On a cold day in March, I was sitting in the Blackburn Center at Howard University for a rare meeting. The buzz in the room as the students entered largely concerned the special guest who was about to address the audience. Yet the importance of the gathering actually had less to do with this guest than with the nature of the event itself.
An unusual coalition has developed between the United Auto Workers and a black student network known as the Student Justice Alliance. Both groups are supporting a union drive by workers at the giant Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi. The plant employs more than 5,000 workers, and if the UAW is successful, it would mark a breakthrough in organizing Japanese auto plants, especially in the South. It's a tough battle, though, because Nissan has been intimidating workers and threatening to shut down if they unionize.
The UAW, under the leadership of Bob King, has been reaching out to African Americans to bolster the organizing effort. That, in and of itself, is noteworthy. And what's especially noteworthy here is the attempt to galvanize black students nationally around this economic justice campaign.
Meetings of 150 students at Howard University in support of workers' rights to organize and collectively bargain don't occur every day -- or even every year. With the weakening of the Black Left over the last three decades, the linking of workers' and students' struggles has become a vague historical memory.
The person who jarred that memory was actor and activist Danny Glover. He was not at Howard for a photo op. He's gotten very involved with the Canton workers, so he was at Howard to encourage the students' spirit of activism and urge them to join this campaign. His message, delivered with great insight and passion, emphasized the legitimacy of social activism as a course that one should follow in life. He also wanted to make clear to the students that the battles in Canton actually resonate throughout the rest of the country, and that they -- the students -- must be prepared to respond to the call of battle.
The effort is also a boon to the United Auto Workers. At one point one of the most dynamic labor unions in the country, it has been largely ineffective in addressing the dramatic changes in its auto industry. In response to concession demands by employers in the 1980s, the UAW leadership largely caved. It promoted the notion of "jointness" (partnering with management) as an acceptable path toward survival while the auto executives were hammering away at the gains that the UAW had won over the decades. As "transplants" (foreign-owned auto companies) entered the U.S. market, the UAW was slow to address the new dynamics inherent in organizing these companies. The union also failed to develop a strategy to organize the auto parts segment of the industry, a segment with large numbers of Latino immigrants. One of the most explosive bullets the UAW leaders shot at their own feet was their willingness to accept two-tiered agreements over the years, in which new hires get paid less than veterans for doing the same job.
At various moments there have been glimmers of hope. In 1995, the UAW, the United Steel Workers of America, and the International Association of Machinists announced their commitment to a historic merger to create a huge metal workers union in the USA. The possibilities contained in this were immense. But they vanished when the unions, for a variety of reasons, chose not to proceed.
A second glimmer was the election of Bob King as president of the UAW. King, though a UAW insider and not perceived as a dissident, was nevertheless seen by many as a center-left leader with reform ambitions. His tenure as president, however, had not brought about any significant turnaround in the UAW's approach.
Until the organizing effort in Canton.
First, King hired the near-legendary Richard Bensinger to head up the organizing department. Bensinger has been making the case that organizing autoworkers must be part of a global effort. And he stresses freedom of association as a key public argument in favor of unionization.
What makes Canton so important and unusual is the workforce there is overwhelmingly African American. For too long, the UAW failed to remember the key role that African Americans played in the successful growth of the union in the 1930s and 1940s. African Americans were attracted to the openness of the UAW and its willingness to organize workers irrespective of race. In fact, the successful organizing of Ford Motors, in 1941, can be directly attributed to the active involvement of key segments of the African American community in Detroit.
Bensinger understands the necessity of organizing African Americans, and he grasps the crucial role that African American students can play.
Joshua Dedmond, the Mississippi chair of the Student Justice Alliance, has been on the road trying to build this coalition, and he's not limiting it to Howard. His group's "Concerned Students for a Better Nissan" is reaching out to Clark, Cornell, Morehouse, Spelman, and Tennessee State University, and that's just for starters.
Dedmond points out that it would be wrong to see the "Concerned Students for a Better Nissan" as a UAW-driven campaign. Instead, he calls it a "UAW-supported" campaign. For some, that may appear to be a distinction without a difference, but the difference is more than symbolic. For younger activists like Dedmond, the Canton campaign is part of a larger effort to refuel and reshape both the Black Freedom Movement and the movement for economic justice in the USA. Supporting the efforts at Canton for the unionization of workers is the first step.
What the UAW and the Student Justice Alliance are attempting in Canton deserves our support. All workers have the right to self-organization, free and clear of the intimidation of management.
As Danny Glover says, "It's about the right to organize, the right to have a fair wage and benefits, and the right to be able to stand up and say, 'I am a man.'"
The broader ambitions of the Student Justice Alliance also merit our support. Engaging Black students in the struggles for social and economic justice is right in line with the finest traditions of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.
Here's to a new generation of black activists.
Bill Fletcher Jr. is a columnist for The Progressive. He is a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, the co-author (with Dr. Fernando Gapasin) of Solidarity Divided, and the author of "They're Bankrupting Us"--And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. Follow him at www.billfletcherjr.com.