Month: September 2015

Which One Are You?

The practice of politics is something that I was born into.

My grandmother, Dorothy Marie Boone-Anderson, was a community organizer during the Civil Rights Movement.  Being someone who left school in the eighth grade to work in the fields and help support her family, she understood that the only way oppression could stand was in the face of a hopelessly divided working class. She was someone who understood that building coalitions and activating the common spirit were indispensable qualities for a successful movement.

When my father first arrived on the job at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in 1982, he came home and told Grandma that someone had talked to him about joining the union. When she asked him if he had signed up for the union that first day, he said that he had not.

My grandmother was a woman of many qualities; introversion was not one of them. After getting a talking to about the importance of collective bargaining and working-class political power, he quickly joined the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. When he was moved to a different shop, he became a member of the Machinists. It is through that union that he continues his service to America’s working class.

Given this, it seems obvious that the discussion of current events around the dining room table were as much a part of my childhood as my grandmother’s delicious cornbread or the smell of roasted peanuts. The topics ranged from the local (usually around Suffolk politics or the Civic League that she belonged to) to the national (my father’s discussions about fighting the North American Free Trade Agreement’s passage in 1993). Even after my father moved away to pursue new job opportunities (he had been laid off from the shipyard in 1993; thanks a lot, President Clinton), the routine remained the same: Grandma would ask me what I wanted for breakfast; I would reply that I wanted the usual; and about twenty minutes later, I would come out to pancakes, bacon, black coffee with sugar, and the day’s Virginian-Pilot.

Through these conversations and my experience in American politics, I have learned one important lesson.

Labor Rights Are Civil Rights.

I debated whether I should write this. I feel like this far too often when I sit down to write lately, especially when it comes to addressing something as thoroughly empty as anything dealing with Black Lives Matter. That goes tenfold for anything that happens regarding Black Lives Matter within that razor-wired echo chamber known as social media. In fact, I had not planned on writing anything more about this, and I plan to go back to doing so once this piece is finished.

But witnessing this breathtaking display of rank stupidity compels me to point out a couple of things:

  1. People associated with Black Lives Matter have managed to put out precisely one detailed list of demands. Those demands are tightly focused around one issue. If you abhor the quick death of a policeman’s bullet but are hunky-dory with the slow death caused by out-of-control unemployment, health disparities and outcomes, and the degradation of America’s contract with its working class, then I have to ask which Black Lives Are Supposed To Be Mattering with these demands? And if you cannot articulate a comprehensive plan of action for your community of interest, then what are the protests if they are not symbolic?
  2. The March on Washington….For Jobs and Freedom. Look up those demands sometime, if you ever want an example of what an actual plan for liberation looks like. If you are the kind of person who likes substance and detail, perhaps the Freedom Budget, championed by labor leader and March on Washington organizer (and a Black man to boot!) A. Philip Randolph is more up your alley.
  3. Related to that last point, a Black man is head of America’s second largest labor union. A Black man (and an immigrant) is the Executive Vice President of the AFL-CIO. Black people have been the largest supporters of an expansion of labor rights, and they have been the backbone of one of the most successful labor campaigns in a generation, the Fight For 15. Black people are also more likely to identify as working class rather than middle class or wealthy. The notion that pointing out this fact, as well as pointing out that economic inequalities are reduced where workers can collectively bargain, is akin to someone saying that “all lives matter” is, well, out-of-touch with reality. And history.
  4. And since we are talking about Bernie Sanders not protesting with Black Lives Matter, maybe this has something to do with it? It is not really about him, but the amnesia that comes over certain sectors of online activism when it comes to this one candidate has gotten to be really bizarre.

I hate writing about this stuff because it honestly bores me, even more so when you can see the fast-approaching end game of all this. I would much rather be working on my blog piece about histories of leftism in the South, or be researching my dissertation, or be outside enjoying the abundant splendor that is life in Detroit.

But at a certain point, it becomes necessary for there to be a transcript. One that will let people who look back upon this stuff know that the conversation was not one-directional, and that there were people who legitimately cared about liberation and freedom who nevertheless opposed this mild reformism, infused with radical posturing. And one that states the painfully obvious: that if every police officer put down their guns and fully disarmed tomorrow, that this would do little to put food in the bellies of hungry children, or put a roof over the heads of the approximately 20,000 homeless in Detroit, or give our kids an education system that treats them as humans, and not just numbers or dollar signs.

Labor unions have been at the fore of fighting for all of those things. And not just that: the strength of a nation’s labor movement has been shown to positively affect the responsiveness of government to its most vulnerable (Bartels 2010) as well as the size of its social welfare state (Goldfield 1987; Esping-Anderson and Korpi 1983). The backing that the fights for civil rights, Medicaid, and Social Security had from the labor movement, and their successes, should prove that in multitudes.

Labor rights are civil rights. And if we really intend to make Black Lives Matter, perhaps a simple recognition of that easily researchable historical fact should be recognized.