The Struggle for Justice: Detroit’s Black Labor Movement

By: Mike Shesterkin, SMSBF Exec. Director

We may be historical creatures, but oddly enough, we tend to overlook and forget what it took to get where we are. All too often, this tendency to forget has led to disastrous consequences, not the least of which is taking things for granted. As a hedge against this tendency, and worse, repeating history, it’s important to examine the struggles and sacrifices of those who came before us.

This article examines a segment of history that – in many circles – is not that well known: Detroit’s Black Labor movement. We undertake this examination in homage to this month’s being Black History Month.

African American history – in part because of the woundedness it carries with it – remains an enigma for many of us. One thing is certain, though, African American history is rooted in and driven by an intense struggle for justice. Detroit’s labor history is the story of struggle for justice. The Black Labor movement, in particular, is an even more agonizing and ardent struggle.

Undertaking an effective reflection on African American history, or any segment of history, for that matter, must include a striving to understand with empathy. This means giving careful consideration to context (i.e., the particulars having to do with people, place, time, etc.) If we do so, we’ll find ourselves richer for the experience, and we ought to come away with a better understanding of the human experience.

The story of the Detroit Black labor movement in which we’re interested took place during the late 60’s and early 70’s and was centered around the Cass Corridor, Wayne State University, the North End neighborhood and Hamtramck. It would be an understatement to suggest the time period included much upheaval and social unrest: We had the Uprising of 1967, Viet Nam War protests, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, to name just a few of the events of the era.

In Detroit, there’s one person who stands-out for his contribution to the Black Labor movement: His name is General Gordon Baker, Jr. Born in Detroit in 1941, and settled in the Southwest neighborhood, Baker was raised in a union home and often attended union events while growing-up.
Baker had a brilliant mind. He graduated early from Southwestern High School and after graduation, attended Highland Park Community College and Wayne State University. While studying, Baker worked odd jobs and eventually landed a coveted union position working at the Ford Motor Company’s Rouge Complex.

At Wayne State, Baker and a number of other students who shared a common worldview, founded UHURU in 1963. UHURU means “freedom” in Swahili. Baker and his fellow students at UHURU followed the thinking of Malcom X and the African Nationalist Pioneer Movements.

In every sense of the word, General was a radical. He didn’t think non-violence was a necessity and he was not enthused about the gradualism and integrationist approach of the civil rights movement. Though Baker was a radical, he was a communitarian and a deeply devoted family man. He was moved by injustice, but knew well what it meant to love the other.

Baker’s central contribution to the Black Labor movement is rooted in the work he and his brothers and sisters did to fight injustice at the Dodge Main plant in Hamtramck. Shortly after a wildcat strike at the plant in 1968, Baker led the foundation of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM).
A wildcat strike is one not sanctioned by the union, which at the time was the United Auto Workers (UAW). During this period in history, Black workers across America increasingly took to wildcat strikes to draw attention to the grotesque injustices that took place within the workplace. Many paid a steep price for the practice, not the least of which was job loss.

At Dodge Main, Baker and other Black union members were incensed by the unholy alliance between the all-white UAW leadership and the plant’s management corps. Perhaps the most egregious result of this collusion was the practice of giving the most unsafe, dirty and difficult jobs to Blacks. It’s important to remember, there was no Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) in 1968. There were no Federal regulations requiring safety glasses, hard hats, hi-vis vests and all the rest. Workers were on their own. Auto workers were regularly maimed and often killed working the line, and Blacks took the brunt of it.

General Baker and his comrades at DRUM worked hard to make their voices heard; they took-on the difficult and often harrowing struggle for justice – a struggle that will always exact a toll. We stand today on the shoulders of folks like General Baker, people who saw injustice and didn’t back down.
We owe much to those who preceded us, and would do well to remember the struggle for justice is far from over. And in that struggle, many suffer in silence.

Consider those who labor for wages that don’t even cover the bills. These folks still believe in hard work; they hang-on to the righteousness of the American dream, and yet suffer the specter of a car break-down, lack of adequate health care, poisoning from toxic waste or the bill that just can’t be paid. These are egregious injustices, rooted in a neoliberal economic system that sees “maximizing shareholder value” as its end.

The aggregated power of capital and wealth loom large on the horizon, and with this power cling grotesque injustices. The collusion that exists today between corporate power and the central government threatens the very survival of the human race. We need to see the struggle for justice not as social, environmental, economic or in any of the other multiple ways we’ve managed to parse it in this age. The struggle for justice is universal; it’s local and it’s right in-front of us. We must also resist the inclination to take the work of folks like General Baker for granted, and recognize that we owe it to them to not back down from the struggle for justice.

References and Sources for Deeper Insights

Goldberg, D. (2014, May 27). Detroit’s Radical. Retrieved from https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/05/detroit-s-radical-general-baker/

Sources for Deeper Insights

Consider exploring the Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, at Wayne State University.
Consider watching the documentary, “Finally Got the News

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