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Black Working Class Radicalism In Detroit, 1960-1970

By Dr. Luke Tripp (2009)

Black Radical Leadership

Race and class struggles in the U.S.A. were concretely expressed at their highest levels in Detroit during the turbulent 1960s when Black nationalism was strong and the New Left was growing. The political confluence of these two movements produced the DODGE Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), which represented one of the most radical tendencies in America during that era.

This paper examines and explores the cultural aspects of radicalism among Black automobile workers in Detroit in the 1960s from the vantage point of autobiographical experience and a Marxian framework. It considers some of the cultural factors that accounted for the emergence of a revolutionary Black workers' organization. Among those factors were the history and lifestyles of the factory workers, and the roles that young Black Marxists played in building a radical organization.

Among the critical issues that DRUM addressed were the efficacy of an all Black union as opposed to a Black caucus within a White dominated union, and the effectiveness of various strategies for dealing with White workers, White union officials, and White managers of corporations. To provide a historical context and analytical framework to discuss these major issues, which were historic in origin, and to comprehend the depth of them requires us to review, however briefly, the history of organized labor in America and the attempts of Black workers to gain influence in the labor movement and equality in the workplace.

Early History of Labor Movement

Since slavery Black workers have made collective efforts to better their condition through participation in the American labor movement. But this has always been difficult because of anti-Black racism. The anti-Black hostility in the American labor movement has deep historical roots. Contrary to the image of unions as promoters of interracial unity and class solidarity, their history demonstrates that they largely share the same racist values and attitudes as the rest of American society. As we shall see, White workers, in general, viewed Black workers as lower-wage competitors who threatened the security of their jobs and the social status of their occupations rather than as working class brothers. And their labor unions either excluded Black workers or segregated them in subordinate structures or relegated them to secondary roles.

The first national labor organization, the National Labor Union which was founded in 1866, adopted a segregationist policy which provided for the subordinate affiliation of separate Black unions. Two other early unions formed in 1869, the Colored National Union which was organized by Black workers, and the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor which was White controlled, called for the unity of workers without regard to race or color. Although the Knights of Labor in some instances did attempt to unify Black and White workers in some struggles, Black workers remained subject to White chauvinism and control.

Succeeding the Knights of Labor in terms of prominence was the American Federation of Labor (AFL) which was established in 1881 and continues to be a major force in organized labor today. Like its predecessors, it too subordinated Black workers into segregated affiliates (Foster, 1973). Perhaps the only major White controlled union that made the sincerest effort to eliminate racial barriers in its structure was the Industrial Workers of the World which was founded in 1905 (Foner, 1974).

Black Unionism

In the 1920s, the first influential national Black union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was established under the leadership of a Black socialist, A. Philip Randolph, and affiliated with the AFL. Although it had some successes in improving the conditions of its members, the edge of its militancy was dulled by the White leadership of the AFL.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Black radical unionists, some of whom were Communists,  made several attempts to organize Black workers and influence White workers. In 1925 they organized the American Negro Labor Congress which called for "militant methods of struggle on the part of Negro workers and farmers, in alliance with class conscious White workers" (Alkalimat, 1984, p.134). However, its call for a united front against the segregated unions and the capitalist class went unheeded. Not surprisingly, it was also condemned by the AFL. Other  attempts by the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, the Unemployed Councils, and the National Negro Congress to establish radical Black working class organizations in the 1930s met the same fate (Alkalimat, 1984).

What at first appeared to be a White hope in the union movement in the latter 1930s turned out to be another illusion of interracial solidarity in class struggle. The emergence of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1937, which included the most progressive White forces in the labor movement and Black workers, suggested that a significant segment of organized labor was ready to present a united front against conservative White unions and corporate power. However, as Alkalimat noted, during the 1940s and 1950s the most progressive White unionist in the CIO were labeled unpatriotic communist sympathizers and expelled. By 1955 a more conservative CIO merged with an even more conservative AFL (Alkalimat, 1984).

Realizing again the need for a militant progressive organization to advance their interest, Black workers formed the National Negro Labor Council (NNLC) in 1951 to fight against discrimination on the job and racism within the unions. When they used diplomatic approaches in dealing with White union leaders, they were rebuffed time and again. Furthermore, for advocating the election and appointment of Blacks to  higher union leadership positions, they were denounced as advocates of reverse racism. In the political climate of the 1950s, which was marked by anti-communist hysteria, virtually any group that challenged the status-quo was automatically labeled a communist group. In 1956 the NNLC had to appear before the Subversive Activities Control Board to defend itself against charges that it was a Communist-front organization. Rather than allowing itself to be withered away by legal expenses, a common tactic used by the U.S. government to cripple or destroy progressive organizations, the NNLC voted to dissolve itself.

But the problems for Black workers did not fade away. Racism at the work site as well as in the labor unions persisted. However, a growing defiant mood was manifested in the Black community as evidenced by the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 and the beginning of the student sit-in movement in February 1960. The fire of Black assertiveness spread among organized Black workers and in May 1960, Black AFL-CIO unionist at the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) created the Negro American Labor Council (NALC) to pressure the White leadership of the AFL-CIO to eliminate racism. Predictably, the White union leaders, using the time-worn tactic of blaming the victim, responded by charging the NALC with creating a division between White workers and Black workers.

Nevertheless, the NALC was strengthened by the rise in Black consciousness and militancy during the 1960s and it joined with the major civil rights organizations (NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) and led the 1963 March on Washington to demand full employment policies and an end to racial discrimination.

From this historical sketch of the history of the struggle between Black workers and organized White labor we should be able to comprehend the depth of the problems that DRUM had with the White controlled United Automobile Workers whose acronym UAW came to mean " You Ain't White" to Black workers. The White officialdom of the UAW was a foe of DRUM.

Racism and the UAW

Although the UAW claimed to be the champion of justice and racial equality, its own almost exclusively White executive structure and racist practices betrayed just the opposite. In the 1960s, Walter Reuther, the head of the UAW, fostered the illusion that the UAW was a progressive union that was supportive of the civil rights movement by making it a point of personally participating in highly publicized demonstrations and marches led by Martin Luther King. But he did little to check the rampant racism practiced in his union or the factories. Thus Black workers had to confront racism on two major fronts.

Family Background

Who were the Black workers and organizers who founded DRUM? Essentially, they were Black proletarians with southern roots. To answer this question more fully, I will draw upon my own experience to some extent. My family history was typical of the backgrounds of most Black workers who worked in the auto industry in the 1960s. My parents, who sought a better life, were part of the large migration of Black people from the South to the industrial North in the 1940s. My father worked in auto plants on- and-off depending on the fluctuations of the business cycle. As the son of an auto worker growing up in a working class family during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, I observed and experienced the life style of a significant segment of the Black working class.

The cultural background of my parents was Southern, characterized by fairly tight kinship relations, limited formal education--generally not exceeding high school, and manual labor. Most Black auto workers during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s were Southern born. However, significantly, in the 1960s there was an influx of the first generation of young Black workers who were raised in the North. It was these workers, less compliant and submissive to White authority than their parents, who became the backbone of DRUM. They were part of my generation who experienced and observed the humiliating racial segregation in our daily lives. We were routinely assigned to the lower academic track in the Detroit public schools regardless of ability or skills; we were not welcomed in many downtown restaurants; we were only offered the most menial jobs; we were harassed daily and brutalized frequently by a virtually all-White police force; and we were blatantly discriminated in housing and health care.

These oppressive conditions of daily life contradicted the golden image of a fair, democratic, equality based America, which was created and fostered by the media and the schools we attended. This contradiction was especially glaring to us during the height of the cold war. The cold war propaganda of the U.S. during the 1950s and 60s which negatively portrayed the Soviet Union and China as dictatorial police states in which people were devalued and their basic freedoms were denied seemed to some of us to be an accurate description of the life of Black people in the U.S. The hypocrisy of American style democracy intensified our anger and pushed some of us toward an activist orientation. If the U.S. government was willing to engage in nuclear warfare with the possibility of destroying the planet in the name of "protecting freedom" then why shouldn't we be willing to fight for our own freedom in America? This question reflected the sentiments of the first wave of activists of my generation.

A few of my working class peers and I were fortunate to attend college right after high school graduation. Generally, we were the first in our families to go to college. I began my college career at the end of the Eisenhower era of conservative conformity and status quo racism. I went through high school as an angry Black student who was interested in socialist ideas and social change. However, my socialist leanings did not come from exposure to socialist literature, but rather from my egalitarian values and my repugnance to capitalist values. In my first year of college in 1960, the Black college students in the South who led the sit-in movement served as the inspiration and the role model for me to become an activist.

At Wayne State University I was attracted to socialist groups, which advocated struggle against racism and capitalism. It was through my contacts with these groups that I met young people who were interested in fighting racism through direct action. Together with a few of my Black friends whom I met on campus, we organized the Detroit Chapter of the Friends of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee in 1961 and participated in Civil Rights demonstrations in both the South and the North. However, most of us who were Black did not subscribe to the philosophy of nonviolence nor to the belief that racism and social inequality could be abolished within a capitalist system. Subsequently, we organized several radical student based organizations including the Black Action Committee and Uhuru. Our activities were directed mainly against racial discriminatory practices of businesses in the Black community.

By 1963, there was a core of us who strongly identified with the world-wide socialist revolutionary movement, especially in Cuba and China. Four of us in Uhuru, in defiance of the U.S. travel ban to Cuba, visited Cuba in 1964 to express our solidarity with the Cuban revolution. After our inspirational visit to Cuba we intensified our struggle against U.S. imperialism and racism. In the Black community, we led a militant anti-draft campaign against the Vietnam War , and we organized and led numerous demonstrations against police brutality and businesses that did not employ Black people or restricted them to low level jobs.

Through the 1960s, racial tension continued to build in Detroit until the great upheaval in 1967, which was the biggest and bloodiest Black rebellion in the 1960s. It was in the aftermath of this spontaneous rebellion that we radical Black activists established the Inner City Voice (ICV), a monthly newspaper designed to radicalize and organize the Black community. We wanted to build a broad based organization comprised mainly of workers and students. Our plan was to build a revolutionary political party based on organized Black workers for the purpose of struggling against racism and capitalism. Our vision was a revolutionary transformed America free of racism and capitalism, a society based on humanitarian and egalitarian values.

Our rationale for focusing primarily on Black auto workers was that we understood that the auto industry was vital to the U.S. economy, and that black auto workers played a critical role in production. Thus, we reasoned that an organized force of Black auto workers, by virtue of their strategic position and labor power, could effectively make political demands. Moreover, we believed that organized Black workers, more than any other segment of our community, constituted the force with the greatest power to pressure the ruling capitalist class for social change.

We also understood the significance of the material basis for Black consciousness and Black solidarity. Furthermore, we knew that residential segregation, industrial segregation, occupational segregation, and work-shift segregation had created the concrete conditions which dictated the range of effective strategies for organizing Black workers in our community.

The emergence of DRUM in Detroit in the 1960s can be partly explained by the characteristics of the city, especially its Black community. Detroit is an industrial city whose rhythm is influenced by the throb of the production of vehicles in the automobile plants. Industrial capitalism imposed an assembly line discipline on the city and fostered a concrete life of nuts and bolts: go-to-work, rest, back-to-work, party on the weekend, repeat. The physical intensity and monotony of assembly line work shaped the life styles and attitudes of Black workers and made them receptive to appeals for militancy and change.

The Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM)

Our first organization of Black workers was called The Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM). The principle organizer of DRUM was a ICV cadre member with a student history of radicalism who was employed at Chrysler's Dodge assembly plant in Hamtramck, a small city completely surrounded by Detroit. To provide a context for the emergence of DRUM, we should consider the concrete conditions that existed in 1968, conditions that generally prevailed throughout all industries.

At the Dodge assembly plant, Black workers constituted an estimated 60 percent of the work force, and virtually all were in low skilled and semi-skilled positions (See power structure figure). Black workers were almost invariably assigned to the most onerous and lowest paying jobs. Generally, as the proportion of Black workers grew in the factory, the working conditions tended to deteriorate. Tasks that had been performed by two White workers were assigned to one Black worker. Black workers characterized this as niggermation.

These harsh conditions in the plant reminded Black workers of their legacy of centuries of oppression under slavery. It was common for Black workers to use the analogy of the plantation to describe their  awful working conditions and servile Black workers (toms) who kissed-up to their White bosses.

Plant power structure

General Mangers

Middle Level Managers

Technical Experts

Administrative Support

Production Boundary Line

Plant Supervisors

Foremen

Skilled Workers

Semi-skilled Workers

Concentration of Black Workers

Low –skilled Workers

 

FROM COTTON PLANTATION TO AUTOMOBILE PLANTATION: SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES

 

INDIVIDUAL LEVEL

               

Social Aspect

Black Slave

Black Worker

Labor rights

Legally none

Freedom to refuse work, but no right to work

Market value

Commodity

Labor power

Right to organize

None

Limited

Remuneration

None

Under paid

Autonomy

None

Little

 


 

 

SYSTEM LEVEL

 

Social Aspect

Plantation

Industrial Plant

Supervision

Close/Oppressive

Close/Oppressive

Political

Totalitarian

Authoritarian

Work

Monotonous /Hard

Monotonous /Strenuous

Racial

White dominance

White dominance

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