There is a long history of radical black labor organizing


This article is part of a series of Athian Akec: Beyond Black History Month.

“We want to thank Jeff Bezos for going to space because while he was up there we were organizing a union,” Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls said after the first union was formed. of the giant. Overnight, Chris Smalls has become an iconic figure in black labor organizing, showing the power workers can achieve across racial lines to advance their interests. But while this may seem like a new phenomenon, there is a long history of radical black labor organizing.

In the UK we are struggling with a cost of living crisis due to soaring prices for bills, food and transport, while wages are stagnating and not reaching the price of inflation and upcoming income tax hikes. The government’s response has been lackluster – with 1.3 million people believed to have been pushed into absolute poverty due to lack of government support following Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s spring statement, according to think tank The Resolution Foundation. Peaceful protests and the ability to vote in our democratic elections are closed and removed in this context.

The government is still trying to get the Policing, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill through the House of Lords, which will give the police the power to legally end protests deemed too disruptive, and is still on track to introduce voter ID cards ahead of the next general election – which campaigners say weakens the franchise of marginalized communities across the UK, with two million people without access to the ID needed to vote. The stories of black history, erased from the collective consciousness, have much to teach us about how to overcome the challenges we face.

Working-class radicals are rarely remembered in history. Despite their dramatic impact, they are rarely highlighted in our school curricula, rewarded with statues or praised with public monuments: their achievements are often high, but their radical politics are erased. Even if they are, as is the case of Nelson Mandela, whose early political life saw him develop a revolutionary left-wing politics and strategy, their radical heritage is whitewashed.

The story of William Cuffay and his remarkable life, for example, can offer us a model of the importance of building multiracial coalitions for justice and of building unions capable of dealing with the economic crisis we are going through. Let’s start with its roots and origins. William Cuffay was a black man born in 1788 on a merchant ship in the West Indies to a father who spent his youth in slavery and a white mother. He grew up in Kent, becoming one of the most important organizers of the time, working to advance workers’ rights across Victorian Britain.

Cuffay, by trade, was a tailor. He was pushed into political activism after being sacked and blacklisted over his involvement in labor organizing. He then became an active member of the Chartist movement, whose goals centered on the expansion of democratic workers’ rights. Their radical demands included: universal male suffrage, annual parliaments, voting by secret ballot, payment of MPs, abolition of property qualifications for MPs, and equal constituencies. These proposals were radical for the time and would have involved a massive redistribution of power and the fundamental expansion of economic rights. Cuffay became a key figure as this movement gained prominence and attempted to implement its transformative policies.

The year 1948 was a year of radical revolution and protest across Europe and Britain, and Chartism became the next epicenter of class struggle in Europe. That year, Cuffay gave one of the most radical speeches that pushed for drastic action to achieve the movement’s goals. A strong and powerful quote emerged: “That clap is fine, but are you going to fight for it?” Subsequently, disputes arose within the movement between radical and moderate voices, as Cuffay represented the more radical views – pushing for the strategy of direct action and protest. On Kennington Common, members of the movement would deliver the petition with their main demands to parliament.

At the time, the crowds forming on Kennington Common sent fear waves through the British establishment, as evidenced by the immense pressure exerted on the organisers. The state used all its power to intimidate and stop the march of the crowd towards parliament, declaring the procession illegal, and with all government buildings prepared for the attack, the ridges next to the common were closed off and the police and the soldiers gathered nearby. The pressure was so immense that the demonstration was canceled by the leader of the movement, Feargus O’Connor. After questionable evidence, Cuffay was tried for conspiracy to stage an armed uprising and was later deported and sent to Australia. His race powerfully shaped his trial and, facing an all-middle-class jury, he was branded by the British press as “the black man and his party”, as a way to make him feel anti -black.

The forces that shaped the story of William Cuffay have remarkable parallels with the challenges we collectively face today. Economic inequality, the suppression of protest and the denial of democratic rights to working class communities. Politically, as we live, it is extremely important to recognize the importance of forming coalitions between communities that face different types of injustices that are driven by the same underlying systems that create inequality. Building a better picture of how radicals like William Cuffay shaped history will help us embody the spirit of resistance he lived with, and the tactics he employed – from direct action protest to union organization – should guide us through the interconnected web of injustice ahead of us. It is clear that the experiences of the cost of living crisis will not be felt the same way – recent research has shown the shocking levels of child poverty in black communities. Joining unions is a way to strengthen our rights. From William Cuffay to Christian Smalls, the precedent is here – for the need for us to build collective power against injustice through the organization of work has never been more urgent.

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