Blog Posts


by Ellen Isaacs

Should June 19 be a day to celebrate the end of chattel slavery, sob about the delayed emancipation of 200,000 slaves in Texas, rage over the 150 year continuation of racism, or resolve to continue the fight to end racist wage slavery and war? Despite the urge of black Americans to seize a day to celebrate their own freedom and empowerment, there are many reasons why the events remembered on this day obscure the many anti-racist battles that have been and must be fought by workers.

Two years before June 19, 1865 came Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which excluded slave states that were not in rebellion against the Union – Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, and Missouri – and Texas, which was not a battleground. In fact, many planters and other slaveholders decamped to Texas with over 150,000 slaves in tow, in order to escape the raging Civil War. In June, 1865, after the surrender of General Robert E Lee and the Union victory in New Orleans, word finally came to Galveston, Texas that the slaves were free. In fact, the 13th Amendment, officially ending slavery throughout the country, was not passed until December, 1865.

Moreover, Abraham Lincoln, lionized as the liberator of slaves, was no believer in the equality of blacks. In 1858, Lincoln said, “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races…” Lincoln favored setting up colonies for blacks in Africa and Central America and requested funds from Congress to deport freed slaves. His main motive for fighting the Civil War was preservation of the unity of the United States, not abolishing slavery.

Other history we do not learn about or celebrate is that of the multitude of rebellions against slavery, many of them interracial, from the 1600s to the 1800s. In their book The ManyHeaded Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Reducer document many of these. Among them are the Barbados rebellions in 1649, which united Irish and African slaves; Bacon’s rebellion in Virginia in 1676, which united slaves and white indentured servants; the New York City Conspiracy of 1741, which united African Americans, white indentured servants, sailors, and Irish immigrants; Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831; and John Brown’s multiracial antislavery campaign culminating at Harper’s Ferry. Of course, the most successful was the Haitian rebellion, which abolished slavery and colonization on that island by 1804.

Racism Never Ended

At the end of the Civil War, freed slaves became wage laborers on former plantations, sharecroppers, or domestics. For a short time, their well-being was protected by federal troops during Reconstruction from 1865-77. Once this protection was withdrawn, white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan flourished, often made up of local law enforcement. This Jim Crow era was characterized by the open murder of thousands of black workers, rampant imprisonment, impoverishment and indebtedness of former slaves and total segregation.

Although many of these abuses were gradually mitigated through mass migrations of black workers to the North through the end of World War !!, court decisions, and then the Civil Rights Movement, racism has continued to flourish in the all parts of the U.S. Today wage differentials between white men and black and Latin workers add up to almost $800 billion dollars a year, nearly half of annual corporate profits. Differences in social spending on such services as education, health care and housing add up to hundreds of billions more dollars, making it clear that American capitalism would be hard put to survive without racism. Black workers continue to be incarcerated at five times the rate of whites and be murdered disproportionately by police, accounting for 63% of those killed (223 deaths in 2017) while comprising 13% of the population. No cop has ever been convicted for murder of a black American. Schools, hospitals, and neighborhoods are just as segregated today as they were 50 years ago.

All Workers Are Hurt by Racism

It is popular today to talk about “white privilege”, as if white workers created racism (even though many may harbor racist ideas), benefit from it or should be paralyzed or separate themselves because of guilt. In fact, anti-black racism was purposely and methodically created in the U.S. of the 1600-1700s to justify slavery and separate white indentured servants and poor farmers from Black slaves. (see Before that there had been social mixing and intermarriage between whites and non-whites. Racist propaganda continues unabated today, from pseudo-scientific theories of racial differences to racist stereotypes in the media and tolerance of white supremacist groups and utterances by politicians.

What the ruling class fears is us recognizing is that the lowered standards for wages, health, education, housing bring down the standards for everyone, even as black, Latin and other minority groups continue to be super-exploited. Even more important, the separation into different schools, neighborhoods, job categories, unions, and neighborhoods keeps us divided when only multiracial mass action would enable us to fight back effectively. Ultimately, as we have seen, capitalism relies on racism for profits and to minimize rebellion. US rulers also rely on racism to win workers, white, black and immigrant, to fight foreign wars for markets and resources by painting Muslims, Arabs, Asians and others as inhuman enemies.

It is heartening to witness the mass uprising against the separation and incarceration of immigrant children, which has actually forced a minimal change in Trump’s policies. But we must use this power of the unity of millions of workers to outlaw racism once and for all and build an egalitarian society. That will be the proper day for celebration.


A conservative news site used one black woman’s opinion to argue that racism is obsolete. Another student, whose article is reproduced here, refuted the first student critic on College Media Network on 6/21/18.

Viewpoint: Antagonistic Reaction to Angela Davis Speech Shows Why It Was Necessary

Conservative news site uses one black woman’s opinion to argue that racism is obsolete.

By Elena Neale


Activist Angela Davis gave a commencement speech at Bryn Mawr College on May 19. A black woman who was in the audience wrote a critical letter of the speech in her local newspaper. A right-wing college news site used that letter to argue that racism is no longer an issue.

Patricia Jackson penned a letter to the Delaware County Daily Times titled “What Angela Davis did not say at Bryn Mawr” on June 16. Jackson, an African-American social worker, wrote that Davis’s speech did not address the privilege of students in the audience or real problems in American society.

“She did not tell these Millennials that the greatest threat to women is not a white male patriarchal society, but the explosion of single motherhood in our cities, where men abandon the children they father, leaving the women to soldier on against all odds,” Jackson wrote.

Jackson’s analysis is intriguing, yet it ignores the correlation between the white patriarchal society Davis discussed in her speech and the burden placed on many black single mothers. These are not separate conversations.

In her speech, Davis addressed white supremacy, the prison industrial complex and the exploitative nature of capitalism. These concepts lie at the root of the issues Jackson deems important. White supremacy and the history of racial discrimination embedded in American society created discriminatory employment practices and housing laws such as redlining that keep many black Americans in poor inner-city neighborhoods.

How can capitalism be the best system to lift people out of poverty when its very framework relies on the imbalance of power between the rich and the poor?

Police racism is one of the primary reasons so many African American fathers end up in prison, leaving mothers with sole responsibility of their children. Black single mothers are the most likely group to end up in poverty in the United States, other than children.

Jackson, like so many people, did not draw the connection between economic inequality and race in her letter.

“[Davis] did not say as Winston Churchill did, decades ago, that capitalism, as imperfect as it is, remains the best economic system known to mankind, and the best to lift people out of poverty,” Jackson wrote.

How can capitalism be the best system to lift people out of poverty when its very framework relies on the imbalance of power between the rich and the poor? Its individualistic nature allows those born into positions of racial and economic privilege to build upon their privilege while those less fortunate are told that it is their fault for not taking advantage of the opportunities provided them by American society.

Capitalism refuses to acknowledge that, despite what the Constitution says, we are not all born equal.

The College Fix, a conservative news site, published an article on June 18 applauding Jackson for her critique of Davis’s speech. The headline included the words “From one black woman to another, you blew it.” The College Fix used the fact that one black woman criticized another black woman’s passionate call to action to discredit the significance of Davis’s speech.

The article is an attempt to diminish the reality of racism and pretend that we live in a colorblind society where black and white Americans begin their lives on a level playing field. This is simply not the case.

Activists like Angela Davis must continue to give speeches deemed “radical” by conservatives. This is how change happens. Education on the causes of some of the most serious issues in the country leads to an understanding of how they are all related and have a common denominator: capitalism.

Capitalism allows the wealthy to maintain their status through the oppression of the poor and the working class. Combined with structural racism, capitalism perpetuates the segregation of black Americans in inner-city neighborhoods and limits their opportunities for upward mobility.

Instead of blaming black men for the “explosion of single motherhood” in inner-cities, we need to ask tougher questions.

Why are so many black men leaving their families? The answer is not simple, but it can be pieced together by analyzing the structures that have left black men with few employment prospects and about a one-in-three chance of being imprisoned at some point in their lives.

Locating the root of the issue is the only way to discover lasting solutions to poverty, economic and racial inequality in the United States.

Elena Neale is a Politics and Latin American/Latino Studies Major at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She was previously a reporter for the student-run newspaper City on a Hill Press. In her free time, Elena enjoys playing on the UCSC women’s club ultimate frisbee team.



by Ellen Isaacs

appearing on Counterpunch 6/6/18

As we reflect on the latest brutality against protestors in Gaza and the struggle to end the outrageous Israeli occupation of Palestine and oppression of Israeli Palestinians, it is important to formulate a goal for what we would hope to attain. This goal does not have to be achievable in the near future or even near distant future, but it provides a framework that defines what immediate struggles are engaged in and whom is declared to be an ally or an enemy. In fact, it is unlikely that this conflict will be settled between Israelis and Palestinians in isolation, as the whole region will probably be engaged in larger conflicts between Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the US and Russia long before that happens. However, it is to be hoped that there would be, at some time, a unified Palestine/Israel, or perhaps some larger regional entity, that would provide for equality, opportunity and freedom for all who live there. With that vision, I know that organizing in the present must strive to be multiracial, multinational, and to be led by rank and file people, as opposed to economic moguls, politicians or religious leaders.


Since 2012, there has been an official One Democratic State movement, and I have attended two of their conferences, one in Ramallah in 2014 and one the next year in Denton, Texas. The leaders and participants have been mainly Palestinian, with an overlap with those who initiated the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, and some Israelis, including Ilan Pappe and Jeff Halper. I have been very happy to see this development, but the movement as I have experienced it seems to me to be weak in two crucial elements. One is the lack of a real on the ground action program and the other is lack of an analysis of what kind of economic system would be needed to actually guarantee equality and an end to racism. I imagine the problem is that these areas are very controversial, but that does not mean they are not essential.


I would like to consider the relationship between racism and economics in several countries that leads me to conclude the necessity of a non-capitalist framework in any one state. One is the situation in the US, a purportedly democratic state with an advanced system of capitalism and a long history of racism, which is economically necessary for its survival. Another is the economy of Israel, another capitalist state with a long history of racism,  a similarly inegalitarian situation in the West Bank, and lastly that of South Africa, which has emerged from apartheid with racial economic disparities largely intact.


We live here in the US, and it takes but a half-open eye to see the racism all around us. Whether driving by the crumbling public housing projects, reading about police shooting young black men with impunity, watching videos of ICE agents rounding up immigrants, it is a tableau of a divided society. There is lot of talk about opposing or ending racism, but most of it operates on the assumption that racism in the present is a result of personal prejudice which is a legacy of a former time when racism justified slavery, and even then anti-black racism was said to be a natural human attribute. Actually this could not be further from the truth, as was well laid out by the recently deceased historian Lerone Bennett. Racism was purposely and carefully developed in the 1600-1700s by the press, the pulpit and the schoolbooks in order to justify and continue slavery (see The Road Not Taken on this blog). Later, Jim Crow laws, housing policy, policing policy, hiring policies, and educational policy maintained racist ideas and practices. Today these disparities continue and the question is, can the US economy do without them?


Based on US Bureau of Labor statistics,  non-white workers earn 75% of the wages of white men. The yearly wage differential adds up to about $783 billion, compared to total annual after tax profits of $1698 billion in 2017. That is, race-based wage disparities add up to almost half of profits, not even including the similarly lower wages of white women. The gap may be explained by lower levels of training and education or prejudice determining who gets what job or different wages for the same work, but it is a gap the society could not afford to do without, whatever the cause. And the gap in social spending on vastly different levels of services like health and education is many more hundreds of billions of dollars. Racial health disparities slash years off of lives, due to differences in insurance coverage, quality and quantity of providers, environmental hazards, or unavailability of a healthy diet. There is a five year shorter life expectancy for blacks than whites, a gap which has actually decreased as white deaths from opioids increase. In New York City, the infant mortality is three times greater for blacks than whites. The wealth differential between white and black families in the US is about 10 to 1. Perhaps most important is the weakening of the ability of workers to fight back when divided by the chasms of race and national origin .

Israel and Palestine

When you visit Palestine and Israel, there are stark realities that force your eyes to widen in horror — the separation wall between Israel and the Occupied Territories (OT), the checkpoints, the separate roads and license plates, the blatant racism of most Israelis, the military shootings of young Arab men with impunity, the harassment of dark-skinned immigrants and the periodic slaughters of thousands of Palestinians, as in 2014 or hundreds in Gaza in May.  Sometimes the divisions, the injustice, and the violence are so great that one can neglect to try and understand the underlying structures of Israel or Palestine.

However, Israel , like the US, has one of the highest inequality or Gini indices (Gini – a coefficient describing the degree of inequality in a country where 1 is the highest and O the lowest) in the developed world, almost the same as the US. The difference between the wages of the top 10% and the bottom 10% of Israelis is currently increasing. Moreover, like in the US, wage inequality is highly race based, with Palestinians who work in Israel and dark skinned immigrants having the lowest wages, and Middle Eastern or African Mizrahi Jews falling in the middle. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, in 2016 an Israeli Arab worker earned 58.6% as much as a Jewish worker, down from 67.2% in 2014. For Arab women it was even worse-56% of a Jewish woman’s wage. Mizrahi Jews, who make up about half of the population, earn about 75% as the Ashkenazi Jewish worker. So overall, the race-based differences in Israel are even greater than in the US

In Israel there are also great gaps in education and health, housing and wealth. 13% of Israeli Arabs have college degrees, versus 28% of second generation Mizrahis and 50% of Ashkenazi Jews. The life expectancy gap between Israeli Arabs and Jews is five years, about the same as in the US. Of course it is higher if you compare Israel and West bank (WB), rising to seven years. Infant mortality is about three times higher in the West Bank as in Israel, very similar to the racial difference in the US. The very high numbers of black and Palestinian men who suffer imprisonment is similar in the US and Israel. One third of all black American men can expect to end up in prison, nearly the same as the 40% figure for Palestinian men in Israeli jails. The racism with which Israelis are inculcated from an early age, which is perhaps not so dissimilar in its intensity to that still prevalent in some of the US or as it was among the Nazis, allows these disparities to be tolerated, thought of as natural or even applauded.


Many who look with dismay at the oppression by Israel of the WB are unaware of what an inegalitarian society also exists there. Although the earnings of all strata of society are below those of Israel, there is a similar ten=fold difference between the top and bottom percentiles, leading to a calculated Gini index of .34, almost identical to that of Israel or the US. As described by Tariq Dana, a professor at Hebron University, and the Palestinian activist and author Ali Abunimeh, a very few families and companies, such as the Masris, whose power has skyrocketed since Oslo dominate the West Bank economy. And they do plenty of business with Israel, as well as exploiting other Palestinians. They largely consist of returning émigré capitalists, historical large landowners, and those who accumulated wealth as subcontractors for Israeli companies after the 1967 occupation. They benefit from ties to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and from Palestinian basic law, which specifies that “the economic system in Palestine shall be based on the principles of a free market economy.”

During the 1990s, the PA, which governs the WB, and a small group of capitalists centralized political and economic power and built ties with diaspora conglomerates, leading to monopolies protected by the PA of 25 basic imported commodities such as sugar, oil, cement, and steel. Partnerships with Israeli businessmen and the privileges that that accorded increased after Salam Fayyad became Prime Minister in 2008. Economic cooperation with Israel is manifest in joint industrial zones, Palestinian investments in Israel and its settlements, and joint management of water resources. Five West Bank companies are clients of an Israeli security company owned by an Israeli Major General who commanded troops in the Occupied Territories.


Fayyad’s “reforms” also allowed the government to take out interest-bearing loans equaling 50% 0f the GDP, which puts it at the mercy of large firms who can withhold investments. The cost is borne by ordinary people, as when taxes were raised and services cut in 2012. Private lending has also increased, so that 75% of public employees, the largest sector of workers, are now in debt to government-controlled banks, which decreases oppositional political activity. Labor unions have been greatly weakened by both the PA and large capitalists. The PA spends about one quarter of its payroll on security, largely to prevent protests against Israel, roughly the same amount as on health and education combined.

South Africa

Those who organize against Palestinian oppression in Israel often make an analogy to South Africa and the so-called successful struggle to end apartheid there. There is no doubt that a long and courageous battle was fought and that many civil rights for the black population were won. However, a look at the economic and living situation of the majority of the African population today is truly disheartening and raises important questions.


In 1970, the African National Congress (ANC) stated : “It is inconceivable for liberation to have meaning without a return of the wealth of the land to the people as a whole. It is therefore a fundamental feature of our strategy that victory must embrace more than formal political democracy. To allow the existing economic forces to retain their interests intact is to feed the root of racial supremacy and does not represent even the shadow of liberation.” Joe Slovo, the head of the Communist Party of South Africa said that “If every racist statute were to be repealed tomorrow, leaving the economic status quo undisturbed, ‘white domination’ in its most essential aspects would remain.”

Thabo Mbeki, however, a political leader since 1994, declared the national task to be to “create and strengthen a black capitalist class.” Indeed the agreement ending apartheid removed wealth redistribution of white capital or the nature of economic relations from the agenda and focused only on granting civil rights, while a few members of the new black bourgeoisie became millionaires. But what Winnie Mandela said in 2010 was “those who had struggled and had given blood were left with nothing. They are still in shacks: no electricity, no sanitation and no sign of an education.”


Only 10% of land has been redistributed since 1994, and white South Africans still earn five times as much as black workers. 50% of the population has no wealth at all and the next 40% are almost as poor. In South Africa, based on data from 2012, black men had an 18 year shorter life expectancy than white men, 17 years after the end of apartheid.

And so

The point of assessing these situations is that racist differentials in wages, services, and quality of life in the highly racialized societies of the US, Israel, and South Africa are not simply the results of prejudice that can be overcome with goodwill and re-education. Instead, they justify vast gaps in social earning and social spending that these societies cannot afford to do without. It is true that there are capitalist societies that have less glaring racial divides to obscure their class divides, but in the nations we are discussing they are inextricably bound up.


It is also a mistake, however, to say that the majority white or Jewish workers are benefiting from this racism, with the possible exclusion of South Africa. In the US many white workers have inadequate wages, lack of affordable housing, insufficient health insurance and health care, a falling rate of unionization and the list goes on. The existence of super-exploited non-white groups lowers the standards for all and destroys the unity necessary for successful struggles for reforms or system change. In Israel, even among Jews, there is high unemployment, a huge housing shortage and deficits in education. This explains why 80% of the population participated in or supported the mass protests about these issues in 2011. Unfortunately, even then the issue of the occupation, its costs and its immorality, were not discussed.


So therefore building multiracial unity and at the same time calling for a non-capitalist economic system are necessary to achieve social or economic justice and equality, in all our nations.

Some sources:

U.S. Labor Force Statistics,


Racism and Capitalism: the Barriers to Decent Health Care, by Ellen Isaacs,


The Origins of Income Inequality in Israel – Trends and Policy

Israel Economic Review, Vol. 12, No. 2 (2015), 51–95,


Palestine’s Capitalists by Tariq Dana


The Battle for Justice in Palestine, by Ali Abunimeh


The benefits and misfortunes of capitalism and racism: An integral part of the South African History, by Sehlare Makgetlaneng

Published on Pambazuka News (








by Al Simpson

During the early civil rights era, from 1955 through to the early 1960s, the attempts at desegregation of accommodations were portrayed as nonviolent protests. It was heavily stressed that all such protesters – the persons who acted to desegregate lunch counters, libraries, amusement parks, stores, etc. – were trained in nonviolent protest, and they would not strike back if hit or threatened or react to taunts. Hotheads were weeded out. This was done because nonviolence was politically acceptable to white liberals, on whom various civil rights organizations depended for donations.

A number of such protests were viciously attacked by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists. Very few laws changed during this period. Nevertheless, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) persisted and ran freedom rides on busses throughout the South to integrate interstate travel facilities. They had to endure mobs, beatings, firebombs, and jails, but by 1962 they successfully integrated many bus and terminal accommodations.[i]

The absolute nonviolent nature of the various organizations was a myth. Armed guards were posted, especially at night, to protect the demonstrators where they slept. By 1964 some Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activists went even further and many carried weapons themselves.[ii] Given the murders, incarceration, beatings and other depredations they were subjected to, many activists felt that nonviolence was more of a tactic than an imperative.

What was the Rationale for Nonviolence?

At a SNCC meeting during Freedom Summer 1964, Pratha Hall, a black staff member of SNCC, said that Martin Luther King argued in the early days of the movement that white violence that met no resistance would eventually shame the federal government into intervening. Hall also said: “We must bring the reality of our situation to the nation. Bring blood onto the white house door. If we die here it’s the whole society that has pulled the trigger by its silence.” Thus, the blood of the persecuted, not the persecutor, was the only blood of salvation.[iii] CORE had similar views regarding nonviolence. But is redemptive suffering a workable strategy? There is no evidence that nonviolence did anything other place the persons practicing it in danger. Time and again, the racists were unimpressed and carried out their violent crimes with no resistance and without consequence. The cops did absolutely nothing, and in fact, led Klan caravans into black communities.

A New Tactic Takes Hold

When a Klan caravan entered the black community in Jonesboro, Louisiana, in July, 1964, it was described this way: “The wave of protests and arrests quickly brought the Ku Klux Klan into the fray. It was on the evening of the protests that the Jonesboro assistant police chief had led the Klan caravan of fifty cars through the black community.”[iv] This time, however, there was a black self-defense group, later called the Deacons for Defense and Justice, that informed the Chief of Police that such a thing must never happen again, for otherwise there was “going to be some killing going on.” The police never escorted the Klan again.[v] The threat of violence from a Black self-defense group made for substantive changes in the behavior of the cops and the racists, not the redemptive suffering of civil rights protestors. More than this, the existence of armed self-defense groups, like the Deacons for Defense and Justice, hereafter referred to as the Deacons, made the demonstrations and integration tests more effective because they were less likely to be attacked. One black person observed that the Klan members don’t want to die, but they sure like killing.

In 1965 there was a black high school protest in Jonesboro, LA, against the firing of a popular physical education teacher. The cops, white segregationists and Klan members, whom they deputized, were threatening the defenseless students. They were about to have firemen spray the students with high-pressure water from their hoses when the Deacons gave the order: “When you see the first water, we gonna open up on them. We gonna open up on all of them.”[vi] The cops and their deputies backed off. For the first time in the 20th century an armed black organization had successfully used weapons to defend a lawful protest against an attack by law enforcement. Previously, the Deacons only claimed the right to self-defense against racist terror. Now they asserted their right to defend themselves against government violence as well.[vii]

Contrast this with the events in Selma Alabama. On March 7, 1965 six hundred marchers attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge en route to Montgomery Alabama. Just short of the bridge, they found their way blocked by Alabama State troopers and local police who ordered them to turn around. When the protesters refused, the officers shot tear gas and waded into the crowd, beating the nonviolent protesters with clubs and ultimately hospitalizing over fifty people. The second march took place on March 9. Troopers, police, and marchers confronted each other at the county end of the bridge, but when the troopers stepped aside to let them pass, Martin Luther King led the marchers back to the church where they met. Ostensibly, he was obeying a federal injunction while seeking protection from federal court for the march. That night, a white group beat and murdered civil rights activist James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston[viii].

There you have it: the Selma march was unsuccessful, caused both injuries and death, and yet it is celebrated! There was much made of the Selma events, described above, and a featured movie, Selma, made quite a splash in 2014. But no such movie will be made of the successful standoff with law enforcement in Jonesboro, LA. Since this would debunk the myth of nonviolence in the civil rights movement, it is given no mention. It is only described in one history book of the times: The Deacons for Defense

Natchez Mississippi

The Deacons were a locally based black self-defense organization that spread to other cities in the South. In all cases, they were run locally and tended to reflect the needs of the local black working class. Let’s consider the example of Natchez Mississippi, a very racist city: “The city’s well-organized Ku Klux Klan had engaged in systematic guerrilla warfare against Adams County’s black residents since 1964. Robed hooligans bombed churches and flogged and tortured blacks without fear or consequence.”[ix] As usual, the cops would be found missing while these attacks took place. If a black person was beaten up by Klan members or other racists, the cops would come to arrest the person who was beaten, but never the person(s) who did the beating. This was a favorite tactic of the cops.

George Metcalfe was President of the Natchez branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). His car was blown up on August 27, 1965, almost killing him. The attempted assassination enraged blacks in Natchez, especially young people. NAACP state field secretary Charles Evers rushed to Natchez to assist as he was very concerned with the tension there. The Watts rebellions in Los Angeles had just taken place on August 11 – 16, 1965 and were fresh in everyone’s mind. Established Black community leaders in Natchez understood the danger in the restive mood and tried frantically to calm things down. As usual, the NAACP representative, Charles Evers, talked about getting out the vote, but it fell on deaf ears. The men behind him on the stage were brandishing guns and the audience was more interested in that, by far. Late that night, hundreds of enraged black youths filled the black business district. They had armed themselves with rocks, bottles, pistols, and rifles. There were snipers firing from the rooftops. Groups of black youths roamed the streets, shouting threats at white motorists and hurling bricks, bottles and tomatoes at police cars. An improvised security detail prevented the crowd from attacking innocent whites who accidentally drove into the fray. But its main purpose was to deter the white cops from assaulting the young blacks.[x]

Two days of rebellion changed things in Natchez! Prior to August, whites could expect blacks to respond peacefully to Klan terror and police brutality. But not anymore. During this time, the NAACP, SNCC, and CORE did practically nothing, except maneuver around each other. The middle-class blacks on the various panels meeting with whites would go through the motions of negotiating but nothing of consequence ever developed, but they always maintained that they were “leaders” of the black community. James Jackson, a local barber summed things up neatly: “…We plan too damn much, man; and never do nothing.”[xi] With the assistance of the Jonesboro Deacons, a new chapter was started on September 10, 1965. The Deacons membership was secret. Families of members were not to be told of their membership and the police were never to be informed of anyone’s membership no matter how much duress they endured. The Deacons pointed out that they did not hate whites and mainly intended to restore black community pride and respect as well as provide defense.[xii]

The Deacons also had a strict policy on how to deal with Uncle Toms, who would break boycotts or who were suspected of being informers — they would beat them severely. The focus on how to handle collaborators, who were mainly middle class, was not unique to the Natchez chapter and in fact characterized the Deacons wherever they emerged. The concern with “Toming” reflected a measure of class conflict within the black community. Opposition to the Deacons would come primarily from black businessmen, who felt economic pressure from the banks, and also had a bad habit of looking down on working class blacks.

The Deacons would not participate in any demonstrations or marches; instead, they would quietly watch. Their ostensible goal was to protect these demonstrations and marches from Klan terror. They spent quite a bit of time discussing how they would discipline Uncle Toms.

There were negotiations with various Natchez politicians. The demands of the black leaders were as follows:[xiii]

  • The hiring of at least 4 additional black policemen in addition to the two already on the police force.
  • Desegregation of all public facilities.
  • Naming a black representative to the school board.
  • A poverty program with funds divided fairly between whites and blacks.
  • A public denunciation of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and another White Supremacist organization.
  • City employees were to address blacks with courtesy titles such as Mister or Missus rather than the degrading titles such as auntie, missy, boy, hoss and uncle.

The mayor rejected the demands of the black leaders during the first week of September, 1965 and persuaded the governor of Mississippi to send 650 National Guard troops to Natchez. The National Guard arrived on September 3rd and sealed off the black community. A strict 10 PM to 5 AM curfew was imposed, and liquor was prohibited. Since the rebellion had subsided before the National Guard arrived, the locals felt that their presence was to discourage legal protest – not violence. The Guard mounted 50 caliber machine guns in the downtown area and let it be known that: “If you march we will open fire.”[xiv] The troops were withdrawn on September 6th. Soon afterwards, there were marches and the beginning of a 4-month boycott campaign. City officials remained intransigent and would not negotiate in good faith; instead, they searched for legal ways to suppress the demonstrations. On September 30th they secured an injunction prohibiting all demonstrations. From October 1-7, there were mass arrests of 544 persons. They were carted off over 200 miles to the infamous prison at Parchman, where the guards subjected them to horrible abuses. The demonstrations were suspended on October 7th, but the boycott continued. By October 12th the mayor of Natchez admitted that business was down by about 50 percent. In mid-October local officials failed to reach a settlement and the demonstrations started up again. The business community’s support for segregation was fading, and the only thing that was holding up the approval of the Black’s demands were the Klan’s threats and intimidation.[xv]

A woman addressed a Church meeting and said that she was opposed to nonviolence: “If a man or woman hits me, I’m going to hit back.” A SNCC leader, Lawrence Guyot, then addressed the crowd. He castigated her and her cohorts, and a large group rose and began to walk out. He then said: “You’re being understood by simply being quiet and sitting back and staying in your places.” More people filed out. “The most cowardly thing I have ever heard.”, Guyot continued with his voice growing tense. “Is for someone to say, ‘I would go with you all but I ain’t nonviolent’”[xvi]. The audience had heard enough. By the end of Guyot’s speech the church was nearly empty. SNCC never recovered from the Church meeting.[xvii] Their whole strategy of nonviolent redemptive suffering to force federal intervention was seen to be a fraud. Their claim that the people who did not follow their lead into oblivion were cowards ensured their abject failure. The Natchez movement instead tried to gain power locally through force and coercion, using the organizing model developed by the Deacons.

Starting in September 1965, the Deacons functioned as the de facto police in the black community of Natchez since the regular cops would not protect them against Klan violence or anything else for that matter. The Deacons were always armed and their willingness to defend themselves bred confidence. For the most part the sight of their weapons would stop the cowardly racists. However, in an isolated incident, a white motorist attempted to disrupt a march by driving his car into the line. Within seconds the Deacons intercepted the car with their guns drawn, detained the driver and handed him over to the police.[xviii] Not only did the Deacons sternly discipline Uncle Toms but they also were not averse to using violence on detractors and collaborators within their ranks.

By December 1965, the boycott had pretty much eroded business class solidarity so that 23 merchants had already hired blacks as clerks and cashiers. On December 3rd, the city government and local businessmen conceded defeat. They agreed to comprehensive racial reforms. Almost all of the original NAACP demands were met. Whereas virtually every other local campaign during the civil rights movement in Mississippi ended in failure, the Natchez project mobilized an entire community and exacted sweeping concessions from the white establishment, without Federal intervention![xix] The Deacons model of armed resistance worked once again. The Natchez campaign was the single greatest victory for the civil rights movement in Mississippi, but predictably, historians have never given it the credit it deserves.

There is also a significant difference in the demands put forward by demonstrations run by the Deacons and those run by the nonviolent groups. While the middle-class blacks who supported nonviolent organizing strove for surface changes such as voting rights and desegregation of public accommodations – things that would benefit them, the demands put forward and won in communities where the Deacons operated tended to reflect the needs of the working class: better schools, paved roads, better public facilities, public sewer and water, and so forth. Integration turned out not to be so important. Voting doesn’t do that much. The people in Harlem had had the vote for about 150 years and you see what it got them.

Has Nonviolence Ever Really Changed the Status of Working People?

Let’s address the question of why nonviolent protest is said to have worked in India but not in the United States. In India the inhabitants far outnumbered the occupiers; the British had a just a tiny army in India. British workers did not believe that their social and economic status depended on the continued exploitation of Indians, and after World War II the British were in terrible economic shape. They were in no position to enforce their rule over India. Gandhi and his supporters fought non-violently for independence from Britain, but they supported a capitalist economy, so there was never a question of British economic interests being threatened. With the division of the newly independent territory into Muslim and Hindu entities (Pakistan and India) and the inflaming of religious tensions, attention was deflected from local and foreign exploiters. The British started the British Commonwealth of Nations trading group, which allowed them to trade freely with their former colonies. So, they got almost everything they wanted anyway.

In the United States, blacks were a tiny minority surrounded by white majority, and many white Southerners thought they benefitted from the oppression of blacks. Before and after slavery, the super-exploitation of blacks made even the poorest whites feel they had a superior status that they wanted to hold onto. In the name of white supremacy,[xx] they would engage in violent acts, including lynching, to suppress any semblance of social advancement by blacks. The cops, many of whom were white supremacists, did nothing to stop these crimes.

Thus, the conditions for the success of the nonviolent model of India in no way matched the conditions in the southern United States. However, white liberals would give money to support nonviolent protest, so it started what became a self-fulfilling prophesy: The nonviolent organizations grew rich and strong with the money they received from white liberals. During the early years of the civil rights movement, nonviolent groups had the most influence. White liberals also feared the idea of blacks coming to their own defense – out of their own racism! This contributed to the intense propaganda in favor of nonviolence.

But reality always prevails. As mentioned above, the Deacons were responsible for some of the greatest successes of the civil rights era. With time, even the nonviolent organizations got with the program. As early as 1965, executive secretary [of SNCC] James Forman said he “did not know how much longer we can stay nonviolent” and in 1969, SNCC changed the “nonviolent” part of its name. Its new official name became the Student National Coordinating Committee to reflect the broadening of its strategy.[xxi]

In the 1980s members of the International Committee Against Racism physically attacked Klan and Nazi demonstrators whenever they outnumbered them, from Connecticut to New Jersey to many other places.  The Grand Wizard of the Klan announced during a radio interview that many of his members now feared to join the racist demonstrations, validating the positive role of mass violence in quashing overt racist mobilizations.  In 1975, InCAR members spent the summer in Boston successfully demonstrating against racist organizations that had boasted they would stop the integration of schools and beaches.  The violence of the 1968 rebellions in such cities as Newark and Los Angeles secured the construction of sorely needed public hospitals.


A few months ago, while driving and listening to the radio, the announcer said that DeAndre Harris was arrested. No information was provided as to whom Mr. Harris was, and it bothered me. Hours later, on the same day, I learned that Mr. Harris was the black man who was severely beaten by white supremacists in a parking garage in Charlottesville, VA on August 12, 2017. It was in this same city that white racists were openly marching and killed one white anti-racist protester. Harris was charged with assault. Harold Crews, state chairman of the North Carolina League of the South, a racist organization, sought the charge against Harris, who turned himself in after a warrant was issued. The Daily Progress reports around 100 people came to the Charlottesville General District Court to show their support for Harris.[xxii] Mr. Harris was subsequently found not guilty. Notice how this echoes what happened in the 1960s South. A black man is beaten by white supremacists, and then the cops come and arrest the black man and let the white supremacists go free. This time, the white supremacists who did this crime, were arrested, but it should be kept in mind that a video of the beating incident had widespread circulation.

In Anaheim, California in 2016, the KKK demonstrated, armed with flag poles with knives on their tips. They stabbed seven anti-racist protestors, but only the antiracists were arrested and charged. They go on trial in July. There is a warning here — things haven’t changed all that much. Not only does racism persist, but it is still protected by the government and still serves to divide white and black workers, and we still need to unite militantly to stop racists in their tracks.

[i] Meier and Rudwick, CORE

[ii] The Deacons for Defense, Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement by Lance Hill, The University of North Carolina Press copyright 2004. Page 18.

[iii] Ibid Page 19.

[iv] Ibid Page 37.

[v] Ibid Page 37.

[vi] Ibid Page 69.

[vii] Ibid Page 69.


[ix] The Deacons for Defense. Page 184.

[x] Ibid Page 186.

[xi] Ibid Page 190.

[xii] The Deacons for Defense. Page 193.

[xiii] Ibid Page 187.

[xiv] Ibid Page 195.

[xv] New York Times October 13-14, 1965.

[xvi] Black Natchez, transcript.

[xvii] The Deacons for Defense. Page 197.

[xviii] Ibid Page 198.

[xix] Ibid Page 205.

[xx] Ibid Page 23.




A communist worker describes the struggle to build militancy and overcome racism in trade unions in the 1950s-60s

By Wally Linder     

In the 1950s, in order to move the working class to the left, the US Communist Party’s (CP) policy of industrial concentration aimed to build a mass base especially in the basic industries, those areas which held the lifeblood of the country in their hands: auto, steel, electrical, railroad and so on. So in that summer of 1953, I sought a job in auto plants, in GM Tarrytown, N.Y. and Ford in New Jersey but without success, but I soon was hired on the Baltimore & Ohio where I would spend the next decade. I later discovered that the CP had a railroad section comprising 65 members in 13 party clubs on 13 different roads in various crafts. Metropolitan New York’s 90,000 railroad workers comprised the second largest rail center in the US, next to Chicago’s. As it turned out, it became among the most rewarding and exciting decades of my seventy adult years, when I started “workin’ on the railroad.”


I joined the country’s largest railroad union (the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks & Freight Handlers) totaling a quarter million members. Our work was essentially to unload freight from trucks and trailers backed up to railroad piers on Manhattan’s West Side waterfront and then load the freight into railroad cars resting on barges (called “floats”) tied to the piers. Tugboats then towed these barges laden with perhaps a dozen fully-loaded freight cars across the Hudson River to Jersey City freight yards, where they were coupled together into trains hundreds of cars long to be moved westward to their destinations. Similarly, we would unload the freight cars towed over from Jersey containing eastbound freight and load that into trucks and trailers, manned by Teamsters, who would then deliver the freight to Metropolitan NYC destinations.

Our role as CP members was to organize mass, militant, rank-and-file struggles, possibly become local leaders, but we were instructed not tell anyone we were communists “because that would isolate us from the [brainwashed] workers.” It was past the era of mass, open communist organizing of the 1920s and 1930s, and heavily into the Cold War period in which the CP had beat a hasty retreat from its leadership days. (I started on the railroad during the Korean War, at the height of McCarthyism.) In all my years on the railroad I never once directly told a co-worker that I was a communist, although I later learned that the company knew, the union officials knew and so did the mass of workers!

Our party club among the B&O freight handlers started slowly, becoming involved in very low-level struggles. My first challenge to the bosses occurred when I was part of a gang unloading a refrigerator car. We were forced to work ankle deep in melted ice water without protective boots (which we knew to be a rule violation). I discussed it with the rest of the gang and we told the foreman we would refuse to work without boots. I was immediately summoned before the station agent who told me I “couldn’t refuse to work. That was insubordination.” I told him the company was being “insubordinate” in not issuing us boots. Did he want us to get sick and not report to work? He smiled and told the foreman to give us boots.

This story spread around the 26th St. Freight Station. (The B&O freight operation comprised Piers 20-23, 39-40, 63-66 and the 26th St. Station, involving about 1,000 workers.) Because of that incident, workers on my shift (7 PM to 4 AM) began approaching me with grievances. We had no steward; the local’s leadership was centered downtown at Piers 20-23. My co-workers petitioned the union to appoint me a steward on that shift. This was at the end of my first year on the B&O.

Sanitary and health conditions on the railroads were abominable. One example: the “bathroom” on the end of one pier consisted of an iron bar on the edge of the pier. One would drop one’s pants, sit on the bar and crap into the Hudson River. We had no locker rooms and very few lunchrooms. This was true of most railroads in the NYC area. So our party railroad section proposed the idea of starting a movement to get a law passed in the two state legislatures guaranteeing minimum sanitation and health facilities on all roads in the area.

Alongside this was what came to be known as the weekly pay campaign. Railroad workers were paid three times a month, every ten days. While seemingly meaningless to workers paid every week or every two weeks, it wreaked havoc on railroad workers. Some pay periods would include six working days, some seven and others eight. It made it very difficult to budget one’s pay, especially when rent time rolled around. Railroad workers were always bitching about being paid so irregularly. So we seized on this apparently universal complaint, which cut across all road and craft lines — there were 23 different craft unions on the railroads at that time — in an attempt to organize a movement which would build rank-and-file unity among the tens of thousands of rail workers in the area.

Joined together as the Campaign for Weekly Pay and Health & Safety, it caught on among thousands of workers. Of course, the union leaders weren’t blind to this development. Finding it difficult to veto something that would guarantee a flush toilet on a railroad pier (among other things) — and not wanting it to be a rank-and-file development — they took it over as their own. As it turned out, both state legislatures passed laws essentially granting our demands and forcing the railroads to institute minimum health conditions, lunchrooms and pay us regularly, every week.

Fighting Racism in the Union

Rail workers were very pleased at the outcome, and knew who the organizers were, despite the leaderships’ claim that they had done it. We had taken some issues that really got under every worker’s skin and combined them into a mass campaign which had involved thousands of workers throughout the area. Simultaneously we had exposed the railroad bosses, putting them a bit on the defensive when they were in the midst of a defamatory campaign of their own, painting workers as “featherbedders,” in an attempt to lay off hundreds of thousands. It also involved the unity of black and white workers on the railroads, historically a racist industry in which the bosses restricted certain crafts as “white only.” In fact, at that time there were still several craft unions that barred black members altogether!

It was our CP section that had previously broken the lily-white craft of brakemen on the Pennsylvania RR. The PRR had never hired a black worker as a brakeman — a generally higher-paid, operating craft job — in its first 120 years. When we saw a Pennsy ad for brakemen, we sent down two black comrades, who were not hired. Then we sent two white comrades the same day, who were hired. The black comrades took their case to the State Commission Against Discrimination and the white comrades who were hired testified on their behalf. The Commission ruled that the Pennsy had discriminated and ordered them to hire the two black comrades. Within the year the PRR hired 200 black brakemen for the first time in its history.

This racism was prevalent throughout the industry. While there were many black freight handlers and some clerks, most had been hired for the first time during World War II when there was a labor shortage. Our union constitution barred black members, so the black workers were placed in “auxiliaries.” They took their case for “first-class citizenship” to court and won a ruling awarding them full membership. The international “asked” them if they wanted to join the all-white locals or have their own locals. With good grounds for suspicion of the white locals’ leadership, they opted for their own all-black locals. So it was that 150 such locals were created around the country.

This was the situation we faced in 1953 among the B&O freight handlers in NYC where among the 1,000 workers, 600 were in the black local and 400 in the white local. We worked on the same platforms in the same gangs under the same foremen, under the same union contract, but were in separate locals. Most workers, white and black, saw this as a disadvantage, if not wrong, and favored one multi-racial local. But few were active in the union. No one organized for it. It enabled the company, obviously, to play off white against black. Merging these two locals, with a multi-racial leadership, became a top priority for our party club, which had members in both locals. (As the civil rights movement grew nation-wide in the late 1950s, a small number of young, newly-hired black workers chose to join the previously all-white local, and were admitted, thus breaking its lily-white character. But the main job remained: to merge the two locals.)

As a steward I had developed ties among some other stewards, both black and white, among whom I raised the idea of both black and white stewards representing any worker who the company brought up on disciplinary charges. This meant that black and white stewards would be representing both black workers and white workers for the first time in the union’s history. Based on painstaking studies of previous cases, and our newfound unity, we began to win virtually every case.

We demanded that the foreman present the company’s case first (this was in front of the railroad station agent who was judge, jury and executioner.) Then we, both black and white, would cross-examine the (usually) white foreman. This hadn’t happened before either. Usually we would so wipe the floor with him, exposing all sorts of lies and contradictions in his story, that the boss was forced to end the hearing before the defendant worker ever “took the stand.” Workers were winning thousands of dollars in back pay. In addition, we would bring up five or ten workers to testify in the hearing, on company time. This also got under the bosses’ skins (and ate into their profits). Soon the number of hearings dropped to a trickle.

This result had a marked effect on the rank-and-file, especially on the black local’s leadership. For the first time they saw white stewards who they could trust. And the fact that we were winning cases led to white workers increasingly supporting the idea of one multi-racial local with a multi-racial leadership.

Rank-and-File, Anti-racist Slate

At that point I tried to develop a rank-and-file slate in the predominantly white local, running on a platform of rank-and-file militancy and multi-racial unity. I approached one worker who seemed somewhat active in the local and critical of the current leadership. His first question took me unawares: “I hear that you’re supposed to be a communist.” I managed to squirm out of the conversation without ever answering it directly. In effect, I “ran like a thief.” But it was the first inkling I had that I was known to be in the CP. As I learned later, the FBI had told the railroad who told the union leaders who told the workers.

So all along workers figured I was a communist, but never really baited me about it (probably because I did a good job as a steward). We decided that I should run against a weak union officer. The local’s vice-president was an assistant foreman (they, and foremen, were allowed in the union) and a blowhard at that, generally disliked by the rank-and-file. I was elected easily. Now the present leadership had to contend with a rank-and-file-supported officer who they knew to be a communist.

I didn’t confront them frontally but rather made suggestions that contained elements of unity. I proposed we have a local paper and that all the officers write for it. They agreed, never realizing what a weapon for class-consciousness such a paper could and would become, eventually helping to turn them out of office. Some examples:

During national negotiations, workers were very dissatisfied with the demands and with the long, drawn-out course they were taking. (RR labor negotiations sometimes went on for two to three years!) The question became how to point out the international’s inadequacy in the local paper without confronting them directly. We felt we didn’t have enough strength at that point from preventing them from abolishing the paper. So we made a series of contract proposals and won a vote at a union meeting to send them to the international. Of course, we expected an answer, one that we figured would be very wishy-washy at best. It was. Then we proceeded to print both letters in the Local’s paper — ours and their answer. The contrast was self-evident, without any comment from the editor.

At another point, the railroad began a speed-up campaign. They sent “efficiency men” from Baltimore to monitor our every move and tried to order us around. We took the position that the contract said we only took orders from the foremen. This frustrated them since they were forced to issue orders through the foremen. The latter didn’t like that either, which tended to drive a wedge between them and these “outside” bosses.

Then we printed a cartoon (drawn by my nephew Alec) depicting three men in suits and ties sitting on a platform wall watching one freight handler pushing a hand truck and entitled it “Efficiency.” This drove the railroad wild. They sent a vice-president up from Baltimore to meet with the Local Chairman and the Grievance Committee (which I was on) to tell us if these “disparaging” descriptions of the railroad continued, it would lead to shippers dropping the B&O’s business and this in turn would lead to layoffs. “Do you want to lose your jobs? The railroad is already losing money.” “How much?” we asked. “$31 million last year,” was the reply. “O.K.,” we said. “We’re making $68.84 a week. You’re losing $31 million a year. Let’s change places. You take our job and make $68 bucks a week. We’ll take yours and lose the $31 million.”

The guy went nuts, saying, “Do you realize that $16 million of that $31 million is going to Chase Manhattan Bank as interest on ‘our’ debt?” Oh, we figured, so that’s where it’s going. In the next local paper we printed a report of the meeting, with the headline, “Chase Manhattan Made $16 Million in Interest Profit Off Our Labor!”

In this way we were able to “report” events without putting ourselves in a position of bringing down the full wrath of the international on our heads too soon. When the paper came out every month, and was distributed through the stewards on all the piers, work virtually ceased on the platforms as everyone, black and white, stopped to read the paper. We had a lot of cartoons and “personals” in the paper as well. The workers loved the paper and wrote to it and for it.

This was not lost on the leadership of the black local, who were somewhat nationalist but didn’t know what to think about what we were doing. We approached them and asked if they wanted to write various columns for the paper. They agreed. We proposed in our (mostly white) local that the paper become a joint effort of the two locals. The black local voted the same. So the move for merger into one multi-racial local got a big boost as the paper became the one voice of the two locals. In this way the paper was building both class-consciousness and anti-racist, multi-racial unity.

Challenging the White Local’s Leadership

By this time we figured we had built up enough strength, through the winning of hearings, grievances and the influence of the paper, to not only challenge the established local leadership, which was generally opposed to any militancy, but to beat them handily. We organized a slate for four of the top positions — president, vice-president, treasurer and recording secretary. I was nominated for president. (We didn’t feel quite strong enough to run someone for Local Chairman, the head of the Grievance Committee, and the most powerful position in the local.)

We ran a real campaign, giving out leaflets, putting up posters with our pictures at all piers, and we held lunch-hour meetings with all shifts at all piers. This bewildered the incumbent leadership. They had been in office a long time and had never been challenged at all, much less by such a “high-powered” campaign. The only card they had to play was red-baiting. But since our base worked at all piers, they were able to deflect this attack based on the militant work I had done over the years. However, the worker on our slate running for vice-president did approach me and said, “I hear you’re supposed to be a communist. But don’t tell me, I don’t want to know!” My reaction was “Whew, another obstacle overcome!” The leadership of the black local watched this contest from a distance, but many black workers openly campaigned for us among their white co-workers, especially because they knew we stood for a merger of the two locals on a multi-racial basis. The election took place at the union hall and we won by an overwhelming 2 to 1 margin.

Organizing A Strike

In January of ’61 our biggest struggle in 10 years on the railroad erupted. The railroads owned the tugboats that towed the “floats” carrying the freight cars back and forth across the Hudson between Manhattan and Jersey City. In a money-saving effort, they dieselized the tugboats. This operation now required fewer workers to man the tugs. They wanted to lay off two-thirds of the 660 tugboat workers. The latter were members of the Seafarers International Union (SIU), ruled by Paul Hall, among the most right-wing of all the union leaders in the U.S. Negotiations had been dragging on for 14 months past the contract expiration date. Finally the railroads were set to lay off the workers, who were now in position to legally strike.

Traditionally, railroad workers always respected the picket lines of other crafts. But this strike, more than any other, absolutely depended on the solidarity of the freight handlers and the Teamsters. (The latter was not a rail union.) The railroads figured they could circumvent the strikers by having the freight handlers load and unload the freight in and out of trucks and trailers and the Teamsters would then haul the freight back and forth through the tunnels under the Hudson River and over the bridges to and from the yards in Jersey. This was a strike not only against the B&O but also on all the other large roads in NYC, the NY Central and the Pennsylvania being the two biggest, richer than the B&O.

Our own union negotiations were dragging on at the same time. We in the CP saw this as an opportunity to not only organize a general strike of all the railroads in the NY Metropolitan area, but an action that would unite all railroad workers across all craft and color lines. It had never happened before. We pointed out to our locals (and to those on the NY Central where party members were also among the leadership) that if we allowed the railroads to pick off the tugboat workers, small though their number, we would be next in their “featherbedding” campaign. We campaigned up and down the waterfront, held union meetings, and called for respect for the tugboat picket lines, if and when they occurred. Most workers agreed, although many were worried; they had never been in an all-out strike on the railroad before and were also nervous about how long such a strike would last, how many paychecks they might miss. The railroads seemed like an all-powerful force to them. Who were we to oppose them in such a high-stakes battle?

We had several things going for us. All the work we had done for eight years had been embedded in the consciousness of hundreds and even thousands of workers. In our own locals, especially, the monthly newsletter had constantly embedded class-conscious ideas in the minds of the workers. Secondly, railroad workers were covered under separate laws. The railroad unemployment insurance law, under which railroad workers collected benefits, stipulated that, in the event of a legal strike, railroad workers are eligible for unemployment insurance benefits from the FIRST day of the strike. Rail strikes were few and far between. The last big one in 1946 was broken by President Truman in four days when he moved to draft all the workers into the army and then court-martial them if they refused to work! (Again this showed the potential power of this basic industry.) The bosses felt they had had little to worry about because of that threatened law. However, it gave us a little edge: we respect the tugboat workers’ picket lines and receive $51 a week, a little more than half our regular net pay.

Finally, the most important factor in our favor was something that might seem intangible and hard to estimate. It was the feeling of power that could develop when the workers saw they had actually shut down these powerful corporations for whom many had worked all their lives and hated their guts. This was something we did not understand completely going into the strike but were to come to realize as it occurred, as will be seen.

On the morning of the first day, B&O freight handlers showed up at the first shifts, 5:01 and 6:00 A.M., but there were no pickets. So they went to work. The striking tugboat workers appeared around 7:30 A.M., about two to a pier, since there were so few of them and they had hundreds of stations in the NY area to cover.

As soon as we saw them start walking with their picket signs, we ran up on the platforms and the “floats” and yelled to the early shifts, “There’s pickets out there! We’ve got to walk!” Most workers didn’t hesitate. They fairly ran off the platforms, happy to be sticking their fingers up at the billion-dollar company. The pickets were amazed and delighted. As the rest of the shifts began arriving hourly, they saw the freight handlers gathered in front of the pier and realized the strike was on. Not one single worker crossed the line. This was true up and down the entire waterfront on all the railroad piers. The railroad end of the strike was complete. Within 24 hours we had shut down the entire rail freight operation in the biggest city in the country. We were amazed ourselves.

Next came the Teamsters. Freight had already been collecting on the platforms. The Teamsters who drove the trucks and trailers (and could drive them through the tunnels and over the bridges to circumvent the tugboat operation) did not work for the railroads. They were employed by freight forwarding companies who operated as middlemen between the railroads and the consignees. These freight forwarding companies would solicit the business of, say, General Electric or all the small garment manufacturers in the garment center, to ship their freight and truck it to the railroad piers, getting paid for by those outfits. Then the railroads would charge these freight forwarders to ship their freight by rail, employing us to do that loading and unloading.

One of the big freight forwarders who operated via the B&O was ABC Freight Forwarding (“ABC” = Arthur Brown Co). Herein lies a tale of real class-consciousness. The B&O freight handlers never saw the president of the railroad in Baltimore, a two billion-dollar outfit. But every day they did see Arthur Brown being chauffeured to work in his Rolls Royce, which was parked near the platform on which many of us worked. The railroad workers concluded that Brown was really the power behind the throne, that he told the railroad what to do, this richest of the rich in his Rolls Royce. We told workers that Brown was really small potatoes, his $25 million company really being subordinate to the railroad. But they were hard to convince.

When some of the workers pointed out that the Teamsters were scheduled to start taking out their trucks and trailers at 8:00 A.M., we acted quickly. (There were no pickets in front of the ABC platforms, only at the railroad piers across the street.) We told one of the two pickets in front of Pier 63 to come with us across the street on 24th St. to the ABC platform, explaining to them that if this freight went out, it could be trucked to Jersey and circumvent the strike. The tugboat strikers, seeing what we had done for them so far, figured we knew what we were doing, so one of them set up his one-man picket “line” outside the ABC platform. A few hundred railroad workers who had been gathering in front of Pier 63 followed us and stood across the street from the platform, watching. It was like street theater.

We yelled to the Teamsters on the platform getting ready to take their trucks out that there was a picket out front. These were workers who we knew quite well, having worked alongside them loading and unloading trucks for years. They immediately called a meeting on the platform right under their bosses’ noses and discussed the situation, with the railroad workers watching from across the street. They took a vote and decided unanimously to respect the lone picket. To a man they walked off the platform, their ABC trucks loaded but with no one to drive them. It had taken five minutes to shut down this million-dollar outfit, Rolls Royce boss and all. The railroad workers cheered. In that moment, they realized more than ever before the collective strength of united workers. Our unity was sky-high. This was to be, we thought, the final nail in the coffin for the divided freight-handler locals, the final step on the road to one united multi-racial local.

Broadening the Strike

Having drawn the Teamsters into the strike, the shutdown was complete. But the railroads were not through. The NY Central bosses figured another way to circumvent the tugboat operation: bring freight trains over railroad trestles across the Hudson way upstate, pull them down the east side of the river into the Mott Haven yards north of Grand Central Station in central Manhattan. They began hauling scab freight into and out of Manhattan. But again we had an answer, based on workers’ solidarity and the militant leadership of party members.

One of our 13 party clubs was among the electricians on the NY Central. There were 1,000 workers in that IBEW local, the largest railroad electricians’ local in the country. Our members were part of that local’s leadership and active among the rank-and-file. The local president knew he was working with communists and respected them (although he was never recruited). He also respected the idea of union solidarity. Our party members raised the fact in the local that scab freight was being hauled over NY Central tracks into Mott Haven in the Bronx and even into Grand Central Station. They said that if pickets showed up in front of Grand Central Station on 42nd Street, the electricians should respect the picket line. The electrician’s president agreed.

Our electricians’ party club relayed this information to the freight-handler clubs on the B&O and the NY Central and again we directed some tugboat pickets across town to Grand Central Station. As soon as two of them appeared, the NY Central electricians shut all the electric power on that road and walked out. The Central (the country’s second largest railroad) was shut tight. But this didn’t just affect freight. All the commuter trains from Westchester and in Fairfield County in Connecticut, which carried 90,000 commuters a day into and out of NYC, couldn’t operate either. In a matter of days the NY Central was shut down as far west as Cleveland.

It was then that all hell broke loose. All the daily papers in NYC (and there were about ten of them then) began screaming for our scalps. We were “holding the city for ransom. Soon starvation would set in. There would be no fuel,” and so on. The editorials were calling for Kennedy (who had just been installed in the White House) to pass a law (a la Truman), call out the troops and break the strike.

But the walkout was gathering momentum. Many workers around the city realized the power of solidarity, even the potential of a general strike. We received tremendous support. So Kennedy, probably not wanting to have one of his first acts in office labeling him a strikebreaker, was not quick to break the strike frontally. He sent his Secy. of Labor, Arthur Goldberg — the lawyer who was the architect of the expulsion of the communist-led unions from the CIO in 1948 and later became a Supreme Court justice — into NYC to “mediate” the strike. He proposed that the workers return to work, that the railroads not lay off anyone at this time and that negotiations resume. Both sides accepted this and, after ten days, the strike was over.

As it turned out some time later, the SIU agreed to the layoff of “only” half (not two-thirds) of the tugboat workers, who each received $10,000 severance pay. While not a real victory, they ended up with more than they would have without this solid strike.

The fight for Job Security

Following the tugboat workers’ strike to save their jobs, we were now confronted directly with our own job security struggle on the B&O. Our progress towards uniting the black local with the mostly white local was advancing. We didn’t realize how threatened the railroad felt about dealing one united, multi-racial local with a multi-racial leadership, and communists involved to boot. It could set an example for the 150 segregated locals nationwide. The company was developing a plan to contract out all our work to the freight forwarders who were the middlemen between the shippers and the railroad. This would lay us all off permanently, thereby wiping out both our locals completely! We later found out that they were fed up with what they called “that element in New York.” Meanwhile, the national union negotiations were dragging on.

We wanted any new national contract to include situations like ours. There were already established agreements to protect workers laid off due to railroad mergers or to one company absorbing another, but they didn’t include specifically the threat of contracting work out to freight forwarders. The protected workers were either offered comparable jobs elsewhere or $10,000 severance pay (now worth upwards of $100,000). Such coverage would make it much more expensive for the railroad to get rid of us.

The union’s international convention was approaching, slated for Los Angeles in June 1963. We figured there is where we could make our last stand. Our city-wide struggles and the tugboat strike had put us in touch with other locals on the NY Central and Pennsylvania, facing the same mass layoffs. Our local’s leadership called together rank-and-file leaders from six locals, all of whom would be delegates to this convention. All six submitted identical resolutions to the convention dealing with the threat to our jobs. We planned to make a floor fight on this issue. We figured that most of the 1,300 delegates would be in the hip pocket of the international’s machine. Were we surprised!

When our resolution came up on the first day of the convention, all six delegates in our caucus took the floor to speak for it. The bureaucrats were somewhat taken aback at this. Their Resolutions Committee had recommended rejection since they were not about to add such a demand into their national contract negotiations.

A couple of hacks spoke against us. Then the chair called for a voice vote. The international president — who had been in office since 1928! — was half blind and couldn’t see to count a hand vote, therefore the voice vote. We had expected this and had prepared some friends and spouses attending as guests in the balcony to yell like hell with us on the floor when the voice vote came up. We hadn’t counted on the fact that there were many locals facing their own job security problems and would vote with us on general principle (and probably were affected by our impassioned speeches).

Our resolution clearly carried on the voice vote. The president was flabbergasted. He called for a second vote (amid cries of “No! No!”), figuring the machine would get the hint and yell louder the second time. But the fact that the first vote was being arbitrarily over-ridden this seemed to anger a lot of delegates,. So the second vote produced an even larger margin favoring our resolution.

At that point the chair “entertained a motion” to send the resolution back to committee, to be brought up later in the week. That passed and we knew what that meant: they’d bring out their big guns, buy off a number of delegates and squash it the next time around — which is what happened. This whole fight had tied up the convention for nearly half a day. Afterwards many delegates, including a number of black delegates, came up to us and thanked us for raising this issue on the convention floor.

The Jobless Fight Back — From City Hall to the White House

Our struggle at the International convention for job security won a lot of support, but it was an uphill battle. In the summer of 1963, all our jobs on the B&O were contracted out without even a whimper from the international, but we refused to take this lying down. Our campaign touched big shots from New York City’s mayor to Kennedy’s Secretary of Labor to rail baron Cyrus Eaton and his buddy Nikita Khrushchev.

I was now part of the newly-organized Progressive Labor Movement (PLM) and intent on keeping many of these laid-off rail workers together to reap some benefits from our decade of struggle. We discussed the idea of a Railroad Workers Unemployment Council to sue the railroad for severance pay (which the union had refused to negotiate), and charge the union with collusion as well, for failing to represent us. Our actions would involve demonstrations and picket lines exposing everyone we perceived to be our enemies or who stood by and did nothing.

The idea caught on. Over 200 former B&O workers — black and white — agreed to join. We formed an official organization, with regular meetings, dues, officers, a newsletter and so on and discussed all our plans and activities at each meeting. We elected two black and two white workers from our rank-and-file to comprise our four leading officers with myself as president and hired lawyer Conrad Lynn to bring suit against the B&O for severance pay and charge the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks and Freight Handlers with collusion. After years of trying to merge the separate black and white locals — the International had 150 of these segregated units — we finally had our multi-racial, merged “union.”

Our first demonstration was directed against the Chesapeake & Ohio RR (C&O), which had bought out the B&O. It turned out that the C&O was headed by none other than Khrushchev’s buddy in the U.S., Cyrus Eaton, who had become the darling of the Communist Party for his championing trade with the Soviets (from which he expected to make a pile). We figured to add a little political spice to the situation. We sent out press releases and about 100 of us picketed the C&O building in lower Manhattan with signs such as “Cyrus Fired Us” and “Khrushchev’s Buddy Is No Friend of the Workers.” (My sister took pictures.)

Our plan was to march from the C&O building to City Hall and picket the Mayor (Wagner, at the time), demanding the city do something about the firing of 1,000 black and white workers. This, remember, was a time of heightened civil rights action; the famous March on Washington led by Martin Luther King had just taken place, in which our Council had also marched with our signs.

In 1963, workers’ picket lines like these were not particularly common. When City Hall got wind of our plan to picket them, they tried to head us off at the pass. The Deputy Mayor called my house and told my wife to tell me we didn’t have to picket; they would meet with us; “tell him to call it off.” “Too late,” she gleefully told him, “they’re already on their way.” As we circled City Hall, the Deputy Mayor emerged to “greet us,” saying he would meet with our committee on behalf of the Mayor. The TV, press and radio were going crazy around us. “Who the hell were these workers?” We went inside and met with this hack for half an hour. He “pledged” the Mayor would “see what he could do.” Our Council members were hip enough to know that this meant zilch, but were happy that we at least made them uncomfortable and publicized our cause.

That night interviews with me ran on seven TV and radio stations and we were in all the papers the next day. I linked the government with the railroad and Eaton with the sellouts in Moscow as one big bunch not interested in helping workers at all.

Attacking the System

Our next action was outside Grand Central Station a couple of weeks later. Our press releases brought out NBC hotshot Gabe Pressman to interview us. I began explaining our grievance and in between each sentence brought up the relation to the government allowing this to happen, that a government representing the bosses was no damn good as far as we were concerned, and that we needed to destroy that kind of system and get a workers’ system.” Suffice it to say, we didn’t get one second on that night’s TV news. Maybe we learned a lesson about not depending on the bosses’ media.

Shortly afterwards the Council organized a demonstration at the White House which taught us another lesson: as all-powerful as the government and rulers might seem, they are scared as hell of workers. Since our severance-pay suit legally involved regulations related to the Interstate Commerce Commission, we decided we should picket the Federal government in an attempt to draw attention to its role in our being denied justice. In the fall, we mobilized 80 of our members to drive to Washington in a 20-car motorcade to picket the White House.

As we started marching with our highly charged political signs directed at Kennedy, we discovered he was at his “compound” in Hyannis, Mass. This incensed a lot of these unemployed workers. With no particular goal in mind, I said, “Well, the Labor Department is walking distance from here, why don’t we go over and picket there as well.” Everyone agreed, so in a Saturday-deserted Washington, we trooped a few blocks and “set up shop” again. Barely 20 minutes had elapsed when an official-looking guy appears and asks us what we wanted. We asked him who he was and he says, “Under Secretary of Labor.” This surprised us a little but we proceeded to relate our case. He then said, “Wait here; I’ll be right back.”

Five minutes later he returns and, to our amazement, says, “Secy. of Labor Wirtz will see a five-person committee.” We couldn’t believe our ears. But the “best” was yet to come. The Under-Secretary escorts us upstairs and ushers us into Wirtz’s office, a huge conference room with a score of empty chairs around a long conference table, filled with a lot of notebooks and half-filled water glasses. Obviously some meeting had been going on.

Kennedy’s man Wirtz then explained that the national railroad labor negotiations were taking place (to which we had originally directed our convention resolutions) and when he “heard about our plight” he had asked the union representatives of the 23 railroad crafts and the representatives of the nations’ railroads to retire to adjacent rooms while he talked to us! We couldn’t believe it. Here were 80 rank-and-filers who had come to march at the White House and by sheer accident had picketed the Labor Department, and now were holding up the national negotiations because somehow we might have represented some hitch in the plans they were cooking up. Imagine if we had had the strength to organize 5,000 railroad workers to picket the place, or, better yet, invade it!

Although, after explaining our case for about half an hour and getting the usual reply of “I’ll see what I can do,” our Council members were happy to feel that our trip to D.C. had gotten what they interpreted to be a little recognition. And a few months later, when Kennedy was assassinated, most of our members’ reaction was, “So what. He didn’t do anything for us.”

It was during some of these picketing actions that fall that an article appeared, written by the nationally syndicated anti-labor columnist Victor Riesel, in the now-defunct N.Y. Journal-American (a Hearst paper) that “exposed” PLM as an agent of China and Che Guevara, out to start guerrilla warfare in the U.S. Among other “examples” cited was the “fact” that ten years ago I had been sent to “infiltrate” the railroad and was a threat to the national security in this industry vital to the country’s “defense.” Most of the Council members had seen the article and rather than cowed by it were incensed. I had already told them about PLM, had shown them PL Magazine (Challenge hadn’t started yet), some with articles about our struggles. Their immediate reaction was to go picket the Journal-American, but that never came off. Some of them began to think that maybe capitalism wasn’t the best system after all.

Final Lessons

The following year our suit finally went before a millionaire judge. (It was in the course of this trial that word came out inadvertently from one of the company lawyers that the railroad had moved to contract out its N.Y. freight operation because of “that element in N.Y.” It was from this that we concluded that they just didn’t want to deal with a multi-racial union led by communists.) The judge actually questioned the union lawyers about why the union hadn’t even raised our case with management as we had demanded — we were also charging the union with collusion in not negotiating protection for us. The union lawyers were flustered and couldn’t drum up too much of an excuse. This exchange led many of us to think we might actually win something from this judge. But those hopes were soon dashed when his decision came down that, “unfortunately,” the company was within its rights to do what it did, without compensation. “Better luck next time.”

This was probably the final blow to our Council which gradually dissolved after that, our demand (which had been holding us together) having been defeated. Most of the workers had found other jobs, at GM in Tarrytown, Ford in Jersey, the Transit Authority, Otis Elevator and so on. But it left the door open for me to point about how rotten this system was, and that we needed “a worker’s system.”

Wally Linder is a life-long industrial worker, a former member of the Communist Party USA and a founding member of the Progressive Labor Party


by Karyn Pomerantz,  April 12, 2018 


Nationalism, also known as patriotism, is a widespread concept promoted by capitalists to attain the loyalty of workers of a given country to their own ruling class. Those in power rely on this ideology to win workers to die in their wars or sacrifice wages and benefits so that the rulers can afford to maximize profits and live well and, in the case of imperialist nations, continue to plunder the wealth and cheap labor from smaller nations. Flag waving, parades, national holidays, sporting events like the Olympics and an endless barrage of media and educational input re-enforce this view. Racism plays an important role in depicting “enemies” as subhuman, such as labeling Vietnamese fighters as “gooks” or Muslims as “ragheads” or terrorists.

Similarly, “identity politics” calls on people to unite based on personal characteristics such as religion, skin color, gender, or sexual orientation rather than social class. Racism is also a particularly virulent tool to divide workers within single countries, such as anti-black and anti-immigrant racism in the US. All these divisions hinder workers from recognizing our shared humanity and interests and from organizing together to fight for our needs or take power in order to reorganize society on an egalitarian basis.

Rise of Empires and Revolts

From the 1600s to the early 1900s, imperialists from England, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and Belgium took over countries militarily and ran them brutally in order to extract raw materials like rubber and gold and many more precious resources. From the Americas to Africa and Asia, millions of indigenous and imported poor workers and slaves lived and died in barbaric conditions to harvest agricultural products like tobacco, cotton and tea and valuable minerals. All the while, the imperialists reaped the profits and ran the governments in their own interests through military coercion. When workers rebelled, the colonialists suppressed them mercilessly with torture and murder.

The Global South Responds:

20th Century Anticolonial Revolts and Strategies

Widespread revolNationalism Algerian Revolnts against colonialism erupted during the 1960s, involving the colonies of Algeria, Belgian Congo, Vietnam, Ghana, Kenya, and India, among others. The new leaders of these liberation victories in Asia, Africa and Latin America (the global south), Nehru, Nkrumah, Tito, Sukarno, Castro and Nasser, formed the Third World project to unite the newly independent countries to demand economic and social equality for workers.  Their goals were peace, economic development and independence.  They envisioned the United Nations (UN) as the platform to advocate for their agenda and convinced the UN to establish new departments for disarmament, fair trade and economic development.  They operated by holding a series of conferences and writing numerous reports on how to organize their societies, relate to their former local rulers, and use the United Nations to press their demands.

The liberation leaders also decided whether they should join with the Soviet Union’s alliance of pro-Soviet countries or remain unaligned.  In 1961, 77 countries (the G77) formed the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) to advocate for fair trade, respect and recognition from other countries, and social development, primarily through the UN. There were many reasons to remain unaffiliated. The Soviet Union, driven by a Cold War strategy, was more interested in supporting any entities that would oppose the US than in promoting anti-capitalist struggles.

Unity of All Classes OR Working Class Solidarity

The Third World Project and NAM accepted nationalism, the unity of all classes within a country and did not aim to establish socialism. In 1955, 29 post-colonial countries met in Bandung, Indonesia and asserted their goals for economic development and world peace through disarmament.  Their aspirations known as the “Bandung Spirit” emphasized an end to imperialist and cultural oppression (racism).  Conference chair and Indonesian President Sukarno addressed the group:

“Hurricanes of national awakening and reawakening have swept over the land, shaking it, changing it, changing it for the better.” The Darker Nations, page 33)

Eventually the local capitalist ruling classes took total power in most of the formerly colonized countries and oppressed the working class. Dominated by the US, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund established structural adjustment policies requiring countries to pay exorbitant interest rates and abolish funding of schools, health care and other social programs.  They threatened to withhold aid if they were not paid and refused to share new technologies and other forms of intellectual property.  By the 1970s, most countries in NAM were dependent on capitalist aid.  Corrupt rulers, such as Mobutu in the Congo, stole billions of dollars in oil, cash and mineral resources that they spent on themselves while the working class lived in poverty without health care, schools, clean water, food and decent housing.

 The Defeat of Working Class Movements

 The leaders of the newly independent countries united people of different social and economic classes within their countries rather than organizing workers to oppose capitalist oppression by local or foreign exploiters or unite with workers in other nations.  Thus workers living in the poorer southern nations remained divided from each other as well as from workers in the north. This split the global working class living in the poorer southern nations among itself as well as from workers in North America and Europe, who also suffer high unemployment rates and withered wages although to a lesser degree. Uniting with the elites makes it impossible to threaten capitalism.  Instead many leaders in the wealthier southern countries limited their demands on the US and its financial institutions to democratizing the United Nations, demanding fairer trading agreements, protecting intellectual property, and removing social adjustment policies that required the elimination of social services in exchange for aid. Some (India) established industrialization and consumerism as drivers of economic growth while others (Tanzania, Cuba) prioritized policies to increase social equity.

 Some Examples

Indonesia under Sukarno

Sukarno helped found the NAM and supported membership for countries that were pro-US.  Principles of unity in NAM included peace, anti-colonialism and anti-racism, allowing many conservatives and leftists to form a united front.  Sukarno formed the Partai Nasional Indonesia (PNI) which included all social classes. In 1948 the PNI and the Dutch government, the former colonial rulers of Indonesia, attacked a communist rebellion in Madiun arresting 15,000 members from the PKI, Indonesia’s communist party.  In 1975 the US, opposed to the militancy and size (10,000,000 members) of the PKI and Sukarno’s anti-American, pro-socialist positions led a coup that terminated Sukarno’s rule and supported the new president, Suharto, as he slaughtered millions, including residents of East Timor.

Egypt under Nasser

In 1952 Nasser and other military officers overthrew the monarchy and established the Free Officers Movement that included the military, communists, aristocrats, traditional political parties, and the Muslim Brotherhood.  Yet, five years after the coup, the government jailed the Egyptian communists while forging economic relationships with the USSR to secure aid. Third World Project members, Iraq, Pakistan, and Sudan, also attacked their communist parties.

Egyptian women played major roles in rebellion against old rules and customs.  They advocated for reforms in education, domestic life and income.  Women fought for rights to union membership, lower consumer taxes, and family planning.  (Relationships in the family, however, remained more conservative).

One national liberation leader wrote:

“… Women must fight together with men against colonialism and all forms of exploitation… she must understand that the fundamental problem is not the contradiction between women and men, but it is the system in which we are living.”  (The Darker Nations, page 61)

Jamaica under Manley

The IMF imposed neoliberal trade practices in Jamaica that undercut their production of milk in order to force them to buy from the US. In 1993 Jamaica had to dump millions of dollars of unpasteurized local milk, slaughter 700 cows and close down several dairy farms. The industry has sized down nearly 60% and continues to decline.  Workers found jobs in Free Zones where foreign garment companies paid low rents, maintained poor working conditions, and used 10,000 women to produce clothing at a minimum wage of $30 US per week without the right to unionize.  Under former President Clinton, Haiti was forced to stop producing its rice crop and buy from the US.  This drove farmers into the cities with no income while forests were purposely destroyed for firewood, making the land more vulnerable to erosion and mudslides.

Neoliberalism under Reagan and Secretary of State Kissinger

Under the policartoon for Nationalim articlecy of neoliberalism beginning in the 1980s, the US and the IMF pressured the southern countries to pay back their debt (in some cases over 30% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product,(GDP)) or lose aid.  Some NAM members favored industrialization, as did the IMF, to encourage economic growth.  Others, like Nyere of Tanzania, preferred to build equity, community participation, and social development.  Even the wealthiest Third World Project members, such as India and Brazil, could not resist the economic demands of the imperialists for debt repayment and structural adjustment programs that required taking money from social programs for debt service and trade accommodations.

The southern countries used moral arguments to plead for debt relief.  The UN and finance groups like the G7, seven of the wealthiest countries, ignored these demands and threatened punitive actions including military force.  These powerful countries required the UN Security Council, instead of all UN members, to approve resolutions, isolating the global south from any decision making.  The working class around the world rose up in national liberation struggles in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.  The US sent in troops and created death squads to repress these uprisings in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Chile, as they had earlier in Vietnam.  Any Third World Project goals died as well

The Perils of Nationalism and the Unity of Social Classes:

More Exploitation

All of the formerly colonized nations included the powerful and wealthy members of the local ruling classes in their meetings and governments.  This limited their ability to improve the lives of workers.  As Prasad writes in The Darker Nations:

“The fight against the colonial and imperial forces enforced a unity … across social classes…. The working class and peasantry … acceded to an alliance with the landlords and emergent industrial elites…. Rather than provide the means to create an entirely new society, these regimes protected the elites among the old social classes .. Once in power, the old social classes exerted themselves…” (pages xvi-xvii)

Eventually the leaders of Tanzania, India, Algeria and others created the Southern Commission in the 1980s to appeal to the major imperialist countries, primarily the US, for respect and justice.  In a series of conferences and reports as in earlier times, the Commission used moral and ethical arguments to appeal to the imagined consciences of these ruling classes.

With advice from Kissinger, countries were played off against each other based on their affiliations with the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and NAM or on their economic status.  Well-resourced countries with highly desired exports like oil or minerals (Venezuela) were able to compete and threaten the US with embargoes, such as the OPEC oil embargo in 1973-74.  Others were totally drained, committing exorbitant amounts of their GDP to interest payments.

In conclusion

After independence, the former colonial masters didn’t run governments directly but maintained control via financial loans and debt through international corporations and agencies like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  These institutions, dominated by the US, offered foreign aid and grants to the former colonies as long as the governments paid back this aid by enacting trade policies favorable to the former colonialists and cutting the budget for social services, such as health care, water, food, sanitation, transportation and education.

Between the World Bank, IMF, and the now local capitalist rulers of the government and business, newly “liberated” peoples have never benefited from their countries’ rich resources. Billions of dollars have been pumped out of Sierra Leone, the Congo, Kenya, South Africa and others to enrich the rulers in the US and Europe and, to a far lesser extent, the local rulers of the neo-colonial countries. This is money that could have paid for HIV medications, clinics, schools, and many other essential services. Instead, under pressure from these financial institutions, the governments have fired healthcare workers and teachers.

 Today, the now most powerful imperialists, the US, Russia, and China compete to control African resources, from gold in South Africa to oil in Libya and Nigeria. Various opposition groups call for loyalty to one superpower or another, their own national capitalists, or to ally with religious entities like Islamic fundamentalists. Local and cross-border Islamic organizations, looking to replace the foreign exploiters, spread more deadly and destructive wars in the region. Many so-called left organizations, both local and international, choose sides with either foreign or local rulers rather than call for all workers to unite against capitalist exploiters of any stripe.

Nationalist ideas promote segregating workers from each other based on the country of their birth rather than their class position in society, and racism further divides workers within and between nations. It is easy to understand that black workers would not want to ally with white workers, some of whom, deceived by the capitalist ideology of racism, treat them as subservient. What must be stressed is that racist oppression stems from the rulers of imperialist nations, who have been predominantly white (although we must now include the Chinese and formerly the Japanese), and that workers in imperialist nations are also oppressed, divided by racism and oppressed by capitalism. It is our job to unite all workers around the world, emphasize common needs and aspirations, and question capitalism as the source of our misery. Making deals to improve our conditions under capitalism through such demands as minimum wage or sick leave are only temporary improvements at best. As long as business controls governments, governments will ignore workers’ interests.  Fighting nationalism and racism is a critical strategy to strengthen our class. Even if the struggle is around temporary reforms such as higher wages, against police brutality, for affordable housing, HIV care, sick leave, or immigrant rights, we learn to unite and rely on each other.

Lessons Learned

  • Unify workers with common interests and desires regardless of nationality, religion, gender, “race” and other characteristics across countries instead of uniting all classes within a country
  • Strive for social development goals versus materialism, industrialization and consumerism that the ruling classes promotes
  • The enemies of my enemies are not my allies (Assad, Clinton, Hamas, Sanders)
  • Recognize the power dynamics between the ruling class and workers, and use direct action, not moral arguments, reports, conferences
  • Involve the workers with real popular participation
  • Win hearts and minds to new ideas and practices, don’t dictate policy from above
  • Don’t rely on capitalist organizations, such as the IMF or UN, for social justice when the US and other imperialists control them
  • Don’t rely on NGOs that constrain social action and serve the system
  • Don’t rely on reports and speeches to convince the opposition, no “speaking truth to power” illusions when the speakers have no power

“As the national liberation state removes itself from popular mobilization, begins to cultivate domestic elites in the name of national development, and perhaps opens itself to intervention by imperialism … the military … cuts down on the ability of social movements to move the historical process in a progressive direction.”  (The Darker Nations, page 149)

Sources and Readings

The Looting of Africa, the Economics of Exploitation (2006) by Patrick Bond gives a detailed account of the theft of resources by national governments and Western imperialists.

The Darker Nations (2008) by Vijay Prashad covers the anticolonial period of the 1960s and 1970s.

The Poorer Nations (2014) by Vijay Prashad covers the postcolonial period after the 1980s.

In Love and Debt (DVD, 2001) by Stephanie Black describes IMF policies in Jamaica. (

The Travesty of Haiti (2008) by Timothy Schwartz reveals the corruption of aid organizations in Haiti.























by Ellen Isaacs

with major input by Student Worker Solidarity of Barnard College/Columbia University

The Supreme Court may soon rule against workers in Janus v. AFSCME, a case that will determine whether right-to-work legislation applies to the public sector. Contrary to the deliberately misleading framing, right-to-work laws do not give workers the “right to work.” In reality, they are a concerted well-funded effort to strip workers of their rights at work. Right-to-work laws allow workers at a unionized workplace to have the benefits of a union contract, such as higher wages and health insurance, without joining the union or paying the union a service fee for representing them. In other words, the intent is to undermine workers’ organizing and eventually defund, weaken, and destroy unions. This case would impose right-to-work on state and local governments in 23 states, in effect making it nationwide.

Right-to-work laws are not new. The idea behind “right-to-work” originated in a piece by editorial writer William Ruggles published in Dallas Morning News in 1941. His editorial was welcomed by Vance Muse of the Christian American Association, a white supremacist, anti-Semite and anti-communist, who also fought against women’s suffrage, the eight hour day and laws banning child labor. Muse and his allies from the south, as well as northern industrialists like Alfred P Sloan and the Duponts, feared the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s National Labor Relations Act, which legalized unionization. They used blatant racism to support right-to-work, knowing full well that multiracial unity would greatly strengthen the union movement. During the campaign for the law’s passage in Arkansas, a piece of literature said, if it failed “white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes . . . whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.” Another statement promised it would enable “peace officers to quell disturbances and keep the color line drawn in our social affairs” and “protect the Southern Negro from communistic propaganda and influences.” Right to work laws were enacted in Arkansas and Florida in 1944 and in Texas in 1941, and today they exist in 28 states. The Taft-Hartley Act, passed in 1947, only allows union shops in states without laws to the contrary.

This combination of anti-labor and racist rhetoric was not isolated or uncommon. Because union membership could provide higher wages, increased benefits, and safer working conditions, stifling union membership became an important tool for maintaining racial hierarchies and limiting opportunities for social and economic advancement. In other words, campaigns to undermine or defund unions–such as the advocacy for right-to-work legislation–were simultaneously campaigns to keep workers of color from making economic advances or even achieving equality. Simultaneously, there were federal and local efforts to maintain segregated housing, resulting in segregated schools and hospitals and disproportionate environmental hazards in non-white areas.

Unions have been critical in obtaining a number of rights we often take for granted today. The weekend, the eight hour day, minimum wage laws, health insurance and the ban on child labor are just a few victories for which you can thank the labor movement. The consequences of right-wing attacks on unions, especially pushes to pass right-to-work legislation, are devastating for working people. Right-to-work states have markedly higher levels of poverty, lower wages, higher risks of workplace death, and more uninsured workers than the rest of the United States.

Today only 10.7 percent of US workers are unionized, compared to 20.1% in 1983 and 34.8% in 1954. The union membership rate of public-sector workers (34.4 %) is more than five times higher than that of private-sector workers (6.5 %). Black workers remain more likely to be union members (14.1%) than white (12.8%) workers. Nonunion workers have median weekly earnings that were 80% of earnings for workers who were union members ($829 versus $1,041). Thus the current push for right-to-work laws is most threatening to black and women workers, who are disproportionately employed in public service sector jobs.


Of course American unions themselves have a long history of racism, which has only recently been partially overcome. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) specifically excluded black workers through the 1950s, and its early leader, Samuel Gompers, overtly supported “racial purity.” The Knights of Labor, the International Workers of the World (IWW), and later, the CIO did organize black and white workers together.

In 1919, the AFL led a huge steel strike, shutting down half the steel mills in the country. Management used many dirty tactics, smearing the union leaders by calling them Reds, deriding the striking workers because they were immigrants, and encouraging local militias to harass the strikers. Ultimately they used the race card, bringing in 30,000 to 40,000 African Americans and Mexican-Americans as strike breakers and taunting the locked-out strikers for losing their good “white” jobs. This would be the big business playbook for decades.

In June 1943, when managers at the Packard company in Detroit actually promoted a few black workers, 25,000 white workers went on strike. Similar racial conflicts erupted in mass transit unions in Philadelphia, in steel plants in Baltimore and in the shipyards of Alabama when black workers gained access to production jobs. This time, labor leaders, especially Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) leaders, worked hard to suppress “hate” strikes and were fairly successful.

As defense and production jobs opened up to African Americans before WWII, the second half of the Great Migration of black workers from the south to the north exploded. The CIO broke away from the AFL in 1935 because the industrial unions were committed to a broader, more inclusive vision of organizing—white and black; skilled and unskilled and they also went south, recognizing the regressive influence the South had on national politics. However the main union of southern black agricultural workers, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, was not that welcome in the industrially centered CIO and broke away after one year.

In 1962, federal employees won collective bargaining rights, which spurred state and municipal public-sector union organizing just as anti-discrimination rules were opening up public-sector jobs to African Americans and Great Society programs were expanding public-sector jobs. In 1960, only two percent of state and local public employees had the right to bargain collectively; by 1990, more than two-thirds did. The rapid expansion of public-sector unions was a boon to both the labor movement and the growth of the black middle class.


However, in the difficult period for American manufacturing after the Great Recession of 2007, the United Auto Workers (UAW) demonstrated that their ultimate loyalty was to the preservation of large businesses as opposed to the needs of workers. As American auto manufacturers faced increased competition from Asian and European car makers and shifts in production to low wage areas pushed down wages, concessions were sought from the powerful UAW. The result was union sponsorship of contracts that cut pay and benefits for new hires at GM, Ford and Chrysler by two-thirds, taking on health care costs from the bosses, and accepting dozens of plant closings. Of course these massive cutbacks disproportionately affected the more newly hired black workers and contributed to the decline of cities like Detroit and Flint. The precipitous decrease in union membership in private business was accelerated, never to be reversed. And it gets worse. Currently, the UAW is being investigated for taking a $1.5million bribe from Fiat Chrysler in exchange for a contract that cuts wages and benefits and sharply expands the number of low-paid temporary workers.

As the relative position of the US economy falls in relation to China and other rising powers, the pressure on unions and all workers for concessions will increase. The likelihood of larger wars will also mean that more and more cutbacks will be sought from workers as defense spending increases. Therefore there will be more attempts to weaken the bargaining power of unions, as well as make them loyal partners in the elite’s plans for cutting wages, benefits and social services and promoting nationalism. The recent militant strikes by teachers in West Virginia and Oklahoma, right-to work states, give hope that workers will rise up despite the sorry state of most current unions, and reinvigorate a new empowered working class movement. They will not only have to continue to rebel against cutbacks, restrictive laws and sell-out union leaders, but to consider whether they wish to support the political leaders willing to risk workers’ flesh and treasure in the quest to maintain world supremacy.