On Syndicalism: An Interview with Nelson Peery
Editors Note: This interview was conducted by the League of Revolutionary Black Workers Media Project in July 2015.
First of all, syndicalism was the foundation of the trade union movement. As unions consolidated, they were syndicates. In Europe they were actually an outgrowth of the bakers, who would get together and form a “syndicate” to keep other bakers out, in order to stop others from challenging them. The foundation of the trade union movement was the syndicate. That is to say it was there to protect the people from the outsiders, rather than an inclusive thing. The word syndical was a correct term.
These syndicates were acceptable in the early stages, but as industry developed and manufacture by hand declined and industrial production took over, you had the shifting of millions of peasants and smalltime manufacturers out of the countryside and into the cities where you had to be more inclusive. This concept of protecting your members against the outsiders maintained itself. That’s why today we’re still talking about syndicalism. But instead of a union, we’re talking about a Puerto Rican group or a Black Nationalist group or the Irish or whatever, taking care of their own. This is an extremely deeply-rooted thing in American history.
If I can give you an example of how syndicalism isn’t simply white supremacist. It ends up being that in fact, but let me give you an example. When I left college, I watched what was happening. The Black leaders were necessarily coming from the Black intelligentsia. By the time they achieved a position of leadership, they could take their choice: either become agents for the ruling class or else they weren’t going to go anywhere. The vast majority of them ended up absolutely being traitors. I came to the conclusion that if I was going to make a contribution, I could not do it in the intelligentsia.
I had to be an intellectual, but I had to be a proletarian intellectual, and not a petty bourgeois Black intellectual. The first thing I had to make up my mind about was how am I going to earn a living? There is an old tradition in the Black community that you’re going to be a slave unless you have your own means of existence. That means to say you have to become a craftsman.
In my generation there was a saying: “What is your hand?” “Well, I’m a carpenter by hand.”
“What is your calling?” “Well, I’m a preacher by calling.”
If you didn’t have a skill, something that belonged to you, you were going to be at the mercy of whoever you had to beg your bread from. I decided I should become a bricklayer. It’s hard work, but it’s open. I could be working for a week then off for two weeks or whatever. I would be my own boss, more or less. I went down to the bricklayers union and said I wanted an apprenticeship. The guy looked at me and he said “You want what?”
I said I wanted an apprenticeship in the bricklayers union. He smiled and said, “I don’t think you’re eligible.” I said “I am doing this under the GI Bill of Rights and you are not allowed to discriminate against me.” At this point in time [right after World War II] there was not one Black craftsman in the state of Minnesota who belonged to a union. There were some carpenters and whatnot who were Black but they didn’t belong to a union, they wouldn’t let them in. I got a lawyer and the lawyer sent a letter and the deal was settled overnight, but then when I got inside the union I realized one thing. The people who had created this union had fought like hell to build this union. It was formed to do away with the wages system.
The bricklayers up until the late 1800s worked on piecework. They’d say, “OK, I’m gonna lay a thousand bricks for five dollars or ten dollars or whatever it was.” The bricklayers didn’t work on a wages system; they worked on a piecework system. When they began the transition to being paid by the hour instead of being paid by the brick, the bricklayers formed a really militant union. They fought like hell to build that union. So naturally when they had a new generation of bricklayers coming in, they made sure that their sons got in the union. They couldn’t understand why I was yelling about race. “It’s not a race thing! My goddamn kid is not gonna come in. If there’s only one slot open, it’s gonna go to my child. I built this union.”
I could understand exactly what he’s talking about. It’s the very nature of the structure of the working class in the United States, that if you’re going to protect your own, you’re going to exclude somebody. So exclusion always comes on the basis of color in America.
The first union meeting I attended in Minneapolis was conducted in Swedish. I didn’t understand a word they were saying. I want to emphasize that I didn’t have any problem with the bricklayers. But I do think that they resented the idea that I got in the union and their kid did not get in the union and that they suffered like hell to build that union and they should have first choice. So race and the capitalist system and how it functions are intertwined. The bricklayers had to make up their mind if they were going to build a union that’s inclusive or a union that’s exclusive. The trade union movement in this country is built to protect its members, not to protect the class. So these hangovers of syndicalism make complete sense. It was translated, and couldn’t help but be translated, into a racial thing.
And of course the minorities also fought back also on that basis. They fought back as Blacks, as Puerto Ricans, as this and as that, rather than as workers. So the struggle against these syndicalist hangovers was, and is, of extreme importance.
There is going to be a meeting next week in Cleveland of Black Lives Matter. Of course, Black lives matter. Certainly mine does. But how are you going to win a battle, win this war, if we fight it out on the basis that one tenth of the population is going to exclude nine tenths? The first law of war is that you have to concentrate the maximum amount of force at your enemy’s weakest point. People don’t have to love each other, but you’re not going to get anywhere if you’re going to exclude nine-tenths of the population. There are tons of Latinos, Anglos, whatever, who are just thoroughly disgusted with this slaughter of Blacks that’s taking place.
If I could use Jesse Jackson as an example of syndicalism. He has 43 million dollars in the bank. He formed PUSH when he was flat broke. Today he has 43 million dollars. How did he get the 43 million dollars? He wanted a good job for his oldest kid. A good job in Chicago back then was to be the head of a beer distribution area. So Jesse goes to Budweiser and says you’re going to have to have a Black for head of distribution in this area. Budweiser says: “We’ll make that decision. You don’t make that decision for us.” Jesse said: “If I put ten thousand Blacks on a picket line around this building, you’ll determine it.” So his son became the head of distribution for an area and became a multimillionaire overnight. This is the way he got that money, and this is the reason there are such strong syndicalist tendencies within the Black movement.
The common Black is begging for unity. They understand very well that one-tenth of the population can’t defend itself against nine-tenths. You can’t allow a potential enemy to consolidate. These questions of syndicalism and opportunism are very closely united and interwoven. How we’re going to do it, I don’t know. My brother lives in Cleveland and he sent me a picture of this demonstration they had last week in Cleveland. Kathleen Battle, this wonderful opera singer, was leading that demonstration, singing this song that was written by a Spaniard in commemoration of this little child who was shot there in Cleveland. When the parade ended, Kathleen Battle stood up and motioned to the coffin – the child wasn’t in the coffin, it was symbolic – and just says: “Good night, little brother.” How you going to fight this? I can’t fight Kathleen Battle. And yet at the same time, if it becomes a Black issue, we’re going to lose. This question of syndicalism and how we’re going to fight it is of immense importance.
How do we do it? How do we put the fight on a class basis? I’ve always felt that the mechanics of capital are going to create a situation where we can win, but that requires that the whites be pushed down to the level of the Blacks. Because the Blacks are not going to rise to the level of the whites, the whites have to be pushed down. It’s now happening. That doesn’t mean there isn’t syndicalism even in this. If you go eight blocks, ten blocks to the north of where we are right now, you will find all the beggars are white. Now we have to unite. So we are reaching a juncture where we need to have a serious discussion within our organization – how do we go about this? Never mind the all that about white/Black and so forth and so on. Looking at the real world, how do we go about uniting all that can be united in order to achieve a common goal?
Syndicalism was a huge problem for the communists in the CIO, it was a huge problem for the liberation movements, and it’s a huge problem today.
Videos of the rest of the interview with Nelson are available at https://vimeo.com/revblackworkers.
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