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Race Matters in the Workplace

Eric Forman Jul 25

There has been a lot of debate recently about the role of identity politics on the left. I’m hearing some retreads of what is basically post-racial Obama liberalism, the idea that race is made up so we should just not think about it. I’m also hearing some returns to the idea that class is all that matters.

Try organizing a workplace with that attitude. You will fail.

The point of race being constructed is that it has in fact been constructed. It’s there. And if you don’t acknowledge it, it will be a wall that your organizing crashes into.

When I worked at Jimmy John’s, the employer very intentionally organized the workplace along racial lines. The organizing originated with mostly-white delivery drivers, who were mainly younger dudes like myself, many of whom were on their way through college or on to better jobs. Delivery drivers got tips, which made our wages far higher than in-shop workers. In-shop workers were largely black, made minimum wage and nothing more. Many were on their way out of prison or struggling with homelessness.

We tried hard to bridge this divide and make the union inclusive of all workers. We were only partially successful.

When the campaign went public the employer race-baited the mostly-white organizing committee and recruited two black workers as spokespeople for the anti-union campaign.

It was an effective union-busting strategy. The underlying lack of trust and solidarity and material differences in circumstances between white and black workers was exploited by the boss and became a major factor in our loss of the union election by one vote.

There is a backlash against identity politics right now. Most of the critiques I read are totally ahistorical and reflect no understanding of the central role of race and gender in the construction of U.S. capitalism. But worse, they are also devoid of any reflection derived from experience. But the same could be said for most of what passes for left theory today.

Erik Forman has led labor organizing workshops and trainings in over 20 countries for the Industrial Workers of the World and other unions.

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Photo: Fast food workers on strike in New York City, July 2013. Credit: Annette Bernhardt.