the Local 10 workers invoked their contract’s “health and safety” clause to justify not crossing the line, allowing them to pull off what outsiders might consider a strike without violating their contract with the PMA.
ILWU activists also screened the documentary film Last Grave at Dimbaza to educate people about apartheid and motivate them to join the struggle against it. This powerful movie, secretly filmed in 1973 and smuggled out of South Africa, showed the horrible suffering of black people, who endured such high infant mortality rates that scores of extra graves routinely were dug in anticipation of future deaths. Wright and Robinson showed the film to dozens of audiences up and down the Pacific Coast in the 1970s and 1980s, laying the groundwork for future actions. They paired Dimbaza with the documentary A Luta Continua, by African American filmmaker Robert Van Lierop, to raise support for Mozambican independence and, more generally, expand support for liberation across southern Africa. Indeed, an October 1984 screening of Last Grave at Dimbaza before about four hundred Local 10 members, approximately half African American, sparked the longest and most important workplace boycott against apartheid in US history. When new business commenced, Keylor offered a motion to boycott the next Nedlloyd ship carrying South African cargo. Robinson seconded the motion with an amendment to boycott only the South African cargo, which passed resoundingly. The timing was apt because, that autumn, a group of Black South African union miners had been arrested and faced long prison sentences. San Francisco Bay Area longshore workers had been educated about apartheid by SALSC and Longshore-Warehouse Militant Caucus for nearly a decade and so were primed to act, especially in solidarity with persecuted unionists, just as Local 10 protested authoritarianism in Chile, El Salvador, and elsewhere. On November 24, 1984, the Nedlloyd Kimberley, an older break-bulk (non-containerized) ship, arrived at San Francisco’s Pier 80 carrying South African cargo. Local 10 activists knew of its arrival thanks to Alex Bagwell, an African American in Local 34 (clerks) and Keylor’s contacts in Los Angeles. A Local 10 dispatcher “in” on the plan assigned workers committed to the boycott while a sympathetic clerk (called the supercargo) in charge of unloading the entire ship identified the targeted goods. Bill Proctor, a principal activist, dramatically recounted this moment: As luck would have it, South African cargo was not the only cargo, so we worked some breakbulk cargo from Argentina as I recall, then after about two hours, from below deck I heard our Ship’s Clerk yell up to me, “that’s it Proctor, nothing left down here but Razor Wire (Cortina) and Auto Glass from South Africa.” I then said, and I shall never forget it: “okay fellas, come on out of the hold, I ain’t hoisting one ounce of cargo from South Africa” and the movement of cargo came to a halt, we then left the ship. For the next ten days, a dispatcher assigned workers who supported the boycott. In solidarity, many Bay Area residents gathered daily at the pier’s gate. Community activists, in fact, also had pushed the longshoremen to boycott. Proctor recalled a group of Black women who taught in the San Francisco public schools (presumably unionists) who asked Robinson, “When are you Longshoremen going to do something, and not just take resolutions to your union’s convention?” Every day during the boycott, these teachers joined hundreds of others to support the longshoremen, who—after all—were violating their contract. On December 2, for example, about seven hundred people, many from unions, religious groups, and civil-rights organizations, rallied. Much later, as part of the Local 10 education program required for all new members, Robinson described the scene, “You couldn’t get from Army and 3rd Street to the gate of Pier 80 because it was jam packed with community organizations and people. A federal judge can’t do anything about that.” Some also joined the newly created Bay Area Free South Africa Movement. Among those who spoke that week were legendary activist and long-time Bay Area resident Angela Davis. Congressman Ron Dellums, who represented Oakland and Berkeley as perhaps the most radical House of Representatives member, also spoke, as did many others. As employers sought to end the standoff, and without overt support from international or Local 10 elected leaders, the dockworkers remained steadfast. When the PMA proposed that the ship unload elsewhere, ILWU locals in Stockton, Portland, and Seattle announced, in solidarity, their refusal to touch “hot cargo.” The PMA then filed a federal injunction, labeling the work stoppage illegal. Workers forfeited their minimum guaranteed weekly pay, predictably, but—more important—the judge declared that Local 10 would be fined $200,000 per day for failure to comply with the injunction he granted. This injunction also singled out Robinson and Keylor for fines of thousands of dollars per day. By the end of the eleven-day standoff, Local 10 faced more than $2 million in fines. Fearing reprisals, in addition to potential prison time, Local 10 president Larry Wing and secretary-treasurer Tom Lupher asserted the stoppage was not union-sanctioned but, rather, undertaken by individual workers. The Dispatcher quoted Lupher, “the workers’ boycott . . . was made on an ‘individual basis,’” despite the membership clearly having voted to stop work. The international leadership also backed this disingenuous assertion. In addition, Local 10 leaders worked behind the scenes with the Coast Labor Relations Committee (part of the ILWU-PMA grievance machinery) to end the standoff by not contesting the employers’ charge that the boycott violated the contract. Activists were chagrined by their elected leaders’ statements, but the union risked enormous fines and, arguably, had few alternatives despite quite possibly (albeit privately) supporting the action.
Finally bowing on the eleventh day to the injunction, Local 10 members unloaded the South African cargo. Some, including Keylor, Heyman, and others in the Militant Longshore-Warehouse Caucus, argued the boycott should be expanded. Led by Robinson and SALSC, however, most ILWU members endorsed ending the action, believing they had greatly heightened awareness, in the Bay Area and nationwide, of what people could do to combat apartheid. Community activist David Bacon later reflected, “That was the real birth of the anti-apartheid movement in northern California,” which became the Bay Area Free South Africa Movement.
The preceding stories offer only a cursory overview of one important but overlooked thread in American working class history. The history of the labor movement is Black history. African-Americans staged the first national general strike in American history to overthrow the Confederate States of America and force the United States to abolish chattel slavery. Since then the story of first asking, then demanding, and then taking has been repeated over and over by wave after wave of working class people: whether waged, unpaid or salaried. Though leaders come and go, the collective body of labor itself creates all wealth and can thus redistribute it as we see fit. These stories are littered with important names, but the anonymous majority are the engine of history. The self-organization of the multiracial working classes, not charismatic leaders and bosses, can make the engine turn whenever we so choose. In the words of C.L.R. James, every cook can govern.
Pan-African Social Ecology by Modibo Kadalie (available at the Hartford Public Library)
Organization & Spontaneity, the Theory of the Vanguard Party and its Application to the Black Movement in the U.S. Today by Kimathi Mohammed
Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign by Michael K. Honey
Michael K. Honey and Erroll Webber’s film Love and Solidarity is an exploration of nonviolence and organizing through the life and teachings of Rev. James Lawson.
Unruly Equality, U.S. Anarchism in the 20th Century by Andrew Cornell
Detroit I do Mind Dying by Dan Georgakas
Dockworkers Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area by Peter Cole
An Unseen Light: Black Struggles for Freedom in Memphis, Tennessee edited by Aram Goudsouzian and Charles W. McKinney Jr
Wobblies on the Waterfront by Peter Cole
Jerry Wurf, Labor’s Last Angry Man by Joseph Goulden