League of Revolutionary Black Workers
League of Revolutionary Black Workers
Few organizations have challenged racism as creatively and systematically as the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and its affiliate organizations, the various Revolutionary Union Movements (RUMs) of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Based in Detroit, Michigan, the league fused the local fight against racism with broader social struggles in the areas of workers” rights, economic justice, public education, and municipal political power. The league grew from African-American workers” struggles in Detroit’s teeming automotive manufacturing plants. Because of this, in all the league’s work the struggle for racial justice was connected to the struggle against what the league saw as worker exploitation.
Though the league is less well remembered than another group of the period, the Black Panthers, it challenged what it saw as the racist practices of some of the world’s most powerful corporations. In the United States and abroad, activists looked to the league’s work in Detroit as a model for strategies and tactics in the fight against racism and injustice.
To understand the league, one must understand the city from which it emerged—Detroit in the late 1960s. Many American cities experienced serious racial unrest and rioting in the 1960s, but none matched the scale and ferocity of the Detroit race riots of 1967, known at the time to many of the city’s African-American residents as the Great Rebellion.
For five days in July 1967, large swaths of Detroit burned to the ground in an explosion of racial violence. Stoked by anger over what black residents saw as persistent police harassment and racial injustice, the Great Rebellion could only be subdued by a major mobilization of the National Guard. By the time the smoke had cleared, forty-one people had died, 1,300 buildings had been leveled, and $500 million in damage had been done. Late-1960s Detroit was a powder keg of racial tension that seemed ready to blow at any moment.
Unrest among the city’s 600,000 African-American residents—roughly 40 percent of the city’s population— was mirrored by unrest in the Detroit area’s many automotive plants. Detroit, long known as the “Motor City,” relied heavily on the Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors (GM) automobile companies as the chief suppliers of jobs for the city’s residents. There were some 250,000 black workers at these “Big Three” automakers, and they were almost always relegated to the lowest-paying, most dangerous jobs. At Chrysler’s Dodge Main plant, for example, 95 percent of all foremen were white, 90 percent of all skilled trades workers (higher-paying, higher-skilled jobs) were white, and 100 percent of superintendents were white.
Autoworkers, and disproportionately African-American autoworkers, were regularly injured or maimed on the job at Big Three plants. Nor were workplace deaths uncommon; —a 1973 study of the U.S. automotive industry found a rate of sixty-five workplace deaths per day. Temperatures in the plants rose to wel lover 100 degrees in the summer and fell close to freezing in the winter. Heart attacks were the most common cause of workplace death.
Anger and frustration mounted among African-American workers, who continually saw white workers promoted ahead of them into more desirable jobs. In one famous 1970 incident, James Johnson, a black worker at Chrysler’s Eldon Avenue Gear and Axle plant, one of the most dangerous manufacturing plants in the United States, shot and killed two of his foremen and one other coworker. He was acquitted, largely due to a legal defense that placed responsibility for his actions in the persistent racism and abominable working conditions he had encountered. Though such extreme cases were rare, violent tensions were in the air at Detroit’s auto plants.
When frustrated black workers turned to their union, the United Auto Workers (UAW), for support or protection, they usually found their frustrations exacerbated. Though the UAW had a reputation as a strong advocate for workers” rights and racial equality, the union in many ways reflected the same problems workers saw in their workplaces and in their city.
The UAW, which sprang up in Detroit in the 1930s as a militant expression of workers” demands for justice, had by the 1960s become a calcified, bureaucratic institution. In most cases, the union’s function was more to keep the auto plants running smoothly than to advocate for their workers” interests. Workers” grievances would gather dust for months and years, and workers who rocked the boat were targeted by a tandem of union and management, who operated more like business partners than adversaries.
Although by the 1960s about one-third of the UAW’s one million members were African American, workers of color were almost completely excluded from leadership or even staff roles in the union. Black workers, fed up with both management and the union, sought other avenues to demand justice on the job. From this dissent and the broader social unrest in Detroit grew the Revolutionary Union Movements (RUMs), the League of Revolutionary African American Workers” predecessor organizations.
The Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), the first of the RUMs, was born at the Dodge Main plant in May 1968. DRUM exploded onto the scene during a oneday, 4,000-worker strike at the Dodge plant on May 2, protesting management’s speed-up of the assembly lines. By speeding up the lines, Chrysler not only produced more cars per hour, but it also produced a greater risk of injury and a more stressful work environment.
The strike brought operations at Dodge Main to a halt. This was a wildcat strike, one not called or sanctioned by the union’s leadership, but it clearly had substantial support within the plant. Management responded quickly: Several workers were fired and disciplined, and punishment for the strike was meted out disproportionately to African-American workers, even though white workers had also been involved. This inequity fueled support for DRUM, whose supporters now saw that they had enough power to stop production at a Chrysler facility.
In the days and weeks that followed, DRUM began distributing a weekly newsletter called DRUM. This newsletter publicized instances of workplace racism and rallied African-American workers to DRUM’s cause— namely, Black Power in the auto plants. The newsletter also attacked the UAW for its failure to represent black workers, and DRUM proposed that black autoworkers should struggle for power independently of the UAW.
Writings in the newsletter also focused on racism outside the plant gates. Particular attention was paid to incidences of police brutality, a hot-button issue for blacks in Detroit. As the newsletter became more and more visible, support for DRUM grew. Emboldened, DRUM next targeted two bars frequented by Dodge Main workers. These bars, both close to the plant, served African-Americans customers but would not hire them. DRUM called for a boycott of the bars and received overwhelming support. The bars quickly acquiesced to DRUM’s demands, and DRUM leaders decided they would try to carry the momentum to Chrysler, presenting the company with a list of fifteen demands. These included fifty black foremen and ten black general foremen at Dodge Main, black medical and security personnel at the plant, equal pay for South African workers, and an African-American head of Chrysler’s board of directors. If their demands were not met, DRUM threatened a series of demonstrations and another work stoppage at Dodge Main.
When Chrysler failed to respond, DRUM took a series of actions that illustrated their uniquely systematic and militant approach. On July 7, 1968, DRUM and more than 300 of its supporters rallied in the parking lot across the street from Dodge Main. The demonstrators marched to the hall of UAW Local 3 (which represented Dodge Main workers), where the union’s executive board was meeting. Hoping to pacify the workers, union officials agreed to hear their grievances and demands. Unimpressed with the officials” responses, the workers announced they would defy the union and strike at Dodge Main.
The morning of July 8 found DRUM activists picketing outside Dodge Main. In addition to the 3,000 black workers who gathered to picket outside the plant gates that morning, many white workers also participated in a show of solidarity. Dodge Main’s assembly lines slowed to a snail’s pace. Within a few hours, police arrived in riot gear, prepared for a confrontation, but when they ordered the demonstrators to disperse, most of the strikers left the line, with some 250 quickly departing for a demonstration at Chrysler headquarters. When police arrived to break up this second demonstration, DRUM’s car pool took the demonstrators home.
The strike lasted three days and cost Chrysler 1,900 cars. DRUM’s approach—causing maximum disruption without taking unnecessary risks or submitting to law enforcement—differed radically from many protest groups who sought confrontations with police for either symbolic purposes or media attention.
Though it looked like a spontaneous uprising of angry workers, DRUM’s rapid emergence was the product of a great deal of planning and organizing by a core group of leaders, some of whom would later be leaders of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. These included Dodge Main workers General Baker and Chuck Wooten, as well as black radicals who did not work at Dodge Main. This core group’s first collective work was on the Detroit-based newspaper Inner City Voice (ICV). First appearing just months after the Great Rebellion in October 1967, ICV was in many ways a testing ground for the RUM’s approach to workplace organizing. ICV covered local community struggles against racism and injustice, but it always placed these struggles in the context of a broader, revolutionary perspective. The skills this core group developed working on ICV served them well as DRUM continued to grow.
In September 1968, DRUM ran a candidate for UAW Local 3 executive board. DRUM’s candidate, Ron March, won the initial vote, but lost a runoff election fraught with irregularities and police harassment of DRUM supporters. As word of DRUM’s successes spread, black workers at other plants followed their lead. FRUM (at Ford’s River Rouge complex), JARUM (at Chrysler’s Jefferson Avenue plant), CADRUM (at Cadillac’s Fleetwood plant), and a number of other RUMs sprang up around the city. ELRUM, at Chrysler’s Eldon Avenue plant, emerged in the winter of 1968 and soon had more members than DRUM.
The RUM movement spread beyond the auto industry. UPRUM represented United Parcel Service (UPS) workers, and NEWRUM was founded by workers at the Detroit News.
It became clear that a body would be needed to coordinate all this work, and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers was formed in June 1969. Aside from Baker and Wooten, the league’s core leadership included former ICV editor John Watson, the lawyer Kenneth Cockrel, two former leaders of the Detroit Black Panther Party, and another of ICV’s original founders.
Though the league emphasized workplace organizing, it also coordinated other areas of activity. In the fall of 1968, Watson had maneuvered himself into the editor-ship of the South End, the student newspaper at Detroit’s Wayne State University. Watson and the league used the South End, with its daily circulation of 18,000, to promote their work and political perspective. The league’s media activities were not limited to the printed word, however. In 1969 the league began work on a documentary film about its activities. Finally Got the News was completed in 1970 and distributed (on a very small scale) throughout the United States and parts of Europe.
As it grew, the league became a presence in Detroit politics. Watson and other league members took the lead in a battle with the Detroit Board of Education over community control of public schools. In addition, the Black Student United Front was formed to serve as a youth wing of the league, and branches were established in twenty-two high schools.
Beyond coordination, the league’s leadership provided political vision and coherence. Baker, Watson, and the league’s other leaders had been devoted Marxists since well before the league’s inception, and Marxist revolutionary thought permeated their work. This was most evident in their emphasis on the workplace as the point where black workers could leverage the most social and economic power. In 1969 the word revolutionary was not just grand sloganeering—the league’s ultimate goal was to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a more just economic system.
The 1960s had seen a rush of political movements aimed at overthrowing colonial governments throughout the developing world, and league members were inspired by these international developments. Anticolonial uprisings in Vietnam, Algeria, and elsewhere galvanized league members, who saw African-Americans” struggles in the United States as an anticolonial struggle.
Central to the league’s ideology was their assertion that company, union, and government formed an interconnected system of oppression, each supporting the other in efforts to maintain dominance over minorities and working people. To combat this system, the league worked in coalition with community groups, Arab-American groups, and groups of white activists. Though the league remained an African-American organization, they encouraged other groups to organize themselves and work with the league in coalition.
There were, however, political differences among the league’s leaders. Some, like Baker and Wooten, believed that the league should focus the vast majority of its resources on workplace organizing, expanding and consolidating their network of RUMs. These leaders thought that the emphases on media work and education were spreading the league’s resources too thin and diluting their political message. Others, like Watson and Cockrel, believed that media work had the potential to grow the pool of African-American supporters. Only focusing on workers, they pointed out, excluded the many African Americans not in workplaces with league members, as well as those not in workplaces at all.
As the league expanded, these divisions grew deeper and internal tensions increased. Activists from groups such as the Black Panthers and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) joined up with the league, bringing their own agendas and ideologies and increasing these divisions. Pressures also increased from employers, as workers involved in RUMs were disciplined and fired. In June 1971, the league’s leadership split over these political differences, though by that time its activity had already begun to diminish. This was likely due in equal parts to internal political divisions, external pressures (from employers and law enforcement), and a lack of adequate financial resources.
Though it was short-lived, the league’s impact can be measured by the response it generated. Organizations as powerful as the Chrysler Corporation and the UAW went to great lengths to destroy the league, targeting its members for harassment and unjust disciplinary action. Though often compared to the Black Panthers, whose flair for dramatics gave them more visual appeal, the league’s message was ultimately different. Dressed not in leather and berets, the league’s leaders were blue-jeaned working-class revolutionaries; they sought to create a movement of working African Americans, fighting to transform a society they saw as fundamentally racist, exploitative, and unjust.
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Georgakas, Dan, and Marvin Surkin. 1998. Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
Kelley, Robin D. G. 1999. “Building Bridges: The Challenge of Organized Labor in Communities of Color.” New Labor Forum 5: 42–58.
Moody, Kim. 1988. An Injury to All: The Decline of American Unionism. New York: Verso.
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