Fighting Racism at Work and in the Community
Editor's Note: Dave Brown has been a setup operator and machinist in Greenville, North Carolina, for over 18 years. He works for Bosch (formerly known as Vermont American), one the world's biggest tool manufacturer. Together with about 200 co-workers he produces standard precision tools, such as drill bits, router bits and so forth.
Despite North Carolina's reputation as a right-to-work state with the lowest union density in the country, Brown has also been a union activist and Black leader for a long time. In 2000 he became president of a non-majority union, the Carolina Auto Aerospace and Machine Workers Union, which is an amalgamated union consisting of worker members from the Consolidated Diesel Company and Bosch. CAAMWU is affiliated to the United Electrical Workers Local 150.
Non-majority unions are unions that represent groups of workers who organize and fight to improve their lives on the job without a contract or recognized bargaining rights.
Labor Notes interviewed Brown. In particular we wanted to find out what CAAMWU, together with community organizations, is able to do about racism on the shop floor and in the communities.
When did you first get involved in your workplace?
I became active in 1996. I got sick and tired of the racism in the plant. Workers were being called niggers, there were nooses in the bathroom, and white workers were getting all the high paying jobs.
Some of us reached out to the Coalition against Racism (CAR) in Greenville, North Carolina, and the NAACP, and we were able to organize our co-workers around some of these racist incidents.
Towards 1999 we had a huge meeting and about half the workers in the plant attended. At that point we started working with an already existing non-majority union at the Consolidated Diesel Company (CDC) plant. We began to organize our own executive board and called our plant organization BRAVES (Black Rising Against Vermont American Evil Standards). This really opened the eyes of white workers.
Not so long after that we officially joined forces with the CDC non-majority union and became CAAMWU, which was chartered with UE Local 150 in 2002. Since then we've had monthly executive board meetings to which the membership is invited.
RACISM ON THE JOB
What is the racial and gender composition of the union membership and how does it compare to the whole workforce? Is there still racism in the plant?
At Bosch 70 percent of the workers are Black and the rest are white. The gender division is similar, about 70 percent of the workers are men. Some of the workers at Bosch have become dues paying members of CAAMWU.
Racism is always apparent in the plant, either between workers or from management. It's a normal thing in the South: higher paying jobs going to white workers. In our division they'll say that no jobs are available, or fire a Black person, and then turn around and hire a white person. In the machining field, they say Blacks are not capable of doing precision work or being able to handle a maintenance mechanic job. There's no loyalty towards Black workers when it comes to these higher paying jobs, even if Black workers have a lot of seniority in the plant.
Three or four years ago, I was in the position of getting a technician job. There was a white person with a bad attendance record and only eight years in the plant, whereas at that point I had 13 years of seniority. They said that he was the better employee for the job. It doesn't matter if you're outspoken or not, Black workers will get passed over for jobs.
In terms of management on a day-to-day basis, supervisors will be harsher with Black workers. Blacks get written up for producing scrap, white workers won't. This racism goes on all the time.
Why does this racism continue to exist?
I constantly try not to let racism come into the union. When I see racism geared towards Blacks in the union I am very outspoken. But I'll do the same when it's directed towards white folks.
Discrimination and anti-worker practices are not just based on skin color-bosses just use racism to keep whites and Blacks divided. Employers don't want workers to see this. I try to show how bosses screw workers and use racism as a kind of smokescreen to hide the fact that they're out to divide and exploit workers-regardless of their race. But there is always real racist practice that we also need to address. When I see racism I'll try to pull the white racist brother aside and explain that they're not better off than I am because their skin is white. We've had white workers we knew were racist, but when things got nasty and dirty in the plant, they've seen that management didn't care about white or Black workers.
Black workers have to understand their own history and white workers do too before we can all work together solidly. Trade unions need to realize this: it is only by being educated about the history of the South, that we will become stronger. You can't sugarcoat racism, it needs to be explained and understood.
How does CAAMWU deal with this racism?
We put out a monthly newsletter, where we expose the racism and ask white and Black workers to stand up against this. We ask white workers to join the union in support of issues that we're fighting.
When we have specific cases we go to the Coalition against Racism and the NAACP. Both CAR and the NAACP have picketed the Bosch plant in support of CAAMWU at various times.
We've also tried filing charges with the Equal Opportunities Commission, but we've found it to be a smokescreen.
The only way to really address racism is to organize with the union, so that we can defeat both nepotism and racism. Racism is a form of nepotism.
We discuss this with other workers, especially white workers. Bosses don't want to see any workers, Black or white, come together. As long as white workers get a little more than Black workers, bosses can use that to their advantage all the time.
What are some of the challenges facing non-majority unions?
One challenge that I see is being able to sustain a union campaign until you get a union contract and are recognized by the company. The company breaks the law every day by firing union activists-that's a challenge right there. We need to know how the law works and how management works.
Another challenge is to keep the core group of activists educated and in touch with other workers throughout their work areas. Members often forget that even though our union is not formally recognized by the employer, we do have the right to concerted action under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act.
WE DO HAVE RIGHTS
Another challenge is getting people to pay dues and see why they need to pay dues. This is a big problem in the Black community because of a lack of education about how important unions are to our livelihood, and this is because, in part, we have such low union density in the South.
Does the union get involved in community issues?
Yes, we've been involved in police brutality issues in various surrounding counties. Just in the last eight or nine months three black people have been killed by the police. The media portrays the police as the good guy, but we know the facts.
We are also fighting for Martin Luther King Jr. Day to be a paid holiday for the whole private sector. At CDC they won this fight several years ago. Martin Luther King Jr. was strongly in favor of Black workers being in unions. The NAACP, CAR, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and other organizations, are supporting this struggle.
What relationship does CAAMWU have to your affiliate, the UE?
Since I've been involved with the UE, I've seen the UE take on a lot of issues. They're backing us 100 percent in North Carolina, by chartering our private sector union and by fighting for public sector bargaining rights in North Carolina.
In the last two years there have been numerous decertifications from other unions into the UE. Just because a union is big doesn't mean that it has the best contracts. The UE is a militant union because it involves its members, it believes in union democracy and it doesn't have high dollar executive board members.
The UE also supported our first non-majority union conference in August 2004, where non-majority union members and organizers came from as far as Maine, Boston, New York, Pennsylvania, and the eastern part of North Carolina (see Labor Notes¼). I know of other non majority unions that have been created because of our example.
You're not afraid of losing your job?
I've been a Jehovah's Witness my whole life; I get my strength from not being afraid of this one person that controls everything. I love doing union work and believe that I can be strong if I face my own fears. I ask myself what I'm going to stand up for? When I was growing up, in my household we talked about unions and racism, we talked about Black history. I had that foundation. Workers need to be educated on organizing. We talked about it in my family, but this doesn't happen in a lot of families, so education is the key.