Abu-Mumia Jamal and the labor movement

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Sat Jan 29 09:17:40 MST 2000

(Concluding paragraphs of David Roediger's "Mumia or Sweeny Time" in the
Winter 2000 "New Politics")

THE EXTENT OF TWO-WAY SOLIDARITY between Abu-Jamal and the labor movement
deserves publicity for the ways in which it gives the lie to recent
slanders against the Free Mumia movement. According to these slanders,
Abu-Jamal’s cause has irrationally attracted the support of a cultlike
following of naive musicians, New Leftovers and internet geeks, who find it
easier to champion the defense of a charismatic ex-Black Panther than to
agitate around "real" class issues. (In an utterly overwrought Nation
column, the populist film director Michael Moore recently offered a
particularly distressing version of the charge that Mumia supporters are
unserious. That the Free Mumia forces enjoy significant labor support cuts
against any such efforts to characterize the campaign as superficial and
sentimental. Moreover, labor support often finds its justification in the
clear realization that police violence and race/class-based justice are
workers’ issues, and in hard-headed analyses of the importance of building
community/labor coalitions, Larry Adams, president of Local 300 of the
National Postal Mail Handlers Union, has written:

"Mumia is us. We are Mumia... .Trade unions exist for the right to defend
democratic rights of working class people, due process, fair and equal
treatment, freedom from police brutality — all of which is being denied
Mumia in this effort at a legal lynching."

ILWU Local 10 executive board member Jack Heyman has emphasized that
support for Abu-Jamal connects his union to both "the struggles of
minorities here and the dockworkers’ movement internationally." At the
pro-Mumia demonstration in the Bay Area, he asked the 20,000 assembled, "If
the ILWU goes on strike, will you be there for us?" The response was
resoundingly affirmative.

However, the point which I wish to make in the balance of these pages goes
quite beyond the argument that labor support for Abu-Jamal is significant,
inspired and inspiring. My further claim is that labor’s solidarity with
Mumia, and his with labor, best locate the terrain on which our boldest
hopes for a new labor movement ought to be grounded. My friend George
Lipsitz, inspired by both hiphop and R & B, has insisted that "What time is
it?" ought to be a central question for anyone writing and thinking about
class and race. For me, it is "Mumia Time" when new potentialities for the
U.S. labor movement are under consideration.

This position is admittedly a pretty lonely one. For intellectuals writing
about, and to some extent struggling alongside, U.S. labor, there has been
little hesitancy over the last several years in telling what time it is. It
is, for most, John Sweeney Time. From the 1996 Teach-In with the Labor
Movement at Columbia University, to the founding of Scholars, Writers and
Artists for Social Justice as a labor support group, to Stanley Aronowitz’s
>From the Ashes of the Old, Sweeney’s accession to the presidency of the
AFL-CIO has been seen as the symbol of change, as the source of new space
for progressive activity in the labor movement and as the grounds for a
return to solidarity with labor by left-liberal academics. Thus Audacious
Democracy, the volume of essays growing out of the Columbia Teach-In,
proclaims in its introduction that Sweeney’s election constitutes the "best
sign that the labor question is alive and well."

To the extent that such a view restores hope and encourages the growth of
concrete acts of solidarity with labor struggles, it is to the good, and
the position that Sweeney is no Lane Kirkland is unassailable. Nonetheless,
the "It’s Sweeney Time" position remains a problematic one. Sweeney’s
"America needs a raise" platform turns out to be pretty thin gruel if we
want to maintain, with Aronowitz, that the AFL-CIO is headed by "an
insurgent." Deeply nationalistic, Sweeney’s demand hearkens back to Samuel
Gompers at his most economistic and narrow, not to the labor heroes who
have held that workers need freedom, justice, and time to live. Even
Aronowitz’s From theAshes of the Old, the best of the "Sweeney Time"
writings, partly reflects this narrowness. The labor anthem on which the
book’s title plays envisioned bringing forth a "new world" from the old’s
ashes, but Aronowitz instead describes the possibilities of building a
somewhat stronger and more influential union movement from the ruins of the
Meany-Kirkland leadership. Sweeney’s poor record on union democracy has
meanwhile tempted some of his supporters to toy with idea that workers’
democracy is overrated in any case, and expendable.

Using Sweeny to mark labor's transformation and possibilities also
coincides with a troubling nostalgia. Eric Foner and Betty Friedan, for
example, voice hopes for a relatively unproblematic return to labor’s
former glories in their Audacious Democracy essays. In the words of the
former, the unions are poised to be "once again a voice both for the
immediate interests of. . . members and the broader needs of working- and
middle-class Americans." Such backward gazes fix on a long, mythic period
in which, as Steve Fraser and Josh Freeman put it, class was the
"primordial social question" — one whose "capacious embrace" could
"absorb.., the fate of women and children, racial and ethnic hatred."

What, if instead, we took the remarkable solidarity between Mumia Abu-Jamal
and the labor movement as the symbol of what a new labor movement promises?
What if it is Mumia Time rather than Sweeney Time? Such a choice would mean
several things. Most significant initiatives on Abu-Jamal’s behalf have
been local ones, albeit with a great awareness of international
connections. In most cases, pro-Abu-Jamal activities have been forwarded as
a result of rank-and-file initiatives within locals, not as projects of the
labor leadership. To think in Mumia Time rather than in Sweeney Time thus
challenges us to entertain the possibility that the promises of a new labor
movement cannot be envisioned if the focus remains national institutions
and labor’s officialdom.

To emphasize that it is Mumia Time also opens critical questions concerning
the state and labor. While the largest initiatives and greatest claims of
success by the Sweeney leadership have centered on the election of more
Democrats to national office, significant labor support for Abu-Jamal
registers a deepening suspicion of state power. These mobilizations
identify with an accused cop-killer who is utterly unsparing in his in
excoriation of the complete corruption and unspeakable crimes of the
government and of its deep complicity with corporate power.

Most impressively, the extent to which Abu-Jamal knows that he needs to
identify with the labor movement, and that some in the labor movement know
that they need to support him, signals what the working class movement is
becoming and can be. In 1995, in a demographic shift which escaped the
attention of mainstream, labor and radical journalists, organized labor
became for the first time a movement in which white males are a minority.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics counted 8.33 million white men in unions and
8.93 million African American, Latino and white female members. Crossing
the 50% threshold produces no magical transformation, of course, especially
while the leadership remains overwhelmingly white and male. Nonetheless,
the trend is of real significance.

With African Americans among the most pro-union segments of the U.S.
population, and with white males projected to constitute just 37% of the
labor force by 2005, unions cannot survive, let alone grow, as an
institution dominated by white men. The white male identity politics —
taking forms ranging from hate strikes against the employment of workers of
color, to anti-Asian rioting, to family wage campaigns, to the more
pervasive inability to see that a "class" politics articulated so largely
by white men could neither "absorb" nor even recognize questions of racial
and gender justice — need not so crushingly burden the labor movement of
the future. White trade unionists will often be a minority or near-minority
in locals — the position from which they have historically moved in the
most egalitarian directions. At the same time, the sharply limited but real
protections which a white male membership base accorded the unions will
apply less and less. The savage attacks on organizing by undocumented
workers and on the diverse, pro-gender equity public employee unions
presage a time when labor will represent those who are in every sense

If it is Sweeney Time, rebuilding a Democratic Party majority and
refurbishing labor’s image as a voice representing the U.S. middle class
gives us a clear agenda and plenty to do. If it is Mumia Time, we would
enter far more uncharted territory, in which we acknowledge that the labor
movement cannot simply be rebuilt but must and can be built on new
foundations. We would search, locally and internationally, for ways to
embrace and nurture workers’ organizations which draw their poetry from the
future and which express what Abu-Jamal has set out to capture in his
journalism — "the voice of the voiceless." The fight to keep Mumia’s own
voice from being stilled, now more urgent than ever, is labor’s fight.

Abu Jamal’s defense requires urgent action and strong support, financial
and otherwise. Donations may be made to National Black United Fund (Please
make checks payable to National Black United Fund/Mumia) at 40 Clinton
Street, 5th Floor, Newark, NJ 07102.

Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org/

More information about the Marxism mailing list