Faculty from the University of Massachusetts participated in a nationwide Scholar Strike on Tuesday and Wednesday, aimed at bringing attention to racism and injustice across the United States. Some of the scholars on strike participated in a panel on Wednesday afternoon for a discussion on how unions and workers can advance racial justice issues.
The panel, titled “Labor and the Movement for Black Lives: Intersections of Economic and Racial Justice”, sought to answer the question of how to “fight for the working class as a whole while prioritizing the needs of the most oppressed within that class,” according to an email from the Massachusetts Society of Professors.
According to co-organizers Anthea Butler and Kevin Gannon, the nationwide Scholar Strike was developed after NBA, WNBA and MLB players went on strike to demand racial justice.
“The athlete strikes have been profoundly radical, and their profound challenge to the labor movement in the U.S. in that they are not economistic strikes, they’re not focused on the workplace conditions,” said Kevin Young, an associate professor of history.
Instead, Young explained that this strike is a “political strike,” because the players were not directly protesting their working conditions or employers.
“I think that in the years ahead, it’s going to be essential that the labor movement revive this tradition of the political strike — the strike for the greater good, the good of the society as a whole, even if it’s not our employers that we are directly confronting,” he said.
Many of the panelists touched on how they believe that all laborers are connected and should stand together in solidarity to achieve racial justice.
“Racism and sexism undercut the power of all workers of the entire working class. So there’s a realization here about the shared interest that all workers have in confronting those systems of oppression,” said Young.
Youngmin Yi, an assistant professor of sociology, also said that “The Scholars Strike and this event have productively and critically forced me to ask myself that question: ‘Is it possible to think about racialized policy systems and the way they fundamentally shape family life without thinking about them as inextricably linked to work and economic justice?’ And the short answer is absolutely not.”
Yi presented facts about the United States carceral system, which imprisons residents at a rate of “over 600 people per 100,000.” She added that about two-thirds of adults have an immediate or extended family member who is incarcerated.
“In the context of capitalism, the social citizenship of some relies on the maintenance, and sometimes expansion of an ever growing punitive carceral system,” Yi said. “Relationships are shaped by at this level imbalance of power shaped by race and a racist history and a racialized contemporary system.”
Toussaint Losier, an assistant professor of Afro-American studies, also spoke on the importance of worker solidarity “that’s expressed not just in the way in which we stop work in support each other’s efforts, but also that we’d look to really support and broadening the breadth of union organizing.”
Young added that although there is an importance for a solidarity among laborers and working-class people, autonomous leadership by the most oppressed people is also necessary.
“Only with that diverse active leadership will the ultimate aims of the working class be realized. So, a shared interest along class lines doesn’t mean that all workers experience exploitation and oppression in the same way, and the leadership structure of the movement needs to reflect that,” he said.
Another panelist, Brian Sargent, an assistant professor of sociology, also addressed what it means to call for creating “plans” in policy and government. Sargent said that the push for political plans often dims the dreams of what can actually be achieved.
“The call for plans limits what we can achieve by requiring us to work toward only that we can already imagine, given our current conditions,” said Sargent. “The building of community is the creation of the possible, but we must be patient enough and rigorous enough and ambitious enough to give it a chance.”
Irina Costache can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @irinaacostache.