Organizing White Workers When the Klan is in the Shop

Image created by Walter Crane to celebrate International Workers’ Day (May Day, 1 May), 1889 – Public Domain

With the rise of the extreme right, the Klan and its modern descendants are definitely “in the shop.” Here’s a story from a long time ago but it could have happened only yesterday. This is not a heroic tale just a memory of day-to-day struggle and the lessons learned.

As a young organizer in the mid-1970s, I went to work for District 65, an independent radical union. Martin Luther King called District 65 “The Conscience of the Labor Movement” after their early and staunch support for the civil rights movement.

Our dress pin was a black hand and a white hand working both ends of an old fashioned two-man tree- saw cutting through the chain of oppression. 

We were largely led by older radical Jews. Some of them had left the Communist Party during the Cold War purges to stay with the union.

65 organized low wage workers and small shops most unions would not even touch. Many members were Black, Puerto Rican, or Jewish. It was one hell of a good little union even if it remains largely unknown. [1]

After a few months working as a “salt” (a clandestine organizer) in a giant book warehouse, the boss grew suspicious and fired me. Luckily, the union hired me full time.

I got to work with some mighty impressive shop-floor militants, like local legend Bob Mihalko. I loved Bob. We often worked as a team and I soaked in as much as I could from him. We worked aggressively opening up campaigns at multiple shops — looking for ones that could win. But win or lose, we knew it was worth the effort as long as we were talking with workers.

One day we got a lead about an electronics factory in Jamesburg NJ. There seemed a reasonable level of interest after a few days of handing out flyers; we called our first meeting. About halfway through I noticed a group of three workers (two men and a woman), wearing KKK shirts beneath their unzipped jackets. My heart sank. The meeting went well enough, but I was ready to move on to better prospects.

The next day I reported to Frank Engelberg, the Director of Organizing. Frank was a radical Jew and a great person loved by the members for his rabble-rousing speeches against the boss. And he had no illusions about what fascism really meant.

I went into his office and said: “Frank we’re fucked, we’re done, the Klan is in the shop and in our meetings.” He turned to me with a look far more intense than usual. In his gruff Jersey voice, he barked out: “No! Richie, you get your ass right back in there and you organize the Klan right into the union.”

After a moment of stunned silence, I thought to myself: “So this is what it means to organize the working class. Man, this is no picnic.” “Ok Frank,” I said, trying to muster some courage, “Fuck the Klan, we’ll go back and give it a shot.”

What Frank was telling me is that we have to engage workers the way they really are, not the way we want them to be or imagine them to be. And why bring the Klan into the union? Because better pay and the benefits of a union contract was good medicine for everyone — including racists. Frank knew that the boss was our real enemy.

We always have to pick our battles, true, and I am dead sure I would not spend scarce resources on white supremacist organizations. But, white workers with backward racist attitudes? White workers exposed to the neofascists? That is the battleground. That is right where white radicals belonged — and still do.

I did not just belong with these backward white workers as a revolutionary political project — that is where I was from, that is who I was. I grew up just 40 miles from Jamesburg in Neptune, a segregated working-class town where my high school was closed a week every spring for “the riots.” There were a lot of fights between Blacks and whites.

When the week-long rebellion in neighboring Asbury Park went down on July 4th, 1970, there were running battles between young Black rebels, cops, and National Guard. 180 people were injured including 15 state troopers. Large parts of Springwood Avenue were burned and I could see the smoke from my house.

I sure was relieved that school was not in session since we already went through our high school riot that spring. It weighed pretty heavy on my young mind. When I saw white teachers fighting Black students, and armed soldiers in the hallways and on the grounds I felt a strange resentment — like the adult world was forcing itself on all of us. 

When I heard some white parents whipping up hate and fear and heard that soldiers had shot Bob Ivey in the legs – Bob was a Black kid I ran track with — I knew deep down that something was terribly wrong — but I sure did not know what was right. So white workers with racist attitudes? I knew them because I was one of them.

Maybe you can show me some white people — radical or conservative, left or right — free from racism. How does any white person grow up in America and not internalize some aspect of racist culture? You? How? Explain it, please. I would really like to know how you kept yourself clear from the long history of Whiteness. 

There are many approaches. Antifa is a solid mobilization effort monitoring and resisting open white supremacy. And, there is nothing wrong with movement workshops and training for whites. It’s a good start and regular check-ups are needed but these tactics should be part and parcel of organizing. 

Organizing is about engaging people in a struggle for their own class interest and against the systematic forms of racism — if for no greater reason than it is impossible for white workers to win without the Black and Brown workers that have often led the class struggle. Working-class power demands solidarity. The bosses’ power demands racism. We only get free together.

The question is not are you trying to organize the multiracial working class — the question is how? Whether you choose to work in multi-racial groups like unions or focus on coalition work or engaging white workers as a form of community organizing, the dilemma is the same: are we a class, or aren’t we?[2]

Is the multiracial working-class real? Yes and no. On the one hand, it’s what Marx called “a class in itself.” Sure, it exists as a demographic, but not as a class aware of its own political power and potential. And the path to that awareness runs us right into a confrontation with white racism. How could it not? White racism has been the most effective form of class collaboration for well over 300 years.

How do we transform the working class from a “class in itself” to a “class for itself” — a class aware of itself as a force in history. There are no shortcut answers. But if we do not have projects to organize white workers, and engage in conversations that matter, we’ve lost before we started.

Yes, we went back to Jamesburg, proudly showed our anti-racist gear, and kept the conversation going. The meetings slowly lost steam and we heard the Klan was calling us an “n-word union.” No, this is not a tale of heroic victory. In the end, the workers were not strong enough to stand up to both the boss and the Klan. Sometimes organizers do change people but most of the time we just help people along. They’ve got to be ready to take the next step.

Eventually, we moved on but no matter where we went every workplace and every community was divided in some way. No exceptions. No matter how homogeneous it appeared, every workplace was divided. The should be no surprise since the boss’s first job is to divide and conquer– their profits depend on their power. Overcoming those divisions was our job. And we couldn’t do that by running away from trouble or taking shortcuts, like not talking with, and listening closely to, people we disagree with.

From time to time Frank comes back to haunt, challenge, and inspire me. I’ve never forgotten the hard-edged working-class wisdom he passed on to me that day. It continues to shape my thinking and practice. If you’ve got the guts to go out and engage the working class with all our shortcomings and flaws — if you’re full of “piss and vinegar,” as Frank used to say — maybe it will shape your practice too.

Notes.

1) The only book I know on District 65 is Lisa Phillips, A Renegade Union: Interracial Organizing and Radical Unionism.

2) Hy Thurman’s reflections on the original Rainbow Coalition is a powerful new book on white workers: Revolutionary Hillbilly: Notes from the Struggle on the Edge of the Rainbow. See also Hillbilly Nationalists by James Tracy and Amy Sonnie.

3) Also see my series of articles: Organize the White Working Class at befreedom.co

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