The Black Workers For Justice held its 24th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Support for Labor banquet April 7 at the North Carolina Association of Educators Hall in Raleigh.
Several hundred people, young and old, representing community organizations and political groups, attended the event in solidarity with the crucial work that BWFJ, along with its ally, UE Local 150, carries out to organize the Black, Latin@ and women workers in the public sector who face low wages and intolerable working conditions.
North Carolina adheres to right-to-work laws and ranks at the bottom as the least unionized state in the country. Right-to-work prohibits state and local governments from entering into collective bargaining agreements with workers. This is known as General Statute 95-98, which was signed into law during the 1950s during the height of racist segregation in the South. Virginia is the only other state with the same anti-worker, anti-union statute.
The banquet affords the opportunity for BWFJ to reinforce its goals and also to recognize the work that labor and community activists have carried out over the past 12 months to meet those goals. This year’s event was no exception. Rukiya Dillahunt was the Directress of Ceremony during the banquet program.
BWJF leader Ashanki Binta spoke on the International Justice Workers’ Campaign to defeat General Statute 95-98. Keynote speaker Rev. Dr. William Barber, president of the North Carolina State NAACP, gave a fiery talk about the need for unity and solidarity in the struggle against war, injustice and racism.
Nathanette Mayo from BWFJ presented the Abner Berry Self-Determination Awards. The purpose of these awards is to “recognize and honor people whose dedication and sacrifice to the struggle for workers’ rights and to the self-determination of the African-American people has been significant.”
Berry, who died in 1987, was a Black active member of the Communist Party USA from the mid-1930s until the late 1950s. He was the editor of the Harlem edition of the CPUSA’s publication, The Daily Worker. He was also a founding member of the BWFJ in 1981.
Two of this year’s Berry awards went to the United Food and Commercial Workers union for its efforts to organize 5,500 mainly immigrant workers at the Smithfield Packing Plant located in Tar Heel, N.C. These exploited workers walked off the job last fall in protest of anti-union tactics by the bosses.
Smithfield is the world’s largest hog processing plant, where 32,000 hogs are slaughtered daily. This amounts to 2,000 an hour, 33 per minute or one hog every two seconds. These workers suffer high rates of injuries including cuts, maiming and repetitive-motion pain, and are denied workers’ compensation. These workers, the majority of them Latin@ and Black, face systematic racism from white bosses.
Another Berry award went to the Raleigh City Workers of the N.C. Public Service Workers Union, UE 150.
Last September, 50 workers from the Raleigh sanitation department carried out a wildcat strike in protest of long working hours, low pay and other grievances against the city. Due to this action, over half of the city workers have joined the union and garnered much community support. Another important victory is that these workers have forced the mayor of Raleigh to “meet and confer” with them—a big step forward to breaking down the restrictive barriers to union organizing, particularly the General Statute 95-98 law.
Other speakers included Shafeah M’Bali, co-editor of Justice Speaks, the BWFJ publication; National Vice-Chair of BWFJ Angaza Laughinghouse; and Ajamu Dillahunt, a BWFJ steering committee member. The Fruit of Labor Ensemble provided cultural entertainment.