BY CATHY WAGNER (MASS ACTION FOR BLACK LIBERATION)

This year, Labor Day falls on September 3—an important day in labor history in Cincinnati. On September 3, 1841, a large white mob marched with torches to attack a black neighborhood near the Ohio river. But a group of men were prepared to defend their neighborhood and families. Waiting on rooftops, armed, the men successfully repelled the invasion. The white mob dispersed—but then returned with a cannon. They fired it down Sixth Street from Broadway right into the neighborhood. By the end of the violence, a number of black residents had been killed, many more wounded, and houses, shops and a church burned.

The context for the white mob’s attack was labor unrest: competition for employment among a fast-growing population of Irish and black workers. Virulent anti-abolitionist and anti-black rhetoric was leading many white workers to see black laborers as competition rather than as potential allies in demanding power for the working class. Like other explosions of racial violence at the time, the riot was fomented and supported by white businessmen and politicians such as Robert Lytle, who recognized that anti-black prejudice was their ticket to keeping a larger share of the profits that both black and white laborers made for them.

Persuading workers to ignore their common interests by dividing them along color lines is a classic means of boosting both the power and the bottom lines of employers. Anti-immigrant rhetoric is one contemporary example of the trick. Another is the mass incarceration of black people in the US, which supplies capital with a regularly renewed source of politically disenfranchised, dead-cheap forced labor. Prison workers do difficult and dangerous labor—including fire-fighting—for a few cents to a few dollars an hour, often with deductions for room and board. They do their work away from other workers, who are prevented from solidarizing with them and encouraged to think of them as a criminal class. And while forced prison labor is exploitative in itself, it also serves to depress wages for workers overall.

But even under desperate conditions like those in prisons, laborers can organize. A national prison labor and hunger strike demanding basic human rights and better conditions for prisoners began on August 21. And though the mainstream press rarely reports on it, the collective power of labor is on the rise all over the world. Two years ago, on September 2, 2016, the biggest strike in the history of the world happened in India: 150 million workers (180 million, by some counts) walked off the job for 24 hours. This year, teacher strikes have won concessions on wages and benefits in West Virginia, Arizona, and Kentucky. Graduate students around the country are successfully forming collective bargaining units. Fast-food workers all over have participated in the Fight for $15 movement and helped to raise the minimum wage in over 20 states. Spectrum (formerly Time Warner) internet provider workers in New York are striking right now. Not only that, they are developing a plan to cut out their greedy bosses and form their own worker cooperative to provide internet to New Yorkers.

We can thank the labor movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries for the heroic persistence that won many workers the weekend, the eight-hour workday, and many other improvements in working conditions. The labor movement endured violence and the loss of many lives to achieve those gains, which are increasingly being eroded and are available to fewer and fewer workers. But as a new generation of labor organizers leaps into the fight, it’s essential that they be careful not to reproduce the labor movement’s history of racist and sexist discrimination. Trade unions have tended to collaborate with business interests to win concessions for particular groups of workers—usually white men. Because capitalism is not a system that works to benefit the whole community, but thrives on cheapening labor and resources as much as possible, trade unions’ alliances with business interests were often accompanied by discrimination against blacks and women, who were excluded from higher-waged forms of labor. In the long run, this discrimination limited trade unions’ power and reach. As long as a reserve army of low-paid or unpaid workers exists, employers can keep wages low. And while workers are divided against themselves, genuine political change is unlikely. Other less divisive models for collective labor, include the International Workers of the World (IWW), an international socialist workers’ union that has always been open to all workers.

Here in Ohio, labor movements faces hard challenges. Ohio’s governor and legislature have passed significant anti-labor legislation and would pass more if they could. Meanwhile, according to the United Way, 40% of Ohioans cannot pay their monthly expenses—even the majority of that 40% who have jobs. Workers regularly work more hours than they are paid for, and health and retirement benefits are offered to fewer and fewer, while workers are increasingly forced to cobble together multiple part-time gigs. Black workers have been disproportionately affected by exploitative labor practices. It’s time to solidarize for change—to find ways to use our labor to serve our own and our collective well-being and stop lining the pockets of the ruling class.

On Labor Day, MABL urges all working people to remember that they hold power. The exploitative U.S. and global economies cannot operate without our sweat, blood, and suffering. So, when the working people decide that they’ve had enough and embrace all struggles of the oppressed, we can be strong enough to take back what we’ve made and what we are owed.