The historic roots of Black union organizing at Amazon

The photo is grainy, taken some time during the 1920s or 1930s. In it are workers in some Birmingham factory, probably associated with the steel industry there. One of the people is most likely one of my grandfather’s uncles — or a cousin? It was amongst the many photos my mother kept from the collection that her father kept.

An undated photo of relatives at a Birmingham, AL mill

Workers like my uncles organized radically in the steel mills around Birmingham. They fought racism from unions that refused to accept them, they radicalized the US Communist Party itself, forcing it to accept a stance of racial solidarity and unity. In the early twentieth century it meant substantial gains in the quality of life for poor Black workers — steel workers, domestic workers, and sharecroppers alike.

Nearly 100 years later, in Bessemer Alabama, a suburb of Birmingham, Amazon employees, most of them Black (many no doubt descendants of those workers of the 1930s) are taking on Amazon. They are facing “an uphill battle against the second-largest employer in the country with a history of crushing unionizing efforts at its warehouses and its Whole Foods grocery stores”. Amazon is borrowing from the playbook of the Tennessee Coal Iron and Railroad Company (TCI) and of the many of the farmers who terrorized and murdered factory workers and sharecroppers who dared demand to be treated like human beings. They might succeed, although it is not assured given that they are fighting both Amazon and the Alabama state government.

In his book Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression, Robin D. G. Kelley details the long fight that Black laborers and sharecroppers waged a struggle for basic rights. He recalls his 1983 meeting with one of the organizers, Lemon Johnson

When I asked Mr. Johnson how the union succeeded in winning some of their demands, without the slightest hesitation he reached into the drawer of his nightstand and pull out a dog-eared copy of V.I. Lenin’s What is to Be Done and a box of shogun shells, set both firmly on the bed next to me, and said, “Right thar, theory and practice. That’s how we did it. Theory and practice.”

It is perhaps no coincidence that the union president cited the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests as the spark that provided the critical tipping point for the unionization effort.

In his preface to the 25th anniversary of the book, Kelley writes:

It is the history of a vibrant, grassroots, radical movement that matters. It is resistance to injustice and an on-going struggle to create a new world that matters. The young organizers in Ferguson and St. Louis, Missouri, from Hands Up United, Lost Voices, Organization for Black Struggle, Don’t Shoot Coalition, and Millennial Activists United, are the bearers of the Alabama Communist Party’s legacy.

After writing Hammer and Hoe, Kelley looked at the history of Black political resistance and labor organizing 1950s – 1980s in his essay “Birmingham’s Untouchables: The Black Poor in the Age of Civil Rights” included in his book Race Rebels. In the latter half of the twentieth century massive job losses and displacement of Black workers occurred:

Rather, Birmingham’s coal and steel industry discarded a large segment of its black labor force, while racist zoning laws, an uneven and overcrowded housing market, and public housing policies propelled some ex-industrial workers and other poor people deeper into the inner city and left pockets of unemployed black people in the industrial suburbs.

We are all familiar with the stories of the Civil Rights movement activity in Birmingham during 1963, but the largely middle class civil rights leadership largely concerned itself with the aspirations of the Birmingham’s Black middle class, largely dismissing the Black poor as “riffraff” (to quote Kelley), and discounting oppressive police brutality, and the cycles of poverty enshrined by the industrial practices.

It is likely then that it is into this industrial void that Amazon stepped — the Bessemer facility in which the union activity is centered is located in the “industrial suburbs” of Birmingham that Kelley referred to in his essay.

Today, that legacy of Black organizing in the early 20th century is vibrant, alive, undaunted and bravely inspiring and creating a new world. I feel that my uncles are standing in solidarity with their sisters and brothers of the new century.

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