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  May 24, 2015

The Global African: The State of Black Workers & Violence in Burundi

TeleSUR's The Global African explores the state of black workers in the U.S. & the turmoil in Burundi
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Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a columnist, activist, author and labor organizer. He is the executive assistant to the national vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees. Bill is an editorial board member of, as well as the chairman of the Retail Justice Alliance. He is also the co-author of "Solidarity Divided"; and the author of the newly released book, 'They're Bankrupting Us' - And Twenty Other Myths about Unions . He is a co-founder of the Center for Labor Renewal, and has served as President of TransAfrica Forum and was formerly the Education Director and later Assistant to the President of the AFL-CIO.


BILL FLETCHER, HOST, THE GLOBAL AFRICAN: Today on The Global African we'll look at the situation in Burundi and talk about the state of the black worker here in the United States.

That's today on The Global African. I'm your host, Bill Fletcher. Thanks for joining us again.


FLETCHER: The government of Burundi experienced a failed coup attempt on Thursday, May 14, after days of demonstrations and violence from protesters and government forces.

The turmoil began when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his decision to run for a third term. This move violated both the Burundian constitution and the Arusha peace agreement, a UN-supported pact that brought peace to the previously war-torn nation.

In the wake of this decision, demonstrators took to the streets protesting the power grab by the president. The government immediately responded with force, leaving six protesters dead and hundreds arrested. Demonstrations continued in the country, and the government answered with mass arrests and the closing of radio stations not under government control.

How severe is the situation in Burundi? Many observers are pointing out that the unrest in Burundi threatens to explode into a civil war if it is not addressed soon.

We're joined by Mr. Bahati Jacques. He is a policy analyst with the Africa Faith and Justice Network since 2007. He's originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He's written and spoken in different circles across the U.S. on the sociopolitical issues of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi.

Welcome to The Global African, Mr. Jacques.


FLETCHER: Our pleasure.

So we wanted to talk about the crisis in Burundi. And for many of our viewers, there's--they have no background on the situation. If they do, many of them may have heard about genocidal wars that have taken place in Burundi over the last 40 years. And so I thought it would be useful if you could begin by just summarizing briefly what is the situation, what's the background that people need to understand with this crisis.

JACQUES: Thank you.

The background of this crisis is that it's happening in Burundi, which is one of the smallest countries in Africa, located in the heart of Africa, Central Africa, neighboring Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Tanzania, and with a history of civil war which had an ethnic tone to it.

There are two major ethnicity in Burundi and one very tiny minority. The majority are Hutus, and the Tutsis are second, and then there is the Batwa (the Pygmy), who are a very tiny minority. But the war and the struggle for power has been between the Hutus and the Tutsis.

For far too long the Tutsis had held power. Also, the kingdom was also run by the Tutsis. But the majority Hutu have seen that that cannot continue and it wasn't sustainable, and so, many rose up and went to war, and therefore many years, until 2003, Burundi was on fire. Two thousand and five, they had been going to Arusha for negotiations, and they were able to get to a compromise. From Arusha they had an agreement, which led to a constitution, which was signed on March 18, 2005. And that is the document that is guiding Burundi today.

FLETCHER: Now, there's many questions, historical questions that I'd like to get to if we have the time. But in terms of the immediate crisis, the president of Burundi, as I understand, was supposed to serve only two terms, and then decided he would run for a third term. And I'm just curious. I mean, since the Arusha agreement, Arusha being in Tanzania, Arusha, since the Arusha agreement said, settle this war, what led the president of Burundi to believe that it was okay to go for a third term?

JACQUES: The problem at hand is the interpretation of the Constitution. Article 96, I read; this is Article 96 of the Constitution: it says, the president of the Republic is elected by popular vote for a term of five years renewable. President then Nkurunziza was elected by popular vote in 2010. But before that, he was elected by the Assembly, the Senate and the house--the Parliament in the terms they use there. But that was also the result of the Arusha agreement, which is included in the Constitution. And Article 302 says it's an exception; exceptionally, it says, the first president of the post war is elected by this, the Assembly. And so the interpretation is that he was elected for two terms, the first one by the Assembly, the representatives, and the second one by popular vote. And this is an exception, because he was the first president of the new republic that was being founded after years of war.

Now he comes back and says, you know what? Article 96 says it's five years, twice by popular vote. And he says this--I wasn't elected by popular vote twice; I was elected by popular vote once. And the opposition and the people are saying, no; the exception for you, because you came in as the president beginning a new Republic, the Constitution says that your first term begins by the election by the Parliament.

FLETCHER: Now, is the struggle that's going on currently a struggle between the Tutsis and Hutus? Or is the opposition to the president--does the opposition to the president include both groups?

JACQUES: From my understanding and the information I'm getting from the field is that until--from--the opposition is the Hutu opposition and Tutsi opposition and the people together. However, the president, according to what they are saying, has even set up a militia, which is mostly Hutu. And that is then bringing the conversation, the political crisis, into an ethnic turn once more. And this, and this crisis, if the language and the tone continues like this, then he is undoing ten years of work, international-supported work, and also the people's work.

Unfortunately, what is happening right now, I am afraid, is undoing day by day what has been happened in terms of reconciliation and healing between the ethnic groups.

FLETCHER: Let me ask you a final question, although it's a historical question. The division between Tutsi and Hutu, my understanding has been that it was largely a division that was created by the Belgians, as opposed to being fundamentally a division that was generated from within the continent itself. Is that accurate? Or am I mistaken in that?

JACQUES: Colonialism has a part of the responsibility in some of the issues Africa is dealing with. So I would agree in part with those who attribute the divisions between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda or in Burundi to the presence of colonizers.

But also we've got to also own up and say that identity, ethnicity is an identity to many Africans. And tribal lines are well known. When you look at the history of kingdoms within the two countries, they are a lot of--I mean, the one who was in charge is clear. And so the struggle for power did not start with the Belgians or the Germans; the struggle for power was there before. They are myths that praises one group against the other. Where are the two? The two are the most oppressed in these two countries. So there is evidence of colonizers' hand in the crisis or in the history of the crisis. Also, there is personal responsibility of the two ethnic groups. And that has to be understood by the leaders today. We can't remain in the history today. We need to look forward and go ahead.

FLETCHER: Thank you very much, Mr. Bahati Jacques. Very much appreciate you taking the time to join us on The Global African.

JACQUES: Thank you very much for having me. I appreciate it.

FLETCHER: And thank you very much for joining us for this segment of The Global African. I'm your host, Bill Fletcher. And we'll be back in a moment.


FLETCHER: A new report on black workers hopes to build on the success of the Black Lives Matter movement by broadening its scope to include economic injustices affecting black labor, asserting that black lives matter also means that the quality of those lives matters, argues the report, issued by the Discount Foundation and the Neighborhood Funders Group. The report traces the historical roots of the black jobs crisis, which for the last 50 years has meant that the unemployment rate for blacks has been at least double that for whites. Even as the United States recovers from recession, the black unemployment rate lingers at 10 percent as of this past march. By recognizing that the problems of low-wage workers and black workers are intimately intertwined, the authors hope to galvanize potential for partnership between organized labor and black workers, a partnership that could serve as a vehicle for civil rights activism.

We're joined for this segment with Dorcas Gilmore, who is an attorney and consultant focused on racial equity and solidarity economies and a cofounder of Baltimore Activating Solidarity Economies. She is also a board member of the National Black Worker Center Project.

Joining us in Oakland, California, is Dr. Steven Pitts, associate chair of the University of California, Berkeley labor center. At the labor center, Dr. Pitts focuses on issues of job quality and black workers.

Welcome to both of you to The Global African.



FLETCHER: So, very recently, a report, #BlackWorkersMatter, was issued, and, Steve, you had a major article in that. If you can, say little bit about why this was issued now and what you saw is the thrust of it.

PITTS: Well, I think that there are many things that gave rise to the report coming out. You know, we've seen in the last several months an increase in black activism. And it seems whenever you have an increase in black activism, there's always a manifestation of that amongst black workers. And so, while there's been more attention paid to the rise in black organizing, an important question was what's happening to black workers as well. And so the report is trying to capture the moment of Black Lives Matter that we're in right now and look at the issue of black activism from the perspective of black workers.

FLETCHER: And, Dorcas, in Baltimore we've heard a lot about issues of poverty and joblessness, but there are very few discussions, that I've heard, at least, specifically focused on the black worker and issues of job quality or the organization of black workers.

GILMORE: And that's true. In Baltimore there's definitely been conversations about the need for black jobs and a significant number of organizations that are talking about unemployment, but very few that have a dedicated focus on what are the quality of jobs that black folks actually have and how to increase the quality of those jobs. There's been a recent coalition, called One Baltimore, that has been labor and faith organizations. They have been raising some of the job quality conversations, not as focused on black workers explicitly.

FLETCHER: Mhm. For the last at least, well, 50 years, there's been a recurring theme when it comes to the question of black workers that black workers are no longer needed in this society and that--I mean, almost that the situation is hopeless because of the reshaping of the economy. And I'm curious how both of you respond to that. And what do we say about the disappearance of employment opportunities for black workers? Steve?

PITTS: I really think it's more a matter of the transformation of opportunities. I mean, I do remember back in the '60s when people talked if automation would replace jobs and we'd have a situation where no one would have jobs, and that clearly wasn't the case. And so the issue is not really the disappearance of jobs; it's a transformation of work in many major ways.

Black workers still exist. We still have jobs, different type of jobs. But the issue is the nature of those jobs and the power that black workers and all black workers, all workers can bring to this, the job market, to improve the quality of those jobs.


GILMORE: That transformation really does look like an increase in health-care jobs, in service-sector jobs. And it's important, particularly in those sectors, to look at the gender dimension of the way in which job quality matters in the black community, so, in order to actually have the conversation around the visibility of black work, that we must be talking about what are the sectors that are the growth sectors, which Steven has done significantly, as well as who is actually working in them presently, what are those conditions of work, and recognizing that gender also matters in how we think about the black worker today.

FLETCHER: Explain that. How does it matter?

GILMORE: It matters that in almost every sector, that black women have a higher rate of unemployment, that there is a--than other women, that you have higher rates of labor market participation or labor force participation, but at the same time you have lower wages, that black women are working as health-care workers, they're working in service-sector jobs, and they are disproportionately a part of the low-wage economy, even greater than black men. And so, having a conversation about that is critical to the black worker discussion.

FLETCHER: When you talk about the issue of quality--I'm--to both of you--I'm wondering, you've both talked about transformations in the job market, different types of jobs. Is there a fight that needs to take place about the creation of certain kinds of jobs? Because when I look at the kinds of jobs that the economy is creating, they are low-wage. I mean, there are some high-end, but there's a massive production of low-wage jobs. And is there a fight for, I don't know, the reintroduction of more manufacturing jobs that needs to take place, or jobs in pharmaceuticals, or other things? Or is that not the fight that needs to take place?

GILMORE: So I do think that that is a part of the equation, that it is important to really talk about what are those high-quality jobs, how do black folks have access to them, what are the barriers to access, and how do we expand the pool of high-quality jobs for all black--in all black communities.

The piece around the structure of the economy that is impacting all workers is definitely a much more complex conversation. And it's one that we should be having and establishing agenda around that as well, and not only the access part, but the expansion of quality, higher-paying jobs.


PITTS: It seems to me that no job is inherently good or bad, no matter how we try to define or measure job quality. But the quality of a job emerges, emerges from a context of power, be it either individual power or collective power. And so it seems to me that the starting point for any discussion of transforming existing jobs or creating new jobs comes from the standpoint of how do we control what we do.

It seems to me that the idea of trying to have job creation divorced from issues of power will result in some jobs that may not be good. Jobs are being created. The problem: [they're not--they aren't (?)] good jobs. And we do have some manufacturing jobs being created. They [aren't (?)] good jobs. The issue there's power.

FLETCHER: A discussion that you and I actually have had over the years is about dead cities. And we have these dead cities, like Camden, New Jersey, or East St. Louis, Illinois, where there are black workers, but these cities have been essentially deserted by capital. But people are living there. They've become almost like reservations. What needs to be done about these cities? And what does that mean for the black worker? Steve?

PITTS: Well, I don't have the last answer. I have some thoughts initially. And it starts with the idea of organizing. [And to the extent you (?)] organize the residents of the cities, workers and otherwise, one question is: what do they need to survive and how you develop some sort of economic programs that are basic survival programs.

The second thing: it seems to me that those cities don't exist in isolation of larger regions. And then the question is: how do you develop the political power to engage in those regions to ensure that we have growth in those regions, you have growth of equity? And that's important as well.


GILMORE: I think Baltimore is actually a perfect example of that, that when we look at the regional economy, that it's a different picture than looking at Baltimore City, so particularly Baltimore City and Baltimore County. And regional strategies, to think about transportation, to think about affordable housing, infrastructure development are all a part of the kind of solution that Steven is describing, so that city-county analysis and how do we actually structure relationships around work that benefit folks who are still in the city who are low-wage workers.

FLETCHER: One of the things that has been a major point of contention and discussion over the last--particularly the last 30 years has been the relationship of immigrant workers to African-American nonimmigrants and the issue of job competition. And so there are those that have argued that immigration, particularly from Latin America, is hurting the black worker, the African-American worker, and there are others that make an alternative argument.

FLETCHER: Steve, any thoughts?

PITTS: Yeah. It seems to me that if you look at the question of the quality of black work over the last, say, 50, 60 years, relative to whites it's stayed roughly the same. And that means it stayed the same independent of the nature of the immigrant workforce.

And so one way of measuring that is look at the ratio of black unemployment to white unemployment. And it's been two to one for 60 years or so. And that's when we had a lot of manufacturing or a lot of services, or if we had a lot of global competition or a little global competition, or a lot of immigrants are a few immigrants. The constant's been that two-to-one black-white unemployment ratio.

The other constant is a lack of black power. And so it seems to me that's the starting point to look at both the issue of the lack of black power manifested in the workplace and how that lack of power is translated into poor or deteriorating black work conditions, and from there look at other factors as well.

FLETCHER: Dorcas Gilmore, Dr. Steven Pitts, thank you both for joining us for The Global African.

GILMORE: Thank you.

PITTS: My pleasure.

FLETCHER: And thank you for joining us for this episode of The Global African. I'm your host, Bill Fletcher. And we'll see you next time. Take care.


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