Our transit strike rocked the political scene. It polarized the city and beyond. It brought out class and race tensions that are always there, just waiting to explode. President Toussaint became a particular target because he is Black and of Caribbean descent. Pro- and anti-immigrant sentiments – relating to Caribbean peoples in particular – have run exceedingly strong.
On the one hand, the strike was a solid display of interracial unity. Led by a Black President of Trinidadian heritage, and with a majority of people of color in the ranks, Local 100 set a fine example for the rest of the working class to follow. But exactly for this reason, racial attacks and caricatures were thrown at Toussaint – and upon the whole union – by our enemies. There was billionaire Mayor Bloomberg calling us “thugs” and “greedy.” There were disgusting cartoons and photos circulated by the capitalist media, designed to mobilize “public” (read racist and anti-worker) opinion against us. This all showed that the powers-that-be were frightened by our fightback.
It is no accident that the media continues to portray Toussaint as a “fiery militant” – despite his daily attempts to sell us out. The very idea of Black leadership even momentarily speaking up is unacceptable in this racist society. And when they rant at Toussaint that way, we know they are really attacking us as well.
Despite their efforts, the strike was popular among working class people in general. At the same time, people of color were more likely to support the strike than whites. This should be no surprise in a society so deeply divided along the color line. A WNBC/Marist poll (quoted in Caribbean Life, December 27) said that 23 percent of whites favored the strike while 61 percent of Black people supported it. It said that 27 percent of whites blamed the MTA, while 58 percent of Blacks blamed the MTA.
Of course we don’t know what kind of people were asked. A Wall Street manager is a lot less likely to identify with us than a maintenance worker or even an overworked white collar teacher or nurse. And experience indicates that support for transit workers was far higher than this poll says. Nevertheless the poll points to the reality of deep racial division in our society.
There is a method to this. Marxists have always understood that racism is fundamentally a tool the ruling class uses to keep the working class divided. White workers are exploited, but are also seduced by the privilege of social and economic benefits. Whites are taught to believe they are superior to workers of color. Black, Latino and immigrant workers get the worst treatment and the worst jobs, and all this is chronically justified by a system that is designed to perpetrate racism on every level.
The middle class layers of society and white workers in the better off sectors – the labor aristocracy – are taught to adhere to the system. They are particularly vulnerable to manipulation by the kind of racist and anti-immigrant scapegoating that the capitalists depend on. However history shows that the workers can win over good parts of the middle class and labor aristocracy when their struggle, goals and leadership are strong.
To build a powerful and united fightback, the working class must fight racism as consciously as we fight for our economic demands. Therefore all workers must fight every racist attack on President Toussaint as well as every attack on the union.
The achilles heel of the bosses’ racist divide and conquer plan is that it puts workers of color in a leading role. The oftentimes greater militancy and political sophistication of Blacks and other workers of color is heightened by their situation and their history of struggle.
Even our brief strike showed what the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP) has always said: in urban centers, and in key job sites where we work together in large numbers, Black workers and all workers of color hold strategic power.
It is because of this potential power that the bosses are on a rampage against Local 100. For decades the whole working class has been taking it on the chin, while workers of color have gotten the worst. After September 11, immigrants were special targets.
Then came perhaps the largest case of racist mass murder in this country’s history: the manmade disaster of Hurricane Katrina’s flooding of New Orleans. In its aftermath, the government left tens of thousands of mostly Black workers and poor people to die. Hurricane survivors have been valiantly trying to fight for their rights, but many have been overwhelmed by the struggle to meet basic daily needs. But when beleaguered working people across the country turned on the news and saw striking transit workers, mainly Blacks and immigrants, standing up for themselves, it sent a powerful message of both racial and class pride. Against the horrors of victimization it showed an example of what workers of color in particular can do when they unite and fight back.
The notion that all Black people, from the rulers to the poorest worker, really have common cause has been proven false time and again. After all, the system has little problem nowadays with the likes of Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell who serve the ruling class. They can deal with Black Democratic Party officials who work to get workers and poor to vote for the politicians who betray us at every turn. It is the Black working class, in unity with other workers of color, and anti-racist white workers, that can effectively point toward a solution.
Black, Latino and immigrant workers are set to play a leading role in the class struggle. And class conscious white workers must fight against racism as part of their own struggle – if working class unity is to be a reality. The LRP aims to convince workers that the fights against racism and exploitation must not only be joined in this way but can only reach their goals with the overthrow of capitalism altogether.
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