A Closer Look at Black Workers for Justice: Fighting for Human Rights in North Carolina and Beyond

GGJ Coordinating Committee member Black Workers for Justice is a powerhouse of an organization. This year marks BWFJ’s 20th year of tireless organizing to build power among African-American workers in the fight for justice, self-determination and human rights.

 

With political conditions in North Carolina resembling regressive

trends across the country, BWFJ organizers are working more tirelessly

than ever. Since Obama won the Presidency in 2008, the right-wing has

taken advantage of racist backlash to gain more of a foothold in the

State. According to BFJ organizers, in 2010, the state legislature became

a Republican-dominated legislature for the first time in 100 years. Since

then, Republicans have systematically been chipping away at progressive

legislation including voting rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights and

rights to a quality public education -- but not without a fight.

 

People’s Assemblies: Vehicles for Organizing and Action

Ajamu Dillahunt leads BWFJ’s People’s Assembly work. He explains that  

the People’s Assemblies’ (PA) purpose is to allow people to have a

mass-based space to come together, share concerns, and plan collective

action. The assemblies build from the ongoing tradition of County

Assemblies established by Civil Rights Activists, anti-poverty organizers

and community development leaders in the late 1960’s and 1970’s.

 

In Wake County over the last two years PA participants have done

signifiant work to support Machinist Union workers who were on an

extended strike in defense of wages and benefits. One ongoing area of

work involving the PA process has now grown into a visionary

campaign: In Rocky Mountain PA participants focused on exorbitant

utility bills that force many elderly and poor people to go without

sufficient heat in the winter and cooling in the summer. Members have

now broadened the call and have initiated the “Open the Workplaces

Campaign”, which calls on local government to make abandoned

manufacturing infrastructure available to the local communities.

Community members have a vision and are developing a plan to reuse

and convert this infrastructure into worker-owned businesses. The

businesses would provide good jobs for the long-term unemployed and

for those with criminal records who otherwise face employment

discrimination.

 

BWFJ has also convinced the Historic Thousands on Jones Street

Coalition (a 5-year campaign led by the NAACP - Erin Byrd and Ajamu

of BWFJ are on the steering committee) to adopt the PA model. As a

result, many communities have held or will be holding Assemblies that

introduces the Coalition’s 14-Point Agenda, mobilizes them for elections

in October, and creates an ongoing structure for struggling for

progressive policies and holding elected officials accountable.

 

Defending and Advancing Workers’ Rights: Fighting to

Restore Collective Bargaining and Supporting Mental

Health Workers

 

One of the work groups that has grown out of the People’s Assembly

process has focused its energy on repealing the legislation that denies

the right to collective bargaining for all city, county and state workers in

North Carolina. This unjust law has been in place in NC for more than

50 years.

 

Working with UE 150, BWFJ has been able to make steady progress in

this battle together with the HOPE (Hear Our Public Employees)

coalition and the HK on J. According to Angaza Laughinghouse, UE 150

has even used international law as a handle by organizing to get the

United Nations commission on human rights to file a complaint with

the North Carolina governor saying the state is in violation of human

rights by denying the right to collective bargaining to public sector

workers. When they started the campaign to pass a collective bargaining

bill that would repeal the old legislation, they only had 3 or 4

supporters. Now there are 53 legislators and counting who support the

bill.

 

BWFJ has also worked with UE 150 on their Mental Health Hospital

Workers bill of rights currently before the General Assembly and

Angaza says “We're fighting like the dickens to keep it alive”. BWFJ has

members of the UE 150 North Carolina Public service union working in

5 mental health hospitals around the state. They have a petition and

letter campaign going and local meetings in 6 different areas of the state.

Right now 26 legislators have signed off as co-sponsors, a powerful

statement in one of the least unionized of all the states of the union.

 

Last but definitely not least, BWFJ has also played a critical role in UE

150‘s international worker justice campaign that began in 2004.

According to Angaza, with the help of many people they met through

GGJ, they are conducting a grassroots campaign to educate workers on

the fact that the denial of worker rights was the denial of internationally

recognized human rights as stated in the United Nations charter on

human rights.

 

Fighting to Preserve Voting Rights

Erin Byrd is one of the leaders of BWFJ’s voting rights work. On any

given day you can find her speaking at community meetings, doing get

out the vote work at NAACP meetings, lobbying, training BWFJ

members, canvassing and phone banking.

 

There is much to keep Erin busy. Part of the conservative attack on

North Carolina includes aggressive redistricting and draconian rollbacks

on voting rights. According to Erin, there is currently a proposed

redistricting map which pits 50 women legislators against each other as

well as pitting African-American communities against each other.

 

The slew of attempts to rollback voting rights include: an attempt to cut

off early voting 2.5 weeks before the election and to eliminate same day

voter registraion, as well as an attempt to outlaw voter registration on

Sundays - a blatant attempt to disenfranchise working people and the

poor who may have no other day to register except Sunday. This

atrocious omnibus bill passed out of both houses. The governor vetoed

it and Republicans could not get a supermajority to override it, but the

threat is not over. Republican conservatives did succeed in passing a bill

requiring a government ID in order to vote. According to Erin, a recent

analysis showed that at least half a million people in the state do not

have a drivers license and have been effectively disenfranchised by this

law.

 

 

Struggling for Racial Justice in Public Education

 

The fundamental civil and human right to a quality education is also

being severely rolled back in North Carolina, similar to most other states in the nation. Rukiya Dillahunt is one of the

leaders of BWFJ’s education justice work. She explains that prior to

2009, most of BWFJ’s education work focused on eliminating the achievement gap and stopping the school to prison

pipeline. They also worked on other destructive education policies and

practices, such as high stake testing, inadequate funding, and the

proliferation of privates schools and for profit charter

schools.

 

Today much of BWFJ’s educational justice work has been diverted to

fighting against the resurgence of segregation in public schools. Under the guise of “neighborhood schools”conservative Republicans have been systematically pushing to dismantle civil rights legislation

that had called for integration, diversity and equality for all students.

There has also been a move by the Republican majority state legislators to dismantle public education by pushing and adopting legislation for private school vouchers, funding for homeschooling and charter schools.

 

In 2009, a conservative Republican majority funded by North Carolina

businessman Art Pope and the Koch brothers was elected to the Wake County school board. They appointed a superintendent of schools who was a brigadier colonel in the US Army and educated by the

Broad Academy for Superintendents.The two bright spots, according to

Rukiya, are that their school assignment anti-diversity policy hasn’t

actually been completely developed and implemented and that

upcoming elections offer a chance to win a democratic majority back.

 

Elections are October 11. Three of the republican candidates are up and

2 democrats are up for election. BWFJ will participate in coalitions that will be working on getting people out to vote for this important local election.

 

BWFJ is one of leading forces in a community-based People of Color

grassroots coalition working to strengthen effective parent advocates for justice and equity in public education. As members of the Parent Advocacy Work Group, they hold parent organizing workshops to educate parents on the achievement gap, provide advocacy training and to develop collective action plans to stop the school to prison pipeline. The group launched and is implementing the Wake Help Initiative to give out Know Your Rights Cards to students and parents and will continue this throughout the year. They have developed a Black Brown Parent Unity Group working to strengthen relationships among Latino and African –American communities.

 

“We have made an impact on policies dealing with the school to prison

pipeline in Wake County,” says Rukiya.” This year the school system has established Alternative Learning Programs as a school program within the schools. Students will remain in school and will not serve suspended days outside of the schools during which time they would miss work and as a result, fall behind the class. We are participating in a national parent advocacy movement with parents around the country and hoping to develop a southern regional advocacy group

fighting issues that are racist and oppressive to our children and

families. 


“We must struggle to transform public education that educates all students regardless of race or class. Every child deserves a quality and excellent education that will fulfill their dreams.”

 

Hip-Hop for Justice: Building the Base through Youth

Culture

 

Angaza Laughinhouse, Jr., JaQue Fisher and Yuwsuf Bell are three leaders

of BWFJ’s youth organizing work. They engage young people in

canvassing, door-knocking and base-building. They have played a very big

role on the local organizing committee for the GGJ Congress. And they

recently completed a base-building project which involved surveying

low-income African communities about unemployment and job

creation.

 

The results of this survey are going to be discussed at an upcoming

People’s Assembly. In the process JaQue and Yuwsuf surveyed 217 new

people who can now be engaged in BWFJ rallies and events.

 

One of the main projects of BWFJ’s youth work is “Hip Hop for

Justice”, which started in 2008 as a chance for local artists to share

progressive music. They’ve featured acts like Sergio and the Brown

Breakdancers, local poet Rah One and the Beast. Angaza explains that

the music is a hook for community members to come together to talk

about pressing issues like budget cuts and the economic crisis, and to

get some hard hitting discussion going about ways to deal with these

issues. Many of the artists who come to perform also get organized and

recruited into BWFJ.

 

They hold a show every month and then have a discussion or a film and

discussion. In between shows, the organizers engage participants in

rallies and door-knocking. According to Angaza, they’ve held a total of

10 shows and have reached up to 300 new people.

 

One of those people is Yuwsuf Bell himself. A year and a half ago,

Angaza asked him to help host a show. “When Angaza first posed the

question I didn’t really think about it, I just came to support,” said

Yuwsuf. “Then I hosted at least 2 more shows and helped with

recruitment of artists.” Now Yuwsuf is one of BWFJ’s most active

leaders. “I used to just be Angaza’s friend but now I’m at rallies all the

time, working on the logistics team for the GGJ Congress, and in

general doing a lot more than I was than at the beginning. It’s refreshing

to know that you’re doing something positive.”

 

***

From their hip hop for justice project to their mental health workers

bill of rights campaign, and from their voting rights and redistricting

work to their organizing to stop the school to prison pipeline, BWFJ is

building the power of low-income and working-class African-American

communities to defend their rights and to shape a more just North

Carolina.

 

“This is about what is just, what is moral and what is right,” says Erin

Byrd. “I think our organizing plays a really important role, particularly in

the South. We are building a stronger base here in the state, but we

have allies throughout the South as well as international allies. Our

influence extends far beyond North Carolina. I think this is partly

because while we strengthen communities and institutions to apply

pressure against what we don’t want, we are also trying to build a vision

for the rights we want and need.”

 

by Jen Soriano, GGJ