Late yesterday, Black Workers for Justice announced that retired United Electrical Workers (UE) organizer Saladin Muhammad died at the age of 76. In addition to his work with the UE, Saladin was founder of The Southern Workers Assembly and Black Workers for Justice.
Growing up in a UE family, I first met Saladin as a child and got to know him much better when I was a labor reporter in my 30s covering the South. I always enjoyed talking to Saladin because he had such bold ideas about changing the labor movement.
Saladin organized non-union workers and fought to win changes in workplaces without even having union contracts. With the Southern Workers Assembly, he built networks of workers in non-union parts of the South where there wasn’t much support. And Saladin always challenged the labor movement to do better on organizing around racial justice.
In 2021, Payday Report and franknews sat down with Saladin and had a long conversation with him about his views on how the labor movement needed to change to organize the South. Please take a few minutes to read the whole interview below.
May Saladin’s memory always be a blessing and may his ideas about how to change the labor movement live on for a long time to come.
by Saladin Muhammad
March 11, 2021
Saladin Muhammad is a retired international representative for the United Electrical Workers and one of the founders of the Southern Workers Assembly. In an interview with franknews and Payday Report, Saladin discusses how the failure of the labor movement to organize around racial justices hurts organizing efforts in the South.
Saladin | There is a recognition that the South needs to be organized as a part of building a stronger labor movement throughout the US. For a long time, the confidence of the working class in the South and the effort to organize has been very weak. Attempts to unionize the Volkswagen and Nissan plants in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Clanton, Mississippi, are indications of organized labor’s recognition of the importance of organizing core industries in the South. This is a recognition that has not really existed probably since Operation Dixie in the late 1940s.
frank | What was Operation Dixie?
Operation Dixie was the first major Southern organizing campaign. It took place after World War II. There was some organization as early as 1920 with sharecroppers and tenant farmers, but in terms of industrial unionism, Operation Dixie was the first. It came about around the time the Taft-Hartley Act was passed.
There was a special section (14b) of the Taft-Hartley Act that gave states a way to implement right-to-work laws. In most of the right-to-work states, public sector employees are denied bargaining rights, and in the private sector, this allows workers the option to not join the union and not pay dues.
Since the main base of the states’ rights movement was in the South as a part of the racist Jim Crow system, right-to-work laws continue to have their main concentration in the Southern states. In addition to dividing the working-class, tripling the exploitation and oppression of Black workers and their communities, it also weakened efforts to unionize workers in the South.
So, Operation Dixie was good, but it really didn’t take up this question of the racial oppression and repression that Black workers were experiencing. The organizers were mostly white. They did not focus on groups like the tobacco workers union, which was a majority-Black workforce. Instead, they focused on the textile union, which was a majority-white workforce at that time. They avoided organizing in places where there was a large concentration of Black workers. It kind of seemed like an outside project coming in. I think that affects the way people think about union organizing even now.
Do you think Bessemer represents change?
Bessemer is drawing a lot of attention towards organizing in the South. I think it is drawing even more attention than the Volkswagen and the Nissan campaigns. It has the opportunity to deepen the struggle around race as a part of the working-class struggle. I think there are some real possibilities with this campaign.
There are issues in the workplace that are coming into sharper focus with the pandemic. Workers are searching for a way to protect themselves and challenge these injustices. We are starting to see a fightback, where many workers are self-organizing without unionization to wage collective actions.
The Southern Workers Assembly, and the work of the Black Workers for Justice, see building organization to help deal with the present conditions and raising consciousness among workers, to help develop infrastructure of and social movement that has to be developed to organize labor in the South. It’s important for workers to understand that real union organization starts with worker organization. It is not just about being legitimized by the National Labor Relations Board.
And even if they are voted in, especially at a major corporation like Amazon, bargaining for a 1st contract usually requires a continuous struggle that will need ongoing national and international support. Sometimes it takes years. Some unions have walked away because they couldn’t get first contracts. You know, so this question of organization is tied to a movement that seeks to change policies.
Can you tell us a little bit about what organizing has looked like? How do you continue to operate as a union, even without being one?
Well, I can give you an example. We were at a big diesel plant called Cummins Engine [in Rocky Mount, North Carolina] with about 1,600 workers. There’s been a number of struggles to impact change there. Years ago, probably as early as around 1985, we formed a committee. We were not yet a union, but we found opportunities to build the structure and to act as a union.
What were some of those opportunities?
We had an underground newsletter that became public and an official monthly organizing toolkit that was distributed inside the plant and at the plant entrance. There have been more than 175 issues published so far.
We called on workers to join the Workers Unity Committee, which was the name of the rank-n-file organizing committee at the plant. The committee formed carpools to pick up people in the rural communities from 3 counties surrounding the plant to bring them to a People’s Health Clinic organized at a community center within walking distance of the plant.
Then around 1990, we were able to get several hundred workers to sign a petition calling for a paid MLK day holiday for all workers. This campaign probably lasted almost a year or so, and we won the campaign. The Workers Unity Committee, along with another manufacturing plant, also formed the Carolina Auto Aerospace and Machine Workers Union (CAAMWU) and sought to organize manufacturing workers.
Then the workers sued the company because they were promised a bonus if the company’s value had increased by some amount, they would give the workers a 75 percent increase in the bonus on whatever the stock value is worth. They didn’t. They gave everyone a 25 percent increase. The workers filed a complaint with The Wage and Hour Divisions and wound up winning over a million dollars to pay the full bonus amount.
At one point the diesel plant tried to fire some workers for distributing leaflets in a breakroom, and we appealed it to the labor board. It went all the way up to the fourth circuit which was named the Jesse Helms court. I don’t know if you remember him, but Jesse Helms was this racist senator in North Carolina. We won in his court.
The company was ordered by the Labor Board to set up union boxes in every break room, where leaflets left on tables must be placed. They had been previously disposed of by managers claiming to do clean-up. So now, that means if there is newsletters or union literature on a table, it has to be put in the union box.
All of this exists, when we don’t have a contract, and when we don’t have a majority. We operate as a minority union without a contract, through pressure campaigns.
A lot of what you are doing is a lot about training folks on how to fight, and not waiting on a union to come along. You seem focused on making sure people know how to mobilize their fellow coworkers.
Right. Because of the lack of a labor movement culture, and because of a low density of unionization, we felt like we were in a position to define union culture in the South. We don’t say we act like a union, we say we are a union.
Collective bargaining has to be a goal of a union, but not to determine whether or not the union exists.
We also think that organizing in North Carolina has to be a part of a wider strategy to organize labor in the South. We called for a conference to form the Southern Workers Assembly. Workers came from different parts of the South, mainly North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia. We held a march on Wall Street South because, at the time, major corporate banks like Wells Fargo were moving into Charlotte. We were really trying to show the role that Wall Street had in factories in the South. We were also trying to show the impact of foreign direct investment. There is a lot of foreign direct investment that exists in the South from Japan, from France, from Germany, from the UK, and now from China with the big Smithfield Plant, the world’s largest meat slaughtering plant. So this was about developing a guiding perspective of our social movement. The practical aspects are not as easy as the theoretical aspects.
Do you think unions understand how to organize around racial justice issues from an intersectional standpoint? From what I have seen, unions tend to focus so heavily on class that they forget that the core of unions should be about respect.
Systemic racism oppresses people almost as if it were a form of domestic colonialism. We see it in power relations, subjugation, and underdevelopment. Class to the elimination of race, as opposed to the intersection of the two, only creates issues in the struggle to organize.
I mean, that was the problem with Operation Dixie.
This image of Black workers exercising power has been used by corporations and forces of political power to create fear among white workers.
They tell them they are going to lose out. But if we constantly give in to that view, corporate power will remain. Organizing is not a quick process. This struggle has to be learned and solidarity has to be built up in order to create a climate that encourages people to organize.
Looking at class without looking at race, reflects a wrong understanding or an incomplete understanding of class. Why isn’t race understood as a class issue? Why is it not made a class issue? Is it racism that prevents it from being made a class issue?
I think those questions have to be answered. When we formed the Black Workers for Justice in 1981, even leftists would tell us that we were dividing the working class.
We never passed a flyer out that said, “If you Black, join us.” We said, “If you are having issues at the workplace, let’s organize.”
It’s not easy. I remember being in one workplace and a Black worker was saying, “My supervisor is prejudice.” He looked at the white workers next to him and made it clear that he wasn’t talking about them. He felt like he had to apologize. But, then, he also asked the white worker, “Would you take that? “ And the white worker said, “No, I wouldn’t take that.” He didn’t say that he wouldn’t take that sort of treatment and disrespect if he were Black, he said he wouldn’t take in generally. You have to approach the issue like this. You have to make it clear that I am not asking you to sympathize with only me, I am talking about a condition that affects a lot of workers here.
Talking about race in any way is perceived potentially dividing the working class, but the working class is already divided. It wasn’t Black power or Black civil rights that divided the working class. In fact, the Civil Rights Movement tried to unite the working class. We are just the first working class. We are the first working-class that allowed for the accumulation of capital in this country.
The question comes down to, do white workers see Black workers as their equals? I’m not going to try to answer that question. But it is a question that needs to be addressed. That mindset makes organizing hard.
Sometimes when a workplace is 70 to 80 percent Black workers, most of the organizers are white and are coming in from out of state. This allows the companies to paint these people as “carpetbaggers.” They say, “Oh they don’t know anything about our culture. They are just dropping in.”
Which we’ve seen with the UAW in Chattanooga and elsewhere. Do you think the Bessmer campaign is different?
Well, the plant is a very new plant. They officially opened in March 2020. By November, according to what has been publicized, they had a petition where about 2000 workers signed on. This is good, but there is always the question of what kind of self-organization exists.