Black & Brown Workers Alliance Born In North Carolina
In recent years, thousands of Latino migrants have come to work in the Southeast and often remained as permanent residents. In North Carolina alone, the number of Latinos rose from about 77,000 in 1990, according to the Census Bureau, to over 300,000 today. They are mostly Mexican but also Guatemalan and other nationalities. Latino labor was attracted to the area starting 15 years ago, from Texas and Florida.
The white racist response has included an anti-immigration rally last February led by former KKK leader David Duke in Siler City, a small town about 50 miles west of Raleigh; efforts to make English the official language for government business; and billboards blaming immigrants for every social evil.
That response is predictable, but what does the growing Latino population mean for descendants of slaves who have provided the South’s cheap labor for over a century, and who still face racism? Tension has occurred and there have even been reports of Mexicans robbed and sometimes killed by local African Americans. Are efforts being made to combat divisions and build alliances between African Americans and Latinos to fight together for justice? In the cultural arena, local teachers and community leaders have been working for some time to bridge the gap by bringing Latino/a poets, writers, musicians, performance artists, and speakers to the South, including North Carolina. I addressed a statewide meeting of Florida teachers two years ago. On another, crucial front, a new black/brown workers’ alliance was launched in Raleigh last February 2 by Black Workers for Justice, now almost 20-years-old, with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee headed by Baldemar Velaquez and headquartered in Ohio; Public Service Workers Union/UE Local 150;, and the Asociacion de Trabajadores Latinos de North Carolina (ASTLANC). The call for the African American/Latino Alliance went out from the North Carolina Office of Health and Safety (NCOSH), a non-profit entity that has supplied educators and organizers.
In July-August I spoke by telephone with five people involved in building the alliance, in separate interviews. Although only a few months old, it became clear that this effort is difficult, historic, and a critical example of what needs to be done, as the South—like the whole country—acquires vast new populations. Once again we can see how class contradictions within each community affect the degree of success achieved in crossing racial lines between communities. Finally, as non-Southerners often fail to realize, we can find in the South not just some of the nation’s most backward attitudes about labor, race, and other issues, but also some of the most progressive views and concrete accomplishments. In any case, alliance-building among workers in North Carolina is a challenge to watch carefully.
The five African Americans and Latino/as involved in building the new alliance spoke to several key questions.
Q: Where do you find the tension?
A: Most of the tension between African Americans and Latinos arises in the poultry industry, according to Saladin Muhammad, Chair of Black Workers for Justice and Lead Organizer of UE Local 150. In Siler City, where the David Duke rally took place, 80 percent of the poultry workers are Latinos. There is not a lot of tension in agriculture, where about 60 to 70 percent of the Latinos work, because blacks don’t “own” those jobs, Muhammad said.
Latinos are also becoming employees of state and local government, while a number are going into construction and small businesses. The competition in those areas has been over-played by the media, Muhammad believes, although obviously there is competition, mostly for low-wage jobs, which then breaks down by nationality.
Q: What are some of the obstacles to alliance-building?
A: Alyce Gowdy Wright of NCOSH, who is bi-racial, works with both Latino and Black workers. “What’s the main obstacle to building the alliance? Capitalism. Workers played off against each other. The isolation makes that last, we try to break it.” She spoke of other ways that “divide-and-conquer” can operate. “Latinos who have proficient English skills get taken off the line, put in a small office (that probably used to be a closet), and become company spies. But I also get the chance to challenge black workers and meet with black supervisors on the line who are buying trailers and renting them to Latinos at a profit.” The bosses deliberately pit workers against each other, said Armando Carbajal of the Asociacion de Trabajadores Latinos de North Carolina (ASTLANC), the Latino Workers Association that has tried to combat this problem. Carbajal described how Blacks who come looking for work don’t get jobs. Also, a black worker may be threatened that if he [sic] doesn’t shape up, he’ll be fired and a Latino hired.
A key source of tension is recruitment methods. For example, Muhammad described how the Carolina Turkey company has sent out recruiters, like crew leaders, who get a premium for bringing in workers. They go to Texas and Florida and send Latinos back to get jobs, knowing they are more likely to accept low wages and poor working conditions because they may be undocumented. Carolina Turkey also exerts control with its trailers, where workers live with the rent deducted from their pay—like a company town, So if you lose your job you lose your home too.
Conditions for labor in the South make the struggle all the more difficult because of right-to-work laws that give owners all the rights over workers, especially in construction and restaurant work (where not even the minimum wage is paid). As Muhammad said, “We have to remember the South still constitutes an internal colony of this empire in many ways. Both Black and Latino workers are supposed to be docile.”
“Every day workers come to my office with complaints against the bosses, even from Tennessee and South Carolina,” Carbajal reported. “Not just labor complaints but also discrimination in housing and health. I work with the Centro Hispano on these problems; we set up the first co-op in North Carolina and the Centro is growing fast. Together with ASTLANC we want to pass laws that give workers more protection, and we’re talking with African Americans about this too.”
Language can also be a problem, Muhammad said. It can prevent the community from becoming united. African Americans will assume when people are talking a different language that they are saying bad things about you. There are also cultural issues, for example the name Jesus—which is common among Latinos—causes a negative reaction in the black community. We had Spanish classes last year, we should start those classes again.
Q: How does fear among the undocumented Latinos affect alliance-building?
A: Both Muhammad and Carbajal spoke of the fear of complaining that Latino workers often have if they are undocumented. “There is a tendency among Latinos to identify with the white society as a self-protective tactic. Also, even before they get here, they have been told to ‘watch out for the blacks, they will rob you’.”
Muhammad told how Black Workers for Justice once organized black and Latino workers at Carolina Turkey. “We had a newsletter with a column in Spanish. When a young Mexican worker fell into a machine and was killed, Carolina offered the family in Mexico a ridiculous amount of compensation. Black Workers tried to force them to pay more, but then the family and others told us to back off—they were afraid of retaliation if they pressed too hard. We learned from that the importance of slow organizing. The alliance is still very new.”
Ajamu Gordon Dillahunt, Research and Education Director of the American Postal Workers Union and also a founder of the Alliance, spoke about the responsibility of Black workers to understand how undocumented status leaves Latino workers vulnerable both to bosses and harassment by police. “If that makes them afraid to speak up, then the undocumented status is a problem for Black workers too because it makes them unable to build an effective workplace organization.”
Dillahunt also stressed that campaigning against racial profiling is complicated for the undocumented. “If the police stop them for ”driving while brown" and find out they are undocumented, they will call the Rapid Response Team and things get worse. So Latinos have an additional problem. The Alliance is working on this issue."
Q: Have there been any encouraging signs?
A: Baldemar Velasquez, President of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee headquartered in Ohio, told of how Black Workers for Justice has supported FLOC’s major campaign. FLOC began work in rural North Carolina nine years ago among Latinos and has been focusing on Mt. Olive, one of the largest pickle companies, which subcontracts to small farmers. FLOC’s organizer was told by farmers, “You don’t know where you’re at, buddy. You’re in the south. The north only won that war on paper. We’ve never given up our slaves.”
In response to such attitudes, FLOC launched a boycott in spring 1999, and received good support from much of the black community including Black Workers for Justice. Muhammad pointed out that BWJ is supporting Latino workers on the boycott and also a petition campaign calling on the President and Congress to grant unconditional amnesty to all undocumented workers. “The amnesty petition is going pretty well,” he said, “but we need to work on it in a more organized way. We had wanted to force the presidential candidates to take up this issue.
“We took the petition to England recently, asked workers to circulate it. We are also thinking of bringing it to the 2001 UN world conference on racism in South Africa. Migration has been an issue before and after slavery for African Americans, who have moved from the south to the north. Many people don’t realize that. The right to migrate freely is real, and there are important lessons in that.”
Q: What is the key to successfully organizing the Alliance?
A: All five organizers emphasized the same basic point: go to the grassroots. Go into the neighborhoods as well as the workplace. Muhammad explained: “We recognized early on that Latinos would be facing difficulties if they moved into African American communities where the stage had been set by the state in the public school system, housing, health care, and other services not controlled by the people themselves. The so-called diversity programs are usually oriented to middle-class African Americans and the forums usually took place at downtown hotels. The message has been, ‘we’ll give you a piece of the action, we’ll give you programs’—but without getting to the heart of the matter. There is upper-crust competition, including Latinos, for pieces of the pie, and that fosters divisions.
“We saw the need for an initiative that would come from the grassroots level of the African American communities. Our middle-class African Americans can be progressive and they may unite with Latinos around the struggle against ‘driving while black or brown.’ But the Alliance sees the need to attract more working-class participation.
“We have to organize the workers. Otherwise, the South’s labor laws along with its deep-rooted racist system will prevent progress. Unions cannot by themselves lead workers to freedom but they can begin to challenge the system and expose the factors that cause us problems. Making the development of unions a major aspect of the Black Workers for Justice program is key to building the alliance. Workers themselves have to do it. Last year about 300 Guatemalan workers in poultry—Tyson chicken—went on strike and some on a hunger strike. They didn’t win any major concessions. They didn’t have African American support or statewide support in general.
“We also have to organize in the community, not just on the job. Hurricane Floyd hurt poor communities and in one ‘refugee camp,’ called FEMA (for the program that is supposed to help it), there are destitute Blacks and Latinos. We’re planning a black/Latino dialogue in the camp, to build a survivors’ organization. This can be a practical success, to build Latino/black connections. The Alliance also has to do more media work, especially radio, to reach Latinos and draw out the connections.”
Alyce Gowdy Wright also emphasized working in the communities. “We had a barbecue. We’re still at the point where blacks sit on one side of the room and Latinos on the other—and me with Armando in the middle. It’s all very new. We use all our networks to try to bring people together; we do trainings on workers rights, health and safety, ergonomics. I also want to get more women involved (at the first meeting, I was asked to take the minutes).” As an out-lesbian, Alyce said she also wants to take on anti-gay prejudice where possible. “I want to make this alliance as politically viable as possible.” Like Muhammad, she emphasized the importance of education and breaking through the isolation that makes it last. She told one story as a practical example. A Latino worker came into her office who had a Confederate flag on his truck. Why? He wanted to be accepted (probably having seen the flag often). We explained what the flag meant and he understood that for many people it was unacceptable. Fortunately Armando and I were both there—not just a black woman.
Muhammad gave a personal example of being educated. “My 8-year-old grandson moved to Raleigh and told me he had a new friend named Edgar. I laughed at the name, ‘that’s for a nerd.’ But then the boy said, ”it’s a Spanish name, granddaddy. You pronounce it EdGAR.’ We do need to have those Spanish classes again." And we must do more media work to reach Latinos, go deeper into the trade unions and draw out the Latino-black connections." Taking the long view, Muhammad also said, “By the middle of this century, the latino population will be very large. Combined with blacks and Asians, we can have potential majorities. But numbers without a program won’t do it. We must be organized.”
“Latinos are mushrooming, but nobody has this on their radar screen. The program directors of non-profits haven’t assessed the situation.” Dillahunt concluded. “Grassroots organizing efforts in the South won’t succeed unless our two communities work together.”
“We cannot be fighting for the crumbs the rich leave us,” Carbajal said. And that was the general feeling. The alliance is still very new, yet it is already clear that “we have to be allies in the fight for justice.”
Elizabeth (Betita) Martinez served on the staff of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and did support work for the Black Panther Party in the 1960s before going on to work in the Chicano Movement. She is co-founder of the Institute for MultiRacial Justice, a resource center in San Francisco that helps build alliances among peoples of color.