Working While Black: Black Worker Activism in the 21st Century
Executive Producer Eddie Conway speaks with Tanya Wallace-Gobern of the National Black Workers Center about educating and mobilizing the black community to fight back against workplace discrimination and exploitation
EDDIE CONWAY: Welcome to the Real News. I’m Eddie Conway coming to you from Baltimore.
Recently there’s been activity organizing in the black community around black workers. So joining me today is the executive director of the National Black Workers Center, Tanya Wallace-Gobern. Tanya, thanks for joining me.
TANYA WALLACE-GOBERN: Thank you, Eddie, for having me. I appreciate the invitation.
EDDIE CONWAY: Tanya, can you explain to me what this National Black Workers Center is, and how long it’s been in existence?
TANYA WALLACE-GOBERN: Sure, that’s a very good question, Eddie. So the National Black Workers Center project began its operation in 2012. But what’s more important to know is that the first Black Workers Center was created and founded in 1981 in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. It was created in response to companies moving from the North to the South to exploit the workforce, right, which was predominantly African-American. And so because there wasn’t the traditional trade unionism that existed there and labor organizing that existed in the South, the workers decided to mobilize and organize themselves so that they could have the dignity, respect, and a better quality of work on the job.
Currently we have eight worker centers across the country. We’re based, as I mentioned, in Raleigh and Rocky Mount, North Carolina. We are in New Orleans, Washington D.C., Chicago, L.A., Oakland, California, and most recently we launched a worker center last January in Baltimore.
EDDIE CONWAY: OK. So can you tell me, I mean, and I understand in Rocky Mount there was the pushback against exploiting the black workers and so on because of cheap labor and the right to work state laws, and that kind of stuff. But what are the centers doing in these other areas?
TANYA WALLACE-GOBERN: That’s right. So when you think about worker centers I think traditionally people think about worker centers for immigrant communities, for Latinos, for Asians, things like that. And similarly, worker centers exist to provide education and provide resources to handle issues when people are being exploited and disrespected or even discriminated against on the job. And we know as African-Americans, as black folks, that’s not something that only occurs in the South, for example, right? It takes place wherever black people are.
And so our worker centers exist to really push back on the discrimination that black people experience in the workplace. And they do that in a variety of different ways, really addressing the needs that take place in their community.
So for example, our worker center in Los Angeles, the L.A. Black Workers Center, they are working heavily in the construction industry. Really working to, to ensure that African-Americans have access to construction jobs. We know that construction has been a mainstay in the black community. It’s been a way and an avenue for us to move into that middle class society. Our folks in New Orleans are working on having access to transportation to get to work. And one of the ways that they’re doing that is through a traffic clinic, really helping people to eliminate any fines that they have, any outstanding tickets that they have that prevent them from having access to to driving and getting to and from work. And so the work of our worker centers looks different based on the needs of each individual community.
EDDIE CONWAY: OK. Well, they certainly need, the Baltimore Workers Center, the one here in Maryland, certainly need to be engaged in the construction industry here, because there’s a tremendous amount of deconstruction of houses and very little black workforce involved and engaged in that process. Most of the contractors are from out in the county and most of the workers, immigrant workers or whatever they can get for cheap labor.
So we certainly need that kind of a drive here , if I could drop a hint, right. You know, one of the things that I notice is that you are organizing a black workers expo.
TANYA WALLACE-GOBERN: That’s right. One of the events that we have planned is scheduled to take place in August next year, 2019, and we’re calling it a working while black expo. And so in the tradition of black expos in our country it’s a bringing together of people to exchange ideas, to talk about innovative ways to to organize, to mobilize, to build base, to talk about and educate folks on what to do when you’re encountering and facing discrimination and harassment in the workplace. And, since you mentioned construction, one of the things that we hope to achieve is to have a building trades apprenticeship, an apprenticeship fair where people can find out different ways so they can get involved and become involved in apprenticeships with unions, so they can have access to those good jobs.
EDDIE CONWAY: Where is this expo taking place at?
TANYA WALLACE-GOBERN: So that’s one of the reasons that we are in town now were scouting out different locations. One of the main criteria for us is that we make sure that our location, wherever we select, is in the community where we hope to serve those residents. So something that’s accessible to public transportation. And our goal is to bring together 500 residents, African-American residents, in Baltimore.
EDDIE CONWAY: OK. So if I understand what you’re saying, then, in different cities there will be many expos. There’s not going to be, like the one, I noticed that you mentioned in some of your literature back in 1895. No, maybe 1885 or something, in Georgia. The expo there that brought together people from all over the South, and something about black workers, their innovations and so on.
So you’re talking about having little mini expos and not one major thing like they did in Chicago?
TANYA WALLACE-GOBERN: Right. Well, we’re talking about launching one major expo and starting that major expo in Baltimore, and ideally what will happen is that in every city where we have a Black Worker Center moving forward from 2019 there will be a black worker Expo.
EDDIE CONWAY: OK. So it will be moving around once it gets started.
TANYA WALLACE-GOBERN: That’s exactly right, but we’re launching here in Baltimore.
EDDIE CONWAY: OK. OK. So where, I mean, I guess what my concern is, where does this center go into the future? And how does it, I mean, especially in the age of Trump, how does it become relevant for black workers, since we are largely unemployed and ununionized?
TANYA WALLACE-GOBERN: That’s a good question, and especially since you raised the question of the age of Trump. And I would suggest to you that even prior to Trump’s administration the issues that we’ve had as African-American workers have always existed. We recognize at the National Black Workers Center that while our focus is on the black community, the reality is when there’s any type of racism, when there’s any type of discrimination, when there’s any type of effort to undermine workers and people in this country, it begins in the African-American community.
And so it is our responsibility to really address these issues to come up with solutions, because not only do they help black workers, they help all workers. Because we know exploitation doesn’t just get contained within one community. We believe that it begins in the black community, and like a cancer it spreads through the rest of us. And I think that that’s what we’re seeing with the Trump administration.
And so to answer your question, in terms of where do we go, one, it begins with education. Two, it begins with base building so that people can understand their power, the power of organizing, the power of mobilizing so that we can change the trajectory of what’s going on. Organizing our communities so that they can speak up and demand better jobs, better opportunities, et cetera, within their communities. And that’s something that we are doing nationally to provide support to our worker centers who are doing those types of efforts within their communities.
EDDIE CONWAY: Well, two things came to mind, and one is, do you, are you working toward building allies in the Latino community, the white community among the traditional labor unions, and so on?
TANYA WALLACE-GOBERN: You know, that’s a question that comes up frequently, and it’s no small feat or coincidence that our name is the National Black Workers Center project. One of the reasons that we have identified as such is that historically black people get left behind. We’ve been told that it’s not a race issue, right, it’s a class issue. It’s a feminist issue. And we say it’s a black issue, and what I shared with you earlier, right. It begins with us and it ends with us.
And so our priority is the black worker. And we strongly believe that once we solve, come to solutions within the black community, that other communities will be able to benefit from those solutions. But it begins with us.
EDDIE CONWAY: OK. And the question that came to mind was that, you know, more assuaging is one thing. A legal challenge is something else. But things don’t seem to change unless there’s boots on the ground. Do you have a ground game? I mean, is there going to be black workers who are going to go out and make demands, pounding the pavement or knocking on doors or boycotting, or any of that kind of stuff to make a difference?
TANYA WALLACE-GOBERN: And so what I what I hear you talking about is organizing and that base building that we’ve been talking about. And the reality is a lot of people talk about organizing, but organizing isn’t just showing up at a rally, right. And it’s not just waving a post or a banner or having a slogan. It’s really being strategic and thoughtful about having that long game approach that you talked about, and it’s a skill. It’s a skill that we can look back to when we look at the civil rights movement. And it’s a skill that isn’t necessarily taught in our communities anymore.
It’s a skill that I would say also that’s been used against us when we look at the Trump administration, how they’ve been able to mobilize their base. And so the first part for us is to to bring that skill back into our communities, to let people know that it’s not, you don’t win solely by showing up to a rally. You don’t win solely by liking something on Facebook or signing a petition.
Those are the first steps. But the campaign is is is a longer strategy and we have to understand what step one is, step two, step three, step four, and to to set up a realistic expectations for people, right. This will not be something that we are able to solve within the next year. And so the way that we are doing our organizing is looking at different aspects, launching different campaigns and looking at strategies that allow us to win small games that allow us to build momentum and as people see the work that we are doing to say I want to be part of that, and to help grow our movement, if you will.
One of the things that’s different about the National Black Workers Center is that we are not an organization that exists solely to have more members. What we say is that we don’t need more members, we need more leaders. And so our job is to grow, develop, and to help people realize the leader that exists within them, and give them the space to stand up and to lead.
EDDIE CONWAY: Sounds sort of like Ella Baker’s program. You know, strong people don’t need strong leaders.
TANYA WALLACE-GOBERN: Well, that is true.
EDDIE CONWAY: Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share with the audience?
TANYA WALLACE-GOBERN: Well, definitely. I would say if people want to, if anything that I’ve said resonates with folks and they want to get involved and learn more about what we do, definitely they can find us on social media. And I would ask them to visit our Web site, www.nationalblackworkerscenters.org, to find out about where we’re at, the work that we’re doing, the campaigns that we are launching throughout the country, and definitely keep visiting our website so that you can find out when and where we will hold the working while black expo in Baltimore in 2019.
EDDIE CONWAY: OK, thank you. And before that happens I think I will try to have you come back here and talk a little more about that as we get closer to that particular event.
TANYA WALLACE-GOBERN: That would be great. I appreciate that. Thank you.
EDDIE CONWAY: Thank you for joining me.
TANYA WALLACE-GOBERN: Thank you for having me.
EDDIE CONWAY: Thank you for joining the Real News.