Described below in a review from the site IMDB.com, this version has subtitles of the American soundtrack, in German, added by Darnell Stephen Summers, now living in Berlin. A veteran of the League, he can be found Zooming in from Berlin in weekly Zooms held by the modern League of Revolutionaries for a New America-Detroit Labor Committee. This version was free-downloaded off the web and not of high-definition resolution.
Made well outside any kind of Hollywood studio structure, the collectively-made ‘Finally Got the News…’ presents Detroit’s League of Revolutionary Black Workers/DRUM finding new ways to circumvent the corrupt union bureaucracy and to organise within the workplace. Far from a nostalgic or ‘local’ document, the film’s structure veers between ideological lecture, practical summary, functional illustration, and ‘news’ of a different kind, a treatise conveyed through affective means. The film opens with a montage of racial capitalism in America unfolds in a succession of stills which give the impression of a kind of spasmodic movement, underscored by dramatic tympani (the opposite of the reverential aura the archive would attain in the Ken Burns-trademarked style of succeeding decades). A brief shift into colour for electric guitar and footage of the auto-factory and the racial violence of the long hot summers brings things up to date; for the credits, we shift to the sounds of the factory itself, to be followed by a lecture on surplus value by a member of the League. As the film cuts from the scene of the lecture (an apartment filled with revolutionary posters, for Che, for Mao, for Angola, for Malcolm X) to the factory itself, these spaces–the space of ideological debate, of theory, of Third World Marxism–and of the factory itself, with the more mundane, grinding, or specific struggles of how to organise within it–form the film’s too axes, often united as impromptu lectures unfold over footage of the various negotiations within the factory spaces, reaching a kind of furious peak during another speech around 15 minutes into the film. Here we see the cars themselves, the product of centuries of dead and living labour congealed into an object whose gleaming surface is dismantled by the coruscating, incandescent lyricism of that speech. The film is acutely attentive to such intersections of sound and image, of the thorny demands of activism and the affective register which gives the truth of the emotional life without which they wither and die: a moment channeling hurt, rage, fury and steely determination whose chord still strikes.
Submission to Academia Letters Touraj Eghtesad, European School of Strasbourg
Recent market reforms impulsed by public actors and new forms of belonging resulting from global consumption patterns (internet…) have curbed the nationstate’s traditional role as a source of belonging and material welfare for young men and women. Within this context, un(der)employed youth constitute a global precarious generation who is increasingly capable of expressing its agency on the one hand, while being limited by lacking opportunities and the need for financial security on the other. This paradox becomes particularly apparent during empirical studies of young people in moments of rapid social change. Possibilities seem unlimited in the global era, however there seem to be fewer safety nets within neoliberal frameworks for young people to have the material basis upon which to pursue their preferred options independently.
The total number of unemployed people in the world was estimated at 1.1 billion in 2015. At the height of the economic crisis a decade ago, there were estimated youth unemployment rates of around 55% in countries such as Spain and Greece; around 25% in long developed nations such as France and the United Kingdom; and alarmingly high rates in many sub-Saharan African countries. Unemployment rates are also hard to estimate in countries where people work mostly in the informal economy, and they do not take into account people who are underemployed (part-time, intermittent or temporary work). Such phenomena have been accentuated by the recent Covid crisis in a variety of countries throughout the world.
Alcinda Honwana argues that young people around the world are in ‘waithood’, a period of suspension between youth and adulthood whereby un(der)employed youth are unable to become recognised as fully fledged citizens (or adults). They lack a steady and sufficient income that would allow them to become financially independent, get married and start a family. In many countries around the world, however, accessing adulthood is dependent on marriage and household formation. The New York Times recently produced a series of articles arguing that millennials are redefining adulthood because they lack economic opportunities and are disillusioned with the institution of marriage and the existing job market. Middle-class youth often prioritise daily leisure over longterm professional planning because they either lack stability or do not regard it highly.
The most recent technological revolution has opened up the sphere of existing possibilities for un(der)employed youth. The internet facilitates access to capital, freelance opportunities, learning new skills and networking using dynamic tools such as MOOCs and social media. The long-term effect of these technological changes on the way societies conduct politics, learn and organise the economy will be significant, as online initiatives grow exponentially. Along with other forms of shared cultural consumption, they contribute to young people’s growing sense of awareness and existence within a wider world
Young men and women are now also freer to travel around the world. The sharp decline in transport costs have encouraged millions of un(der)employed youth to travel elsewhere in pursuit of jobs and exciting new lifestyles. The Covid crisis has somewhat limited this phenomenon, although remote work linked with lockdown measures have favoured movement for the most privileged young people from developed countries. In doing so, travelling youth encounter new forms of social organisation and become accustomed to cultural diversity, providing new outlooks on their own lives. Travelling to new places also raises awareness about the existence of other un(der)employed youth who migrate for similar purposes, a sort of new ‘class consciousness’ in-the-making that can be observed on public squares, in local neighbourhoods, in workplaces and more.
Meanwhile, neoliberal economic reforms such as reduction in public spending and emphasising labor flexibility have limited young people’s ability to become independent and plan ahead. Public sector jobs were once widely available in many European and African countries. They were guaranteed for life and enabled young men and women to have the material stability required to start planning their futures. Permanent contracts in the public and private sector are being progressively replaced by temporary or part-time work. Prevailing economic paradigms seek to optimise wage distribution through measures such as zero hour contracts and consultancies instead of long-term employment. The Covid crisis showed the limits of such measures which create desperate situations for young people, as young people massively invested food banks in some European countries for example.
Welfare benefits are also getting slashed in an attempt to create a more ‘responsible’ body of citizens (c.f. France’s most recent reform of unemployment benefits) leaving few opportunities for young people to pursue personal projects and long-term professional ventures. In the absence of work, the flexible individual must constantly renew his or her skill set and obtain new experiences that can be sold on the job market. There is a large demand for qualified workers in the private sector that remains void, despite an increased focus of public and non-profit institutions on professional training. The ability to become flexible and more employable, however, is highly dependent on a person’s wealth, education and social network (although the opportunities offered by the internet lessen the latter two). Youth from poor or lower middle-class families are less capable to commit to learning skills because they often need immediate revenue streams.
This precarious generation must focus on short-term strategies to live according to an acceptable standard of living. Many of them get by using creative tactics that allow them to assert their independence and compromise, despite a strong lack of opportunities. What seems to emerge is that social and economic capital are a key determinant in the freedom of these young people’s choices. During my 2014 field research in Tunisia, I met with Walid, 31, who speaks four languages and had recently lost his job in a hotel on the Tunisian coast. Despite wanting to work in a hotel again, he roamed the streets of Tunis selling old cellular phones and finding tourists who could teach him about their country and language and give him some money.
After completing her Law degree, Maria, 28, who I met in Barcelona during field research conducted in 2015, had spent the past five years away from her hometown of Barcelona where jobs had become scarce. She moved from one European country to another every few months looking for jobs in catering or cleaning, despite wanting to be a lawyer. Charles, 29, found it difficult to get a job with a phD in Physics from French university. In 2019, after a year doing part-time work in the city, he had decided to live precariously in an environmentalist commune to avoid working a full-time job for minimum-wage doing something he did not believe in.
Karim, 31, went back to university after having struggled to get a stable job with responsibilities and decent pay despite having five years of on-and-off experience in the pharmaceutical industry. Considering he only had a Bachelor’s degree, he decided to go back to school and study management.
While these cases may seem isolated, they both highlight a lack of longterm opportunities and the continuous negotiations between young people’s expectations and their actions to find work. The urgency of resolving youth unemployment cannot be understated. Many academic studies and policy-makers acknowledge the need to address this issue as a security threat to existing societal arrangements. This precarious generation feels increasingly alienated from political decision-making processes and economic opportunities, highlighted by low youth voter turnouts in new and old democracies alike. Un(der)employed youth were prominent in informal social movements such as the Occupy movement (often due to student debt), the Arab Spring (the symbol of Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia), uprisings all over Africa in 2010-2011, the 15-M movement in Spain, the Gilets Jaunes in France (2018-2019), etc.
Their marginalisation from the existing political and social order leads them to look for meaning in new and creative ways; sometimes revolutionary, sometimes reactionary. Honwana argues that waithood is gradually replacing conventional adulthood. The issue of youth unemployment has become a pressing policy matter (EU 2020 Priorities) and its resolution will be of great significance to the maintenance of the existing social contract. While competition becomes fierce for the few existing jobs, young people’s enhanced sense of freedom in the face of difficulty will enable many of them to create new things in the shell of the old. We are living in a transition period where the new has yet to be defined, as possibilities seem endless but short-term economic opportunities remain scarce. Public sector actors will be key in the future to create new opportunities for young people to deploy their skills without short-term profit considerations. In the meantime, the 2010s have marked their affirmation as global actors. This global “precariat” is certainly not complacent; it is actively shaping its future society in immeasurable ways.
Dying From the Inside: The Decline of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, LRBW By Ernie Allen, early LRBW member late 1960s
Ernie Allen was active in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements on the West Coast during the 1960s. He joined the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in 1970 and served as its Director of Political Education. He is currently a Corresponding Associate of the Journal of Ethnic Studies and teaches history in the W.E. B. DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
This paper was gone over at great length in the latest “Discuss, Cuss and Fuss” study group by General Baker Institute in Detroit, with members from the original LRBW contributing and Ernie Allen presenting. As a retired white worker in north-central Wisconsin, who was mentored and taught by many of those folks, I thought we could get the jump on Black History Month by re-printing it here with some screen-snaps from the film “Finally Got the News,” as produced by LRBW.
Clips from the film “Finally Got the News” appear in this post (with German subtitles by Darnell Stephen Summers, now living in Berlin, an early participant in LRBW who Zooms in from Berlin for the LRNA Detroit Labor Committee weekly studies.
In July of 1967, years of pent-up frustration and rage exploded in the city of Detroit. Crowds of angry Black people filled the streets, looting the stores that siphoned their money out of the community, burning the slums to which economic exploitation and housing discrimination confined them, and fighting the police force which harassed and often brutalized them. Lyndon Johnson insisted this “lawlessness” had “nothing to do with civil rights” and fanned the flames by sending in the army. By the time the rebellion was over, at least forty-one people had been killed and 3800 arrested; 1300 buildings had been burned, and 2700 businesses looted.
Widespread unemployment among Blacks in the Motor City was certainly a major cause of the rebellion. When, afterward, companies announced small increases in hiring as a token gesture, thousands lined up at the personnel offices. But it wasn’t only the unemployed members of the working class who had spilled into the streets in . Blacks and even whites who put in their days and nights on the automobile assembly lines of Chrysler, Ford, and GM were seen taking part in the “shopping for free,” getting back some of what was theirs.
The following May, their anger took a new form. Four thousand workers shut down the Dodge Main assembly plant in the first wildcat strike to hit that factory in fourteen years. The issue was the incessant, nerve-destroying, and accident-causing speed-up of the line. A key element in making the strike happen was a group of radical Black workers who called themselves DRUM—the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement.
Black workers had been kept out of many auto plants entirely until the Second World War; now they were the holders of the lowest-paying, most dangerous jobs, and they had the least seniority and job security. In the old, unsafe, and overheated Detroit plants, the auto companies kept up the pressure to produce more cars with fewer people. Black workers, especially, paid the price; they called this process “niggermation.” The United Auto Workers, dominated by an overwhelmingly white officialdom interested in negotiating primarily for pay increases, not better conditions, offered little help.
DRUM set out to attack all these issues—discrimination in the plant, discrimination in the union, and the power of the auto companies to dictate working conditions. Within a few months DRUM had dramatized its seriousness to both the company and the union by publicly calling another illegal strike which was honored by 3000 Black workers and some whites; demonstrating at union and company headquarters; and putting forward a DRUM candidate, Ron March, who pulled out the largest number of votes in the first round of the union election.
Company and union officials responded with injunctions, arrests, firings, and vote-tampering. Still, the model was imitated in other plants. The most successful new attempt was. ELRUM, in Chrysler’s Eldon Avenue gear and axle plant; others included FRUM (in Ford’s River Rouge plant), CADRUM (at Cadillac), and UPRUM and HRUM (among United Parcel workers and health workers). In an effort to keep up the momentum and marshall a strong enough force in the plants and the community to defend the RUMs against growing repression, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers was formed.
In general, the effectiveness of New Left groups in attracting support and carrying out action and education was not matched by an ability to create stable organizations. Particularly in the later years, splits and splinters multiplied as rapidly as they ever have on the left. This essay examines a number of dilemmas and failings in the League which were common to many other groups. Among them are:
A temptation (already noted by Reggie Schell) to seek coalitions and expanded organizations which look impressive in their formal structures—which allow more people to have some kind of contact with the organization and its politics—but which are often much less solid than they appear.
A related tendency for leaders to lose contact with their base, and to see what is happening only in terms of their own ideas about what is needed.
A lack of structures to encourage democracy and full participation by members.
A lack of clarity or agreement about strategies and goals. In dealing with these issues, the essay delves into the internal conflicts and factions of the organization, and it embodies the author’s personal judgement about the roles played by specific individuals, including himself. The readings which he suggests in the Appendix offer other points of view. In this chapter, the footnotes are the author’s.
The founding of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW) in the late 1960s proved to be one of the more significant manifestations of Afroamerican political maturity since World War II. Though only a short-lived organization, the League, by virtue of competent leadership and the right conditions, and despite opposition from both company and union, was able to mobilize hundreds of black American workers in the factory—where the material wealth of the country is produced.
The LRBW’s approach differed in several ways from those of other black organizations seeking civil and social rights. Rather than place primary emphasis on combating the awesome effects of Afroamerican oppression, it directed its efforts toward organizing that specific sector, which as a result of its strategic position within the economy, harbored the greatest potential for effecting ultimate political and social change. Rather than view the local police as the principle enemy of the black community, the practical implications of which would lead other, less sophisticated black organizations into fruitless and bloody encounters, the League, while taking concrete steps to combat police oppression, continued to view that phenomenon as only one important aspect of class rule. Rather than attempt to resolve the social problems of blacks in piecemeal fashion, as had the majority of Afroamerican reformist organizations, the League envisioned the creation of a socialist society in the United States in which all forms of exploitation of human beings by one another would be eliminated forever.
The LRBW was an organized outgrowth of the 1967 black urban rebellion of Detroit. Beginning in May 1968 with the creation of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), by early 1969 the more or less autonomous formation of additional Revolutionary Union Movements underwent partial consolidation as the League. With a centralized leadership in command and important material resources at its disposal, the LRBW quickly embarked on a program of expansion into community organizing, film production, and legal defense, as well as the establishment of a small printing plant and a bookstore.
Outwardly, the League operation was extremely impressive. Even those with prior political experience could not help but be moved by the seriousness, dedication, and camaraderie of League members who followed impossible schedules to get the job done. The print shop was always especially busy: a computerized typesetter was pushed to frequent breakdown (not a particularly difficult task), presses ran at all hours, and the continual going and coming of people to drop off “copy,” pick up completed work, or contribute labor was a striking phenomenon.Striking, too, was the activity around the workers’ center in Highland Park, despite some of its internal problems. At all hours of the day and night, black workers facing specific difficulties on the job knew they could stop by to discuss their problems. Organizers on their way to meet the morning shifts would often assemble there before dawn to pick up leaflets and other materials. Regular visits from community people wishing to talk over problems of drug abuse, police harassment, or even personal crises, could always be anticipated.
In short, the League—particularly in its earlier days—was both highly visible and highly respected in the Detroit metropolitan area, in the community as well as at the plant gates. At a time when New Left and Black Power organizations were in the process of decline, League membership gave one the distinct feeling of being part of a “winning” organization. But by mid-1970, when the League began to attract considerable attention nationally as well as internationally, cracks had already appeared in its organizational foundation. The following year witnessed the ultimate crumbling of the edifice: the League of Revolutionary Black Workers was no more.
Today, in 1978, as we “prepare” for further cutbacks in social services, lower standards of living, and increased political repression which invariably oozes from the seams of a deteriorating social situation, it is essential that we avoid, where possible, the more salient “movement” errors of the late 1960s and early 1970s—not to mention earlier periods.
In examining the development of the League from an “inside” perspective it shall become quite apparent that its demise, like that of too many other progressive organizations of that period, was due more to internal than external pressures. With that experience behind us, and with adequate reflection, we can do better. At the very least, we must attempt to understand how organizations such as the League, which held so much political promise for so many people, were unable to surmount their internal contradictions. If the following study does no more than aid that process of understanding, it will have accomplished its purpose.
The Problem With Structure
By 1969—the year the League was founded—the spontaneously formed RUM groups were declining in influence in the plants. Whereas the larger RUMs had often been able to attract hundreds of workers to their meetings in 1968, the following year they were fortunate to pull out a handful.
Several factors account for this decline. The wave of popular discontent unleashed in the 1967 rebellion—upon which the Revolutinary Union Movement had built itself—had now subsided. It might be more accurate to say that it had been engulfed by increasingly violent gang activity and street crime—often drug-related—within the black community. Moreover, by 1970 Chrysler Corporation had visibly increased the number of black foremen on some of its assembly lines, thus robbing the RUM groups of one of their most pressing issues.
RUM activists, meanwhile, had been identified and were constantly surveilled. Even those who had been fortunate or skillful enough to survive the purges by plant management felt a sense of isolation and ineffectiveness. And RUM leadership had furthered its isolation from a large strata of potential constituents by launching indiscriminate verbal attacks on older workers for their “conservatism,” as well as tasteless commentaries on the personal lives of numerous union “mis-leaders.”
In the face of these problems, one of the intended functions of the League was to overcome the isolation of the RUM groups by coordinating their activities and linking the plant struggles with wide, community-based support. There were also several other pressing problems which the formation of a consolidated organization was supposed to deal with. Due to the refusal of local printers to handle the Inner City Voice, concrete means had to be found to fill the movement’s publishing needs. Also facilities had to be secured to provide a permanent home for the organizations, as well as to alleviate problems which had fallen on particular activists’ families. General Baker’s family, for instance, had to contend with a literal “army of unemployed” organizers and leafletters who, having no other place to go, bivouacked nightly on their living room floor. And, overall, the haunting problem of scarce financial resources had to be resolved if the movement was to survive over the long run.
The formation of the League was a creative response to these difficulties: but it proved to be as ominous as it was creative. The drive by the top leadership to provide a supportive apparatus for black workers’ struggles paradoxically ended in its abandoning them. The League did not succeed in confronting the problems of declining mass revolutionary sentiment, tactical maneuvers by management, and tactical errors by RUM leadership which were curtailing the in-plant revolt. But in 1969 and 1970 such political failures were masked by a false sense of organizational successes in other areas: the creation of the League film “Finally Got the News,” the proliferation of LRBW offices in the Detroit area, participation in a book-discussion project which had enrolled hundreds of liberal whites, as well as the growing media attention which the League was attracting nationwide. How did such a situation come about?
The reorganization of the existing RUMs into the League was accomplished by the Executive Board from the top down. This was made possible by money which the EB succeeded in raising from outside sources- -the Black Economic Development Conference in particular.1 As a direct consequence, decisions concerning specific allocations of funds (and, more importantly, decisions about what activities the League would become involved in) could and did occur without the participation, or even the knowledge at times, of the rank-and-file.2
Due to a lack of participatory democracy or even of adequate communication in the new organization, many of those who remained active in the RUMs were not even aware that they had “joined” the League.
With reorganization also arrived a qualitative shift from in-plant organizing to activities nominally supporting that goal: the gathering of resources, development of printing, publishing, and film-making operations, participation in struggles around control of the schools, etc. An unintended but direct consequence was an influx of political and technical personnel who staffed these new projects—and whose personal loyalties generally went to individual EB members heading such operations. (The fact that some harbored “middle class” outlooks also had a bearing on the changing character of the organization.)
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I. The National Black Economic Development Conference—later shortened to BECD—first convened in April 1969 at Wayne State University in Detroit. Sponsored by the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO), BEDC was not originally intended as an independent organization, which it later became, but as a means of bringing “together a broad spectrum of black leaders to explore strategies for more rapid black-directed community development.” However, after adopting a “Black Manifesto” under the leadership of James Forman, BEDC began pressuring religious organizations to provide “reparations” to the black community. At least several hundred thousand dollars were raised in this manner, with a significant portion going to the League. For further information, see Robert S. Lecky and H. Eliot Wright (eds.), BlackManifesto: Religion, Racism, and Reparations (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1969).
2. Not withstanding the fact that BEDC funds underwrote a number of League activities which, under other circumstances, might not have been immediately feasible, had political emphasis been placed instead on a dues-paying apparatus financed by membership, a more structurally sound organization might have resulted. This approach is to be distinguished from implementation of the League-proposed International Black Appeal through company “checkoff’ procedures (by which money for the United Fund or union dues is secured), but rather through a more direct means of collection—certainly not the most expedient means at hand, but an important process if political organizing in itself.