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The Workers Run This Union: UE 150 and Black Workers For Justice Make Strides for Racial and Economic Justice in the South

Manju Rajendran
Date Published: 
January 13, 2009

Bosses often find the intense antagonism of white workers towards workers of color an easy wedge to divide their employees. In the context of the South’s long history of blacklisted and murdered unionists, white supremacist violence, plantation workplaces, and conservative churches, workers who stand up against racism and all other forms of oppression are a particularly bold breed. While many in the union movement may argue that intersectional politics are too complicated for “Joe the Plumber,” Black Workers For Justice (BWFJ) and Local 150 of the United Electrical Workers of America (UE 150) are two labor organizations that have discovered that boldly pursuing unity among all oppressed people is not only just, it is fruitful.

Organizations like BWFJ and UE 150 challenge the historical legacy of white workers—from the auto plants of Detroit to the shipyards of Alabama—striking to protest the promotion of black workers to production jobs. With women-led labor campaigns and anti-oppression leadership development, BWFJ and UE 150 are confronting the mistakes of Operation Dixie, the 1946-1953 Congress of Industrial Organization's (CIO) organizing drive in the South. This organizing effort failed largely due to anti-left hostility and the CIO’s unwillingness to directly take on Jim Crow.

Black Liberation

BWFJ is a North Carolina-based organization working to build the African-American workers' movement as a central force in the struggle for Black Liberation and worker's power. BWFJ emerged in 1981 out of a struggle led by Black women workers against race and gender discrimination at a K-mart store in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Since then BWFJ has supported women organizing in an undergarment manufacturing plant and Black and white workers fighting to prevent a lock manufacturing company from relocating to Mexico, amongst other campaigns.

In 1991 BWFJ led a broad coalition that marched on a Hamlet, North Carolina chicken processing plant where 33 employees had died in a fire. The campaign led to OSHA establishing stricter rules for safety in workplaces and drew national attention to the oppressive working conditions of the South. Currently, BWFJ is working with the HOPE Coalition (Help Our Public Employees) and UE 150 to win collective bargaining for public service workers.

BWFJ functions similarly to a workers center by empowering workers to take collective action at many different work sites, while offering a sophisticated political analysis, connecting union organizing to community organizing, and fostering international solidarity. Rukiya Dillahunt, a member of the BWFJ Executive Committee and member of the Women's Commission says, “Historically, we have always tried to encourage unions to come to North Carolina to help organize the workers. We set up worker committees in unorganized worksites, but we try to ultimately motivate unions to organize the South.”

People's Assemblies

Even at the end of a long workday, Nathanette Mayo, Steering Committee member of BWFJ and a Municipal Chair for UE 150, is enthusiastic as she describes BWFJ's current work: “We’ve been trying to use people’s assemblies to talk about what’s happening in our communities, our workplaces, clustering the concerns into issue areas, creating committees, creating a people’s platform, figuring out strategy for collective action we can do to support each other. We've talked about environmental justice, health care, worker’s rights, criminalization, the prison system, and stopping foreclosures. Workers have asked for educational forums around everything from immigration to Palestinian land struggles. And on the weekends, we try to sum up and assess the lessons we’ve learned from our political action work.”

Both organizations also lent critical support to the Obama campaign. Mayo explains, “These elections were a great opportunity to reshape the political landscape. We realized this was an opportunity for all freedom fighters to turn voters’ power into workers’ power or community power, so we had to be engaged. The Obama era is full of energy and possibility and it’s up to us to shape it. We have to push Obama to take stronger stands on things like immigration and ending the war on Iraq.”

Stepping beyond those labor organizations that oppose racism, BWFJ and UE 150 educate their members about national oppression. Long time BWFJ activist Saladin Muhammed explains why this is central: “National oppression takes on more factors than race. It includes, among other factors, where people live and work, and the social and political territories and institutions that effect them.” According to Angaza Laughinghouse, national chair of BWFJ and statewide president of UE 150, “the big unions see racism as a one-dimensional question—hiring, promotions, wage disparities. We see it as a dynamic multi-faceted question about creating healthy communities—stopping practices like forced sterilizations and dumping in communities of color.”

Laughinghouse breaks down how both organizations anchor themselves: “We understand that as the South goes, so goes the country. If we can’t take on the challenges of the South, we won’t be able to challenge the business unionism in the rest of the US. UE 150 gives us an opportunity for social justice unionism and international solidarity.”

UE Local 150

UE Local 150, North Carolina's public service workers union, organizes in a state that does not legally recognize collective bargaining rights for public sector workers—a so-called “right to work” state. This means that the union is not accorded the right to represent workers in negotiations with their employers over wages and other conditions of employment. In spite of this, UE 150 organizes workers and fights as if they were recognized, including taking on grievances and engaging in strikes when required. Local 150 is affiliated with the national union, United Electrical Workers, which has a deep commitment to building unions controlled by the rank and file and has historically embraced militant struggles against exploitation, white supremacy, and other forms of oppression that divide workers. BWFJ was instrumental in creating UE 150 and has been a steadfast ally in all their campaigns.

Larsene Taylor, Cherry Hospital worker and UE delegate for North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia, explains what makes her proud of her union: “It is a member-run rank-and-file organization. We're not like any other labor organizations with an upper echelon that makes all the decisions. Our national officers, by our constitution, never make more than our highest paid rank-and-file member. Each region has delegates who coordinate with the national board and the locals have a big voice in what happens.” Furthermore, Taylor explains, “Racial justice is one of our core principles. We believe in fairness. If one group gets all the promotions and advancements, and another group doesn't, we're going to fight it.”

And as far as North Carolia is concerned, Taylor claims that Local 150 “is the only organization that has made us aware about what it means to live in a right-to-work state.” This is why a critical fight for UE 150 has been to repeal North Carolina General Statute 95-98, which bans collective bargaining for public employees.

Mental health

This year UE 150 members launched a mental health workers campaign to promote standards that guarantee the rights of mental health workers and provide quality care for patients. The mental health care system in North Carolina is in an abysmal state. Each year over 1,000 workers are put out of work due to injuries and since December 2000 at least 82 patients have died questionably, including homicides and suicides. Health care technicians earn on average less than $24,000 per year and are forced to work overtime in unsafe and understaffed conditions to pay their bills.

In October 2008 workers voted in the Mental Health Workers Bill of Rights referendum, impacting ten of sixteen Department of Health and Human Services mental health institutions. The Mental Health Workers Bill of Rights provisions include the right to adequate staffing levels, a safe workplace and the right to defend oneself, the right to deny forced overtime, the right to family-supporting wages, the right to evaluate one’s boss, freedom from racism and sexism, collective bargaining, and more. So far their work has delayed the closing of Raleigh’s Dorothea Dix Hospital by at least six months, won 250 additional health care technician jobs, a wage increase for the lowest-paid workers, and improvement to the payroll system.

UE 150 also represents workers at area universities, where the union is pioneering efforts to collaborate with student organizers. Last year after the demonstrations in support of the Jena Six, racists hung nooses at UNC-Charlotte, NC State, and Eastern Carolina University to intimidate workers. UE 150 workers and students spoke out at press conferences at UNC-Charlotte, circulated a petition, and delivered a letter to university management. As a result, Senator Doug Berger of the eastern North Carolina counties drafted a hate crimes bill that would make it illegal for people to hang nooses or burn crosses to intimidate workers from organizing.

Larsene Taylor sums up her UE 150 experience, “In North Carolina, when we first started, you couldn't even say the word ‘union,’ but we've made great strides since then. It's been a very educational journey for our members. We've learned how our local government works, how to organize to get what we want, how to use the media, how to be better stewards of our workplaces, and support other workers, how to be better judges of our public officials. We've learned what you have to do to put pressure on them. I don't think we could have picked a better union. It's given us a united voice to speak out against all injustice... it's something about solidarity, locally and globally. We share as we learn things and help each other move along.”

Manju Rajendran is a 28-year old Southern Desi queer healer-organizer with Females United For Action, a group of young women and genderqueer youth from Chicago, and she is a member of Ubuntu and Southerners On New Ground. UE 150 and BWFJ have inspired her since her teens.

Other contributors: Dante Strobino, Josh Reynolds, and Ray Eurquhart.

For more information about:

Mental Health Workers Campaign,