07.22.2014
  • United States

When the Union’s the Enemy: An Interview with Cleo Silvers

Cleo Silvers, a former organizer with the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, discusses racism in the labor movement.

Our new issue, “Earth, Wind, & Fire,” is out now. Check out the table of contents and subscribe today!

In 1973, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health issued a report on the auto industry estimating that workplace diseases alone were responsible for about sixty-five deaths a workday — more than 16,000 a year.

The numbers were shocking, but they gave some explanation for the dramatic upsurge in wildcat actions over the preceding half-decade — what historian Jeremy Brecher calls the “labor dimension of the Vietnam War era revolt.” The report also substantiated a claim made thereafter by labor activists: the number of autoworkers killed and injured surpassed the number of American soldiers killed and maimed in any year in the Vietnam War.

In the five years after 1968, workplace grievances inundated the union bureaucracy as newfound expectations of decency and dignity invigorated a generation of American industrial workers. The New York Times reported that the young workers entering the labor force were “better educated and want treatment as equals from the bosses” were opposed to “work they think hurts their health or safety, even though old-timers have done the same work for years,” and “want fast changes and sometimes bypass their own union leaders and start wildcat strikes.”

In the auto plants of Detroit, where an all-white management and union leadership confronted a darkening workforce, these grievances often assumed a racial edge. Of all the rank-and-file caucuses that formed in this tumultuous period, perhaps none was more militant than the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.

Founded in 1969 to unify several black caucuses that sprouted up amid a strike wave, the League worked to organize independent black power within the labor movement for the explicit purpose of socialist revolution. A far-fetched goal to twenty-first century American ears, in that raucous denouement of the New Left, the League — and its short-lived national equivalent, the Black Workers Congress — advanced its cause in the political space opened by the UAW’s shortcomings on working conditions and racial inequality.

For black autoworkers, upward mobility in the plant was a rarity; as Nelson Lichtenstein writes in his biography of Walter Reuther, “Black workers called the skilled trades ‘the Deep South’ of the UAW.” And though most auto work was dangerous, it was black workers who bore the brunt of the industry’s hazardous tasks. In his 1976 book Auto Work and Its Discontents, labor activist B. J. Widick quotes one company official as saying, “[S]ome jobs white folks will not do; so they have to take niggers in. . . It shortens their lives, it cuts them down but they’re just niggers.”

Despite its work funding the Freedom Riders and the March on Washington, the UAW was guilty of its own institutional racism. By 1962, it had failed to elect a single black member to its twenty-two-person executive board, despite the fact that African-Americans by then composed a quarter of the Detroit membership. By 1968, there were still just two. Locked out of union leadership, their workplace grievances ignored, many activists turned to organizing wildcat actions.

This was the context in which the League of Revolutionary Black Workers was born. Though it would quickly collapse amid competing visions of black power, the League’s emergence underscored both the institutional limits of the post-war labor movement, especially in regards to race, and the consequence of that failure: a generation of activists alienated from their union. As Lichtenstein notes, “whatever their politics, DRUM’s [a League precursor] founding cohort constituted the same species of ideologically motivated cadre who had animated the UAW in its heroic youth.” Rather than incorporate this cohort, the UAW rejected their racial grievances and condoned managerial repression of shop-floor agitation.

One of these cadre was Cleo Silvers, a former social worker with VISTA in Harlem who had organized with the Black Panthers and Young Lords before turning to independent rank-and-file organizing. I recently spoke with Cleo about her time with the Revolutionary Union Movements in both New York and Detroit during the early 1970s.

AE

You came to New York City as a social worker with VISTA, after which you began working at Lincoln Hospital. How did you end up in Detroit organizing autoworkers?

CS

I met Jim [Forman] and several other friends in the process of the work that I was doing with HRUM, the Health Revolutionary Unity Movement, which was about organizing independent organizations of workers in the health care industry. That came from the struggles initiated at Gouverneur Hospital, at Lincoln Hospital, and several other hospitals in New York City.

The major struggle for hospital workers was around the issues of increasing education needs of the workers, bettering working conditions, and, not only that, the workers in the hospital industry also fought around patient issues.

HRUM actually began as a result of the Think Lincoln Committee, which was a coalition of community people, members of the Young Lords and the Black Panther Party concerned with hospital conditions. At the time I was a community mental health worker at Lincoln Hospital, which was so bad that people would be left in the emergency room for seventy-two hours and not be seen.

If you didn’t speak English it was almost impossible for you — they didn’t have translators — it was almost impossible for you to speak to your doctor. A woman who came to the hospital for a saline abortion was killed on the surgery table. There were people who went in for surgery and had the wrong kidney extracted. The people felt in the community that they were being used as guinea pigs.

We set up a patient complaint table in the emergency room. This is how we really got to understand what the conditions were inside the hospital. Patients would come to us with their complaints, and we would document them and compile them until we had a stack of complaints that you would not believe. And it didn’t take us a long time to acquire that many coming from the people in the community. It was really a horrible set of conditions inside that hospital for the patient.

AE

Were you a union member at this time?

CS

I was a member of 1199, but 1199 saw us as a bunch of troublemakers inside the union. We were young. We were arrogant. We knew that we were right. We knew that what we were fighting for was something that was going to be positive for the community. It was going to be positive for our class, for the young people coming up behind us, because we were fighting for better conditions.

We were fighting for a more equal distribution of the resources in society in general. We were fighting for an end to police brutality. We were fighting for the basics — for the right to be treated as a human being, the franchise, the equal ability to have access to all the things the society has to offer. We were kind of tough guys, in the sense that we demanded that they hear us. We wouldn’t go into a union meeting and not be heard. If they refused to call on us we would just take over the microphone and make our case to the rank-and-file that was in attendance at the meeting.

In the process of building our organization, we had learned about DRUM and the League. We began doing political education, and we were beginning to recognize that the working class had a role in society that was greater than most people understood. I was the co-chair of HRUM, and during one of our meetings with Jim Forman and several of the League workers — at that time I believe they had developed into the Black Workers Congress — there was a vote that I should take my organizing skills that I developed here in New York City, with HRUM and with several of the other organizations, and go to Detroit and organize in the auto plants.

When I got to Detroit I got set up in the home of Mike Hamlin, who was the chairman of the League. I met and studied with the Central Committee, which included General Baker, John Watson, Ken Cockrel.

AE

What sort of work was the League doing in Detroit?

CS

One thing was the book clubs. The reason those book clubs were necessary was that there were lots and lots of white people who were activists who were interested in supporting the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and the Black Workers Congress, but of course if you weren’t black or a person of color you could not be in the organization.

The League got me a job. The companies would have these cattle calls for workers to come into different plants, based on what they needed. There happened to be, when I came into the city, a call for workers at Dodge Truck. I was taken over, and I got hired on at the Dodge Truck plant in Warren, Michigan, which is right outside Detroit.

The racial composition in the plant at that time was about seventy percent African-American. There were Arabs. A very strong Arab community in the Detroit metropolitan area. There were Latinos, but that was a very small group. So the struggle inside the plant took all kinds of turns.

There was one struggle that was very interesting between the Arabs and the African-Americans. The African-Americans used to call the Arabs “camel jockeys.” The activists, the Marxists, came together and began to encourage the black workers to recognize that if they don’t want to be called a nigger, then you don’t want to call those Arab workers, who are your comrades that are on this line working with us, camel jockeys. Slowly, we began to build very strong relationships, and when it came time to take a plant-wide action, all of the workers who we built relationships with were involved and supportive, and took action along with us.

AE

What sorts of issues did people organize around?

CS

There was the paint shop, where workers had very little to support their breathing. They didn’t have masks that were very good, and the masks were overused, and the workers were breathing in paint and of course dying as a result of breathing in this paint. Speedup was the other important thing.

I worked in two areas. It was a filthy job, where you put the frames onto the line, and then you have several bolts and nuts that you had to attach to the frame. My second job was installing brake fluid cups. Brake fluid is a corrosive, and it would corrode my hands and feet. They gave you one pair of vinyl gloves per week and one apron per week and one pair of boots, because the brake fluid was running onto the ground, and it would eat through that stuff.

And I had been harassed by foremen. You know, foremen’s thing with women, that’s another issue. There weren’t a lot of women in the plant, and those that were there were always being harassed, whether you were black or white or whatever. It was not unexpected for a foreman to come up to you and say, if you sleep with me I’ll give you a better job.

AE

Were there any deaths at the plant?

CS

Absolutely, yes. There were several. One worker was crushed by a huge motor. The motors are very, very big, and they are extremely heavy. The really big guys were responsible for moving the motor around and dropping it into the shell of the truck, and one guy got crushed by a motor. There were people that lost hands and other limbs on the line because management would never stop the line when they were asked. Sometimes you could get stuck, and the thing is to stop the line. But managers would not stop the line. And you would be fired immediately if you were a worker on the line and you stopped the line.

AE

What was the union’s role at the plant?

CS

The UAW actually had a low profile at Dodge Truck. They had their votes, they had their meetings. We attended a few meetings. But the work that we were doing, with so many workers, you start to build relationships with so many workers. We didn’t really have time to fool with the UAW. Some of them were like, “yeah the UAW, they’re not shit, they ain’t doin’ this or that.”

But the point was that the UAW only fought for you if you were in the plant and your hand got cut off, then they would come and stop the line, you know, negotiate with management, that kind of thing. Or the workers in the paint shop decided, this is too much today. We’re breathing in too much of the fumes from the paint, we’re not going to do this anymore. Then the union would come down and try to negotiate with the workers to go back to work.

AE

Did you witness a lot of shop floor activism disciplined by the union?

CS

Absolutely, yes.

AE

How did that go?

CS

They would be like, you know, “you guys are fuckin’ up!” And really that’s what they’d tell you. And we’d say, “you’re fucking up by not demanding quality conditions, decent conditions, for us, for the workers. So don’t come over here tellin’ us we’re fuckin’ up. That’s not us, that’s you.” So there was back and forth all the time between us.

AE

Were you aware of the work the union had done to support the Civil Rights Movement?

CS

That’s before the period in which the League of Revolutionary Black Workers took place. So yes they did progressive things, but that was way back in the Civil Rights Movement. You see, the development of the League came on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement, as a result of workers not wanting to be nonviolent, and recognizing that it was important to organize on a class basis. The Civil Rights Movement was done on a racial basis. The struggle for equality and justice inside a town like Detroit was fully based on working class awareness.

AE

What sorts of actions did the workers take against poor conditions?

CS

There were heat walkouts, several every year. In the summer inside the plant it would get up to 120 degrees, and our position was that once the temperature was over 120 degrees that is not a place for human beings to be working in.

Management would not shut the plant down. They would expect us to continue to work. But even workers who didn’t agree with us did not want to be working in [a] 120 degree auto plant. It wasn’t that difficult. We would go all around the plant and say, “It’s very hot today, once it hits 120 degrees we’re all leaving.” Everybody would leave. Who wants to be there? It was led by us, the young members of the League, the young black workers, and supported very heavily by the Arab workers, and some of the white workers too.

That’s the other thing that was going on. When you are working in a place like an auto plant, it is very difficult to maintain prejudice, because we’re all in the same boat, we’re all doing the same thing, and you get to discuss. “Here I’m standing next to you on the line.” “Well I don’t like you!” “Why you don’t like me? We have to care about each other!” And you have to watch each others’ backs.

So that’s one of the most important things. You want to see prejudice and racism obliterate itself? Give a group of people a job to do where they have to share the responsibility and the labor. I think that’s one of the great things I learned inside the auto plant.