By Jim Reed
The scars from the uprisings in 2020 and the result of murders against black Americans in the US by the police still haven’t healed; it’s hard to say they ever will when put into the context of a system that led to the violent exploitation of man by man, and the wholesale robbery of Africa for labor and resources. Very little has been done to rectify these structures. But where is the mass movement that we saw in 2020 and 2021 for a time? The energy, the uprisings have left, but the work defunding the police that the reformist wings of the general movement have not been accomplished and have primarily been relegated to small grassroots organizations hanging on for dear life in the wake of the current global crisis in capital. But where one movement has lost some of its momentum, another has gained, and it may hold the key for the next rally into the streets (and make no mistake, there will be another uprising). There is a new labor movement in our midst, one that is infant, but the first one to be seen in the last 100 years. It’s everywhere, from coffee to warehouses, wins and losses alike. When it comes to improving the conditions of working people, no singular form of organizing has been responsible for the acquisition of better conditions than unions. But to understand the significance and what it could mean for the fight for racial equality, we must look back.
The Farm Equipment Workers of America (FE) got its claim to fame by organizing International Harvester (IH), one of the industrial juggernauts of the 19th and early 20th centuries. This small union, a member of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations), was renowned at its peak for being one of the most militant unions at the time. FE Local 236 was in Louisville Works, and this Local, from inception, had two objectives in mind:
- Preventing Harvester from exploiting workers by opening plants further south with drastically lower wages.
- Have anti-racism at the forefront of its strategy.
At that time, Louisville Works was one of the few integrated workplaces in a bid for “biracial industrialism.” Of course, this was on the terms of IH, as black workers were relegated to lower-paying jobs on top of being paid less than other plants. But the FE saw past the obvious con and doubled down on its staunch position of anti-racism that it had developed in Chicago in other plants where it fought for black laborers to be brought into the same jobs as white workers and union leadership. This would be very clear with Jim Wright, one of Local 236’s most early and dedicated organizers, and Fred Marrero elected its Secretary-Treasurer. Local 236 sent ripples all throughout the FE as some of the most fervent and militant in the union. Local 236’s fight did not stop at the shop floor; it poured into the streets of Louisville, where the union and some of its best and brightest activists both would truly put to the limits the paradigm of racial segregation through holding demonstrations, taking on the bosses in the shop and brawling with the police in the streets.
We can see a direct line between Louisville’s militant labor history and its contributions to the civil rights movement with today, where Louisville remains highly segregated in an age where unions were destroyed by concessionary bargaining, its most radical leadership (the communists) driven out; they tethered what’s left to the racist, imperialistic “Democratic” Party. Working people today have the opportunity to take the lessons learned from our most radical unions of our past and rebuild labor into a radical, anti-racist coalition of organized labor. We cannot fight a state that enforces white supremacy at the behest of capital without conceding the bonafide fact that we must organize capital’s root — labor. We must actively challenge the old unions from within and without, electing and promoting people of color into leadership and building the new unions into much stronger, more radical formations, willing to challenge capital on behalf of all workers. Liberal reformism has failed to produce the results necessary to address the problems of black workers, but when all workers fight together to improve the conditions of black workers, all workers benefit, as racism is not just a social and systemic mechanism for division but a justification for the increased exploitation of black workers, and all workers by proxy. Every working person will know where to begin, just as every working person who sees their exploitation at the behest of their oppressors is not afraid to face them. To every worker ready to fight on behalf of all workers, study the history of labor of Kentucky as it is your history, and seek to apply it. We have a world to win.
*The Long Deep Grudge by Toni Gilpin served as the main source of inspiration for this article.