The Black-Labor-Left Alliance in the Neoliberal Age
The report, A Future for Workers: A Contribution from Black Labor, brings together the perspectives and voices of significant black American trade union leadership to contribute to the important conversation concerning ways forward for labor and allied movements in these perilous times. The collective authors of the document, which was released in July 2015, bring a wealth of experience and standing in the trade union movement to ask: “What is it that workers need and want? How can this then become not the ‘special interests’ of an isolated labor movement, but a robust agenda that can rally the bottom 99 percent to collective action?” Their responses seek with mixed success to advance our strategic thinking with regard to building the broad movement necessary to “rally the bottom 99 percent.”
Those questions have occupied the labor-left for decades, at least since the systematic business attack on unions and social wage policies became visible in the 1980s. These issues drove the insurgent mood that grew out of the anti-concessions and NAFTA fights in the 1980s and early 1990s and the organizational expressions that emerged from the cauldron of those fights. The latter included the effort to build a politically independent Labor Party centered in the union movement, the more electoral, less specifically class-based approach of the New Party and then Working Families Party, the sometimes quasi-syndicalist styles of activist organizing and politics associated with the “new unionism,” and most of all the sea change in the AFL-CIO represented in the New Voices alliance embodied by John Sweeney, Richard Trumka, and Linda Chavez-Thompson—who were swept into the Federation’s leadership in 1995. Of course, many, if not most of the authors of A Future for Workers were involved in some or all of those currents, and the analyses and strategic thinking they present reflect that experience.
The document has three components–an assessment of the political situation that confronts us; an extensive list of policy and program recommendations in the areas of Jobs and Economic Development, the Environment, Criminal Justice, Distribution of Wealth, Education, Tolerance and Equity, and the Labor Movement; and a more general argument about the approach necessary to build a movement capable of winning those objectives. A Future for Workers underscores the massive increases in inequality that have occurred since the 1970s and that have intensified since the 2007/08 financial crash. The policy recommendations are, for the most part, initiatives that would make life demonstrably better for working people and the society as a whole and that could be readily adopted with only a change in government priorities and the prevailing terms of political debate. Most of those proposals are in the vein of general policy directions rather than nuts and bolts initiatives, and they are in line with the broad current of progressive policy proposals that have been circulating for some time now. Among labor activists, they would not be controversial.
The specific reform proposals are less significant than their source, however. Especially in light of the controversy sparked in the past year by Black Lives Matter activists concerning the relation between black and working-class political agendas, a statement from black American labor leaders articulating a perspective that connects racial injustice and broader economic inequalities suggests a programmatic and interpretive framework that could help bridge tensions and divisions that only benefit corporate power and the political right. A Future for Workers points to challenges we face in generating and sustaining the broad solidarities necessary to turn the political tide in a direction that makes the interests and basic concerns of working people the top priority. It likens black workers to the “canary in the mine” because they commonly are hit earliest and especially hard by economic crises and assaults; yet what happens to them as the most vulnerable workers will before long affect those somewhat less vulnerable, and so on until all workers and our living and working conditions are under full-scale attack.
In linking race and class inequalities, A Future for Workers follows in a tradition of black trade union activism that reaches back to A. Philip Randolph and the black-labor-left alliance that was a crucially important force in American politics through the first three decades after World War II. In its understanding of what those links are and what we can do about them, however, it also reflects the degree to which neoliberal notions of equality and social justice have in crucial and unhelpful ways compromised the terms of working-class resistance to injustice. For example, embrace of the presumptions of contemporary anti-racist politics leads the document’s authorsto contend that increasing diversity in the union movement is pivotal for reversing labor’s decline, even though both membership and leadership have become more diverse precisely in the period of steepest decline. Moreover, it is unclear even what a “genuine national dialogue on race and racism” could be, much less how it could proceed and what impact it could have on congealing a broadly based working-class movement.
Randolph and his Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters led the original March on Washington Movement that pressured President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 to issue Executive Order 8802 barring discriminatory employment practices among defense contractors and federal agencies. The 1944 volume, What the Negro Wants, a collection of analyses by prominent leftist, centrist, and conservative black public figures edited by historian Rayford Logan, indicated a consensus among black racial advocates across the ideological spectrum that a strong industrial union movement and expansion of social wage policies were essential for black Americans’ continuing success in pursuit of racial justice and equality.[i] That alliance was crucial in winning the major victories of the civil rights movement–from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was pivotal, through Randolph’s Negro American Labor Council (NALC), in mobilization for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom, and in the struggle for state and federal Fair Employment Practices legislation. The alliance was also instrumental in the struggle for social wage policies such as Medicare and the War on Poverty.
In 1966 Randolph and the AFL-CIO’s new A. Philip Randolph Institute published A “Freedom Budget” for All Americans, anchored by the objectives of reducing unemployment to less than 3 percent by 1968 and poverty to no more than 1 or 2 percent by 1975.[ii] The Freedom Budgetcalled for: increase of the federal minimum wage to a level that would lift the working poor out of poverty, provision of guaranteed income above the poverty level for those unable to work, guaranteed access to affordable, good-quality housing for all, access to proper medical care for all, as well as educational opportunity for all “up to the limits of their abilities and ambitions, at costs within their means,” expansion of funding for the public sector to repair and improve physical infrastructure, maintainenance of adequate environmental standards, and expansion of public transportation.[iii]
Randolph had pointed out at the March on Washington that the “Civil Rights Revolution is not confined to the Negro; nor is it confined to civil rights, for our white allies know that they cannot be free while we are not, and we know that we have no future in a society in which six million black and white people are unemployed and millions more live in poverty…Yes, we want a Fair Employment Practices Act, but what good will it do if profit-geared automation destroys the jobs of millions of workers, black and white? We want integrated public schools, but that means we also want federal aid to education–all forms of education.”[iv] In publicly introducing the Freedom Budget he stressed that, although blacks would benefit disproportionately from its proposed interventions, the Budget should not be seen as a civil rights initiative. He noted that “while most Negroes live in poverty and desperation, it is not true that most of the poor are Negroes. We must not forget that 75 percent of the poor are white. No less than Negroes are they denied adequate income, decent housing, quality education, sufficient health care and security.”[v]
Arguably, that mid-1960s moment was the apogee of the social-democratic black-labor-left alliance as the social movement that Randolph and others had struggled for so long to build and sustain. The Freedom Budget can be seen, although only in retrospect, as a last-ditch effort to assert a politics based on commitment to full employment against an emerging Democratic liberalism that began moving away from that commitment in the Kennedy administration, when policymakers began to disconnect both poverty and racial inequality from the larger dynamics of American capitalist political economy. The Freedom Budget initiative did not gain traction, and by the middle of the 1970s the germs of what would later become neoliberalism had begun to take shape. Our current political situation–including the dominant perspectives on the relation of race and class in American life and politics—has evolved from that shift, which solidified as a new regime based on the absolute priority of business- and investor-class interests under the Reagan and Clinton presidencies.
One difference is that today it is no longer true that the poor are 75 percent white. The waves of immigration initially made possible by the Act of 1965 have changed the racial make-up of the American population, with the result that in addition to the over 18 million white and the over 11 million black poor, around 5 million Latinos and 2 million Asians and Pacific Islanders are living in poverty. Which makes it even more urgent that we recognize the need to galvanize a broad political alliance capable of shifting the center of gravity in American politics to give priority to the interests, needs, and concerns of working people and their families—who are the substantial majority of the American population–of all races, genders, sexual orientations, ages, and every immigration status. Randolph and the black labor-left of his time proceeded from a political understanding that racial inequality is most consequentially rooted in the workings of capitalist political economy. The Freedom Budget advanced that view, for example, through an argument concerning the disparate impacts of increases in unemployment, which, it notes, tend to be concentrated among the most vulnerable populations.
These would be the older workers; the young people seeking to enter the labor force for the first time; the semi-skilled and relatively unskilled; the nonwhites rather than the whites, and the women rather than the men, insofar as discrimination against nonwhites and women remained, or because discrimination during the past century and longer has prevented nonwhites and women on the average from having the degree of training and education which others have. But to say that this would be the reason why they became unemployed would be like saying that, if half of the people in a lifeboat died from exposure because they were not as strong as the others in the boat, the cause was the condition of their health, not the shipwreck. Likewise if there were too few lifeboats, and the strong kept the weak out….
To state all this in a different way, the fact that Negroes tend to be the first fired and the last hired when jobs are insufficient should not prevent us from recognizing that this phenomenon, so central to the racial problem, would not exist if there were jobs for all. This, of course, does not deny the need for anti-discrimination efforts; excessive unemployment is no excuse for discrimination in the imposition of the evil.[vi]
A very different perspective on pursuit of racial justice has arisen since the 1990s. As with any ideology, one element of neoliberalism’s triumph, its broad internalization as unreflected-upon common sense, has been its success in reinterpreting the past in ways that read its worldview back and forth across historical eras as the deepest truth of social life. That is one mechansim through which the infamous TINA–There Is No Alternative –dictum is implanted and reproduced. In light of that dynamic, it is significant that the dominant interpretive tendency in both scholarship and commentary concerning black American politicsstresses celebration of black “agency” and reduces black political history to either inspirational stories of individual triumph over obstacles,accounts of “resistance” to an essentially unchanging, transhistorical racism or white supremacy or pursuit of fundamentally quietistic goals such as “autonomy,” “community,” and “family.” This perspective severs black politics from its historical and social contexts and to that extent fits comfortably with and reinforces–in line with Margaret Thatcher’s quip that “There is no such thing [as society]! There are individual men and women andthere are families”[vii]–the neoliberal denial of historical specificity, the significance of political institutions, and, most of all, class dynamics.
In particular, a revisionist understanding of the heroic period of postwar black political struggle airbrushes out its class character and reinvents both the civil rights insurgency and the Jim Crow social order without their political-economic foundations. The reinvention projects instead a purely moralistic conflict between racism and its victims, a narrative of generic black suffering and occasionally overcoming, sprinkled with encomia to the accomplishments and magnetism of larger than life, great black individuals.[viii] That could not be more fundamentally at odds with the vision articulated by Randolph and the black labor-left. Yet it is perfectly compatible with neoliberalism’s market-based moral order of a world made up of good people and bad people and in which the social collectivity is replaced by voluntarism and self-reliance led by exemplary individuals.
In the same vein, during the last decade or so an antiracist politics that stresses exposing and challenging apparent racial disparities has risen to the fore in public discourse as mediated through the corporate mass information industry, including the blogosphere. This politics, as exemplified most recently in the current associated with the Black Lives Matter slogan, rests on a racial expressivism that is at least evocative of the race-first Black Power nationalism that emerged from the defeat of the black labor-left alliance in the late 1960s. And, like Black Power, it is more performative than strategic. It also insists, perhaps even more emphatically than Black Power radicalism, that all apparent injustices experienced by black Americans must be understood to stem most fundamentally from reified notions of racism or white supremacy–ideas stripped from historical context and treated as forces capable of acting to produce outcomes in the world.
But the black political insurgency of the 1950s and 1960s did not battle an abstraction like racism. It certainly congealed around a commitment to improving black Americans’ circumstances. However, the objectives that mobilized and sustained that insurgent politics as a movement were concrete and historically specific: from challenging segregation of public transit in Montgomery and in public accommodations generally in Greensboro and elsewhere, to the ongoing fight for legislative and judicial prohibition of codified racial discrimination in employment, education, housing (including state enforcement of nominally private discrimination, as in restrictive real estate covenants that depended on legal sanction of housing discrimination and the federal government’s subsidy of the real estate industry’s racialized system of valuation and mortgage brokers’ racialized system of financing) and other areas, as well as for federal civil rights and voting rights legislation. As Randolph and others made clear, the movement’s objectives were not reducible only to specifically racial issues because most black Americans are working class, and therefore anything that advances the interests of the working class is pertinent for them.
As Randolph observed, a focus on disparities without simultaneous attention to the larger structures of inequality and dispossession is self-defeating. That criticism should have more force now than it had then because overall inequality has intensified exponentially, and challenging disparities does not address that intensifying inequality.[ix] Instead, contemporary anti-racist politics proceeds from a notion of justice based on the premise that social and economic costs and benefits should be distributed on a principle of racial parity, which is consistent with the liberal anti-racist ideal of genuine equality of opportunity. That view sidesteps the class-based political vision articulated by the black labor-left, and in some cases actively rejects it as a racially inauthentic, “white” or “brocialist” expression of white supremacist privilege, and thus a discourse of oppression. As I have pointed out elsewhere, according to that anti-racist perspective, the society could be just if one percent of the population controlled 90 percent of the resources so long as 12 percent of the one percent were black, half were female, and so on. That is the quintessence of what we might call the left-neoliberal ideal of social justice–sharp and intensifying inequality combined with (more or less sincere and enthusiastic) commitment to diversity. [x]
Randolph, his and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s associate Bayard Rustin and others also understood that attacking the larger dynamics of capitalist inequality requires a broadly- based social and political movement anchored to a social-democratic agenda. That sort of movement can be built only on the basis of solidarities grounded and cultivated on perception of shared social position, experience, and objectives, and that perception can take hold only in the context of common struggle for shared goals. However, a politics that elevates challenging disparities over fighting for broad social wage policy and redistribution along social-democratic lines is incompatible with the project of building those solidarities. And that incompatibility stems ultimately from the fact that anti-disparitarian anti-racism is not an alternative to a class politics; it is a class politics. It is just not a working-class politics.[xi]
In reasserting the project of that historic black labor-left politics, A Future for Workers can encourage us to consider carefully the nature of the system and regime we are up against, how the structures of intensifying inequality are reproduced, and in particular, how it makes sense to think about the relation between racial and class inequalities and how race and class dynamics–including how we think about race and class dynamics– can affect our sense of the political options available to us and the directions we should pursue.
[i] Rayford Logan, ed., What the Negro Wants (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944).
[ii] For a very good discussion of the Freedom Budget, its genesis and the politics around it, and the defeat of the campaign for it, see Paul Le Blanc and Michael D. Yates, A Freedom Budget For All Americans (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013).
[iii] A. Philip Randolph Institute, A “Freedom Budget” For All Americans: Budgeting Our Resources 1965-1975 to Achieve “Freedom From Want,” (New York: A. Philip Randolph Institute, 1966), 2-3.
[iv] “Address of A. Philip Randolph at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” in For Jobs and Freedom: Selected Speeches and Writings of A. Philip Randolph (Amherst & Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014), 261-262.
[v]For Jobs and Freedom, 286-287.
[vi]Freedom Budget, 29-30.
[vii]Margaret Thatcher interview, Woman’s Own, September 23, 1987, p. 18, at http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106689 .
[viii] I do not intend to suggest that the dynamic generating this cultural hegemony is orchestrated, though it sometimes is advanced through self-conscious propaganda, as in films like the pro-charter school documentary, Waiting for Superman and its fictional counterpart Won’t Back Down. Perhaps more meaningfully, though, the ideology travels through more naïve repetition of common sense narratives. I have discussed the role of widely disseminated black-themed popular culture in illustrating and propagating neoiberal common sense dressed up as racial pride and authenticity in several essays in recent years. See Adolph Reed, Jr.: “Three Tremes,” nonsite.org, July 4, 2011; “Django Unchained, or, The Help: How ‘Cultural Politics’ Is Worse Than No Politics at All, and Why,” nonsite.org, February 25, 2013; “The Real Problem with Selma: It Doesn’t Help Us Understand the Civil Rights Movement, the Regime It Challenged, or even the Significance of the Voting Rights Act,” nonsite.org, January 26, 2015 and “The Strange Career of the Voting Rights Act: Selma in Fact and Fiction,” New Labor Forum 24 (Spring 2015): 32-41 and “The James Brown Theory of Black Liberation,” Jacobin # 18 (Summer 2015).
[ix] The late historian, Michael B. Katz provides a useful and accessible account of the evolution of urban and metropolitan racial and economic inequality since World War II that decomposes the historical and political-economic processes driving it in Why Don’t American Cities Burn? (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).
[x] Adolph Reed, Jr., “Marx, Race, and Neoliberalism,” New Labor Forum 22 (Winter 2013): 53-54. Also see Walter Benn Michaels, The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007).
[xi]See, e.g., editorials on “Reparations and Other Right-Wing Fantasies,” at nonsite.org, February 11, 2016.
Adolph Reed Jr. Reed is aprofessor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He is completing a book on the decline and transformation of the U.S. Left since World War II, and recently co-authored, with Mark Dudzic, “The Crisis of Labour and the Left in the United States” in the Socialist Register.