North Carolina Center Creates Alternatives for Black Workers in Union-Hostile South

September 2003

Black Workers For Justice (BWFJ) views trade unions as necessary organizations for empowering and uniting the Black liberation and workers’ movements in the U.S. South. However, it sees trade unions, especially those in the South, as being narrow politically, lacking a strong presence and identity in working class communities and culture, and lacking an anti-racist perspective and practice.

BWFJ formed the Workers Center as a broader working class institution to support the leadership of Black workers in organizing workers of all nationalities into a common labor movement.


In the South, most unions focus mainly on political activities such as lobbying and endorsing candidates. Occasionally, they hold press conference focused on workplace injuries or similar issues.

Fights against racism in the workplace are seldom organized or discussed by the unions. Some see it as a “divisive” issue. As a result, many Black workers question whether unions will take up this struggle without the existence of Black worker organizations to help push them forward.

The 12 states making up the U.S. South have less union members than the state of New York. Only 3.2% of the workers in North Carolina belong to unions.

In addition to being numerically weak, unions in North Carolina lack an institutional presence in the community enabling workers to make contact with them. They don’t ask to speak at public schools, community groups, or churches unless there is a union campaign involved.

BWFJ views the struggle against racism as critical to uniting workers to challenge capital and corporate power. The organization and leadership of Black workers is central to the BWFJ’s perspective on building a labor movement in the South.


The BWFJ Workers Center promotes the view of social unionism: that the labor movement is an organized rank-and-file democratic workers movement. Aspects of this workers’ movement develop spontaneously to fight back around particular issues like race discrimination and health and safety.

Most of the fight-back committees organized by BWFJ during the 1980s were underground, in the sense that they were not public at the workplace. One of the tasks of the Workers Center was to connect these different fight-backs into an industry-wide and area-wide workers movement and to make the workplace issues and struggles part of broader working class community struggles. This was part of the preparation for surfacing the fight-back committees as open workplace organizations.

Saladin Muhammad will speak at the Labor Notes Conference in a workshop on “Nonmajority Unions.”

The Workers Center became a well-known institution and the public face of the developing workers movement, mainly in eastern North Carolina. It organized worker assemblies and “speak-outs” as public forums for workers to address their workplace issues.

The Center provided a meeting place for workers, assisted with producing newsletters, trained organizers, held a legal clinic and educational forums (such as the Abner Berry Freedom Library, with hundreds of books and videos), and helped connect fight-back committees to allies in the community and from other countries.

Initially, BWFJ and the Workers Center were seen by the state AFL-CIO as interfering with the labor movement. Some saw its focus on race as divisive for workers. We did not see ourselves as an “alternative form of organizing,” since so few workers here are organized to begin with. The most active social organizations here are community-based; we saw ourselves as a workplace-based community organization.


With increasing numbers of immigrant Latino workers coming into the U.S. South, the Workers Center and BWFJ have been focusing on building an African American-Latino (Workers) Alliance, as well as a projected program called Black and Brown Freedom Schools. These schools would teach English and Spanish as second languages, form workplace committees, and educate both communities about the common aspects of our struggles, as well as how to defend each other from racist attacks and stereotypes.



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While the emphasis of the Workers Center and BWFJ has been on organizing workers’ power at the workplace, workers’ interests are broader than the workplace. The need to connect the class and racial basis of the problems faced by workers and the importance of worker leadership in struggles to change these conditions is a key part of the efforts of the Workers Center.

During the disaster caused by Hurricane Floyd, which brought massive destruction and dislocation to 29 Black Belt counties in eastern North Carolina, the Workers Center built a coalition of worker, community, and faith-based organizations called the Worker and Community Relief and Aid Project (RAP). RAP brought a social justice focus to the Floyd relief efforts.

The Workers Center became a food and aid distribution and organizing center. It called on its workplace committees and the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union-United Electrical Workers Local 150-and helped them organize RAP committees at their workplaces to collect food, clothes, and money to support the Workers Center.

We felt that it was important that the identity of the unions be present in this relief effort. This way, workers could see that the concerns of unions are broader than the workplace, and employers would not be in the position to say, “Where were the unions when workers needed help around the Floyd disaster?”

Part of the struggle for Black self-determination and workers’ power is working class institutional independence and control. The Workers Center helps workers to understand the need to have independence from the bosses, a base within the community, a place to learn about the world, and resources to wage their struggles. The BWFJ Workers Center is not service oriented; it’s part of the organizing strategy for building a labor movement in the U.S. South.

Saladin Muhammad is an organizer with United Electrical Workers Local 150 and a member of Black Workers for Justice.