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Members of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, a vital force in Detroit’s revolutionary union movements of the 1960s and 1970s Members of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, a vital force in Detroit’s revolutionary union movements of the 1960s and 1970s

Chronicle of a Bankruptcy Foretold: The League of Revolutionary Black Workers and Detroit

By Eric Ginsburg

Members of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, a vital force in Detroit’s revolutionary union movements of the 1960s and 1970s

Even a casual observer of the Motor City’s decline isn’t shocked that Detroit is bankrupt, but saturated media coverage ignores the fact that this outcome wasn’t inevitable. Predicting aspects of the collapse long before the current crisis, people living in Detroit fought for their city to take a different route. In the late 1960s, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement inspired several militant Black union groups organized independently of the United Auto Workers. Their struggle to confront racial and class oppression grew rapidly and participants formed a coalition — the League of Revolutionary Black Workers — to push back against the United Auto Workers and seize more power at work and across Detroit. 

{Young}ist spoke with Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin — co-authors of Detroit: I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution — and League participant and DRUM co-founder Mike Hamlin about the contributions of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and DRUM to the Black liberation and labor movements, and what we can take from their examples as Detroit enters an era of new turmoil.

Can you briefly describe the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and DRUM? What were they trying to accomplish and what was the context?

Marvin Surkin: Following the Great Rebellion in Detroit in the summer of ‘67 there were basically two major responses in and around the city of Detroit. One was the response of the ruling elites […] and the other big response was moving into the wildcat strikes, which ultimately became DRUM and had spinoffs in other factories and other cities. In Detroit, they formed an organization out of these [Revolutionary Union Movements] called the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. They wanted not only to change the conditions in the factories but also conditions with the union, the company, and the state. Essentially they were saying they needed to have an anti-capitalist, or socialist, revolution. They also understood that they were an African-American group of people who were the last hired and the first fired. They tended to be the most oppressed so […] they would be the ones called on to carry the banner of change and social revolution.

Dan Georgakas: You can do tokenism or you can be serious - and Detroit, the union, and the company went for tokenism. The UAW was really good at supporting civil rights somewhere else but hardly any shop stewards or foreman [were Black]. There was this growing tension and the police department in Detroit got very out of control, and this all eventually would lead to the Great Rebellion in 1967. What the League was doing in ‘68 was saying, “Wait a minute, we don’t trust these automobile companies,” and the union had given up on [Black workers]. [The UAW] gave up control of the shop floor and all kinds of things that happened day-to-day. [The union was] terrified of Black workers and they just squashed it. 

Mike Hamlin: As you probably found in the book, it was a thing going on among the young Black intellectuals in the city of trying to find a way to fight the repression and exploitation that Black workers were feeling. We were having a “Stop-and-Frisk” type of thing back then. Codified racial discrimination became intolerable for me and I think for many of the people that later joined. I felt that my back was against the wall. I had learned in the army that my life didn’t count very much so I would do whatever was necessary to make a difference. We were looking for a more thorough way of striking a blow against the oppression that we felt and for our people. It wasn’t about us, it was about our people. 

The book says: “What should disturb all Americans is that the analysis the League’s founders offered regarding the future of the auto industry, the UAW, the city of Detroit, and African-Americans now applies increasingly to the nation as a whole.” What was that analysis?

MH: The question becomes, if you’re in a situation where the people you identify with and the people you love are being crushed under exploitation and oppression and continuously being abused… the question is, what do you do? We could go out and destroy something but that wouldn’t really help anything. We studied the great revolutionaries of history […] because we wanted to know what we could do to make a difference. We decided on a strategic approach that’s based on Marxism where there are three stages. The first stage is propaganda where you teach and learn with a small group of people; the second stage is you begin agitation by spreading succinct ideas to the mass population; and third you move towards action once there is a conscious mass. We had a comprehensive agenda but it could only go so far with the mixture of people that we had. 

DG: First of all, there’s the whole question of who is the economy run for. What you’ve seen in the last 50 years is a declining standard of living for most people and a rising of wealth for the super-rich. It’s staggering. The League was trying to say, “This is not the system we want to live in.” The second thing is, the League was saying, “The Black population is being treated horribly and we want equal status with everyone else.” The League was more concerned with class than it was with race but race was put into a very strong class context. The same things are happening now. You have a Black president and Black prisoners. You have Black executives […] and ghettos are probably worse than ever.

MS: Their analysis of what was happening in the ‘60s has come to bear, and [now] you see that it didn’t have to happen that way. Autoworkers are now being rehired in Detroit and they’re now being hired at $12 an hour less. If you listen to what [the League was] saying, if you actually support the working class which is producing your profit and your goods instead of abandoning them, you can say that in the ‘60s when this rebellion was going on […] there was a wake up call to white people, corporations, and banks. The [League’s] victories have been continuously undercut until the point when there is nothing left. What would have happened if [the company] created a relationship with the working class that was cooperative instead of antagonistic? What you have is trickle-up economics instead of trickle-down economics. The corporations are doing fine, the banks are doing fine. But what’s happening to the working class?

What role did the deteriorating strength of the UAW and the defensive stances it took play in Detroit’s present collapse?

MS: The union has been involved in negotiating settlements with the businesses that have kept the union in business and […] at the same time signing on to this process where they’ve gotten less and less. It’s called “give backs.” They came to Washington in their private jets begging for handouts. They got the handouts but part of [it] was an agreement with the union that they would set up this two-tiered salary system. If you look at Detroit, it’s a city that’s been abandoned, and since it’s a Black city you can say the Black working class in America has been abandoned. Last hired, first fired. That becomes a universal slogan that looks at a whole city, or a whole class, or a race of people, if you play the game called capitalism. 

MH: Because of our way of thinking in this country, we only think about the immediate situation, but this has been a long time coming. There has always been, in this country, a desire to keep Blacks from being successful. There’s always been a segment of the white population who couldn’t stand to see Blacks prosper. The UAW has been under siege, and one of the problems they have is a racist core of people in that union. Detroit was a big place for the Reagan Democrats. My analysis of the situation in Detroit is [the bourgeoisie] is using the strategy and tactics of a colonial power and they’re re-colonizing Detroit […] they go in and they install a puppet regime and whatever else they need to keep the natives under control. 

DG: With the bankruptcy of Detroit they’re saying, “We have to cut the pensions of the workers because it’s the responsible thing to do.” The scandal of that is they’re going to invest $450 million in a hockey arena because that’s going to “revive the city” but meanwhile the pensions of 20,000+ workers are going to be cut. I’m a very harsh critic of the UAW because I think it was a great union. It could have lead social change and instead they decided to go to peaceful coexistence… and all along they’ve been defensive and always a half hour too late. Meanwhile the executives are making tons of money, even through the bankruptcy. Meanwhile their workforce and the city are decimated. If the UAW had said to the League, “Hey, help us revitalize the UAW,” I don’t think they’d be in the position they are today.

The book talks about what current labor struggles can learn from the League and DRUM. What are some of the specifics?

MH: People do not know how to do an analysis of a community whether it’s the plant, a neighborhood, or institutions. We’re not taught to think dialectically which is what we were seeking. To do something really, if you’re effective, is a very great danger and you can be inhibited by fear that you will get smacked down. We were kind of like kamikazes, we didn’t care. We blocked Chrysler and cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars. There is great risk if you develop a strategy that’s going to work. Also, people are too vulnerable to opportunists, con men, and crooks. If you want to do something about this society, you need to study. You have to be willing to begin to confront. I don’t believe in a strategy of just going to jail — they can accommodate that. You have to find out where the power is. 

DG: I think the major thing is direct action is necessary. Once you start depending on the Democratic Party or depending on the legal system, you’ve probably already lost because you don’t have the lawyers or the lobbying power. You need to take direct actions [that] will have some immediate consequences. In Wisconsin, labor did not step up to the plate. When you’ve got the state hall paralyzed because the public is there, this is the time to keep up all kinds of public pressure but instead they turned to the courts and the recall efforts and eventually lost. Forty percent of labor families voted for [Gov. Scott Walker], which shows you just how poor of a job the union did in educating its own members, let alone the public. 

MS: You need organization and you need a strategy. It necessitates defining the power that you are embracing, enhancing, and in fact creating. An example, then, with the media is not to have the media come take your picture and look at you and decide whether you should be on the front page or whether you should be dead. You create your own media… you’re going to put the image that you want out there and define it yourself.

How did these revolutionaries take power over the media? 

DG: They knew if you’re serious about changing society, then established powers are not going to publicize and advance you so you’ve got to have your own outreach. What they had in mind always was this should be mass newspaper aimed at the uncommitted that would rouse the public. Finally Got the News is the only film produced by a Black militant organization about themselves. If you read a union newspaper today, it’s boring. It doesn’t stir people. They wanted a newspaper more like the underground press, pushing, pushing, pushing but with a sense of humor sometimes. I think that has been lost, certainly by labor and even the movement in general.

MH: We began a paper that was putting out radical ideas and analysis and we also held rallies and eventually we began to force concessions. As we started organizing these workers, more and more kept coming and they were faced with this horrible speed up, the dirtiest jobs, and they were angry. We had an office that was donated to us by an interfaith group and we had our meetings and they kept growing. It finally came up that they wanted to strike at Dodge Main for discrimination and racism and we agreed that we would distribute the call for the strike so no workers would be exposed. They couldn’t fire me because I didn’t work there. In addition to the newspaper we published a couple of books and we made a movie. It began to spread around the country.

MS: Wayne State University is a public university [and organizer] John Watson was registered as a student. He ran for editor of the [school] newspaper and won, so then the League had an inside person at the university who was legally heading up the newspaper. Mike Hamlin was involved in delivering the newspapers… but after they delivered the newspapers they would come around again and pick them up and deliver them to the factory gates for the workers. It became a media resource paid for by state funds. The power isn’t just simply in police [or] in weapons, the power is in voice, media, and production. And they understood that.

The latest edition of Detroit: I Do Mind Dying is available through Haymarket Books. Hamlin is the author of A Black Revolutionary’s Life in Labor: Black Workers Power in Detroit. He is a retired social worker and teaches Black history at Wayne State University in Detroit. 

Follow Eric on Twitter @Eric_Ginsburg

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Eric Ginsburg

Journalist. Occasional freelance writer, certificate student at @CDSduke.

Catch up with me @eric_ginsburg.





September 06, 2013

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