Why labor should challenge Islamophobia

Manzoor Cheema • Aug 31, 2016
Muslim workers were among the participants of Workers School organized by Southern Workers Assembly in Raleigh, NC.
Muslim workers were among the participants of Workers School organized by Southern Workers Assembly in Raleigh, NC.

Muslim workers face a high incidence of religious discrimination at work, yet Islamophobia can’t be found on the agenda of most labor unions. This is deeply troubling, particularly given the way in which racism has been mobilized to divide workers and weaken labor over the course of this nation’s history. We now see this pattern repeating, as Islamophobia is used to pit many marginalized Americans against Muslims.

In North Carolina, Black Workers for Justice (BWFJ) is doing something about it.

BWFJ has regularly found ways to overcome employers’ divide-and-conquer tactics that seek to weaken labor organizing. It has stretched the limits of traditional labor organizing and invigorated the workers movement. In response to employers’ attempts to create conflicts between African American and immigrant workers, BWFJ undertook a concerted effort to bridge gaps between Latinx immigrants and Black workers and build a Black-Brown alliance. BWFJ has also taken a stance against Islamophobia, which is increasingly employed by racist forces to distract attention from social injustices.

BWFJ and its labor union wing, UE Local 150, have launched a coalition of labor forces called Southern Workers Assembly, with the goal of broadening the workers’ movement in the U.S. South. During a recent Workers’ School held by the SWA, labor leaders explained that anti-Black racism, homophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry are financial elites’ attempts to fragment and disrupt worker unity. An intersectional approach to labor organizing is essential in the climate of rising bigotry and extreme inequality.

SWA’s role in mobilizing a broad cross-section of workers in historically non-unionized workplaces has borne fruit. Workers from all backgrounds, including Muslims, are joining grassroots unions to confront oppressions based on race, class, religion, gender and other fronts. North Carolina-based Muslims for Social Justice has worked closely with BWFJ on anti-racism, anti-Islamophobia and worker rights campaigns. There is a realization that solidarity is beyond sentimentality. Real solidarity entails organizing community members and building progressive power to topple the oppressive status quo.

The U.S. South has seen a significant rise in population and economic growth, compared to other regions, in the recent years. Yet the region has the lowest rate of unionization in the country. The attacks on labor unions were part of the legacy of Jim Crow in the U.S. South. States throughout the country have borrowed racist laws against labor unions developed in the South.

If organized labor wants to become a force to reckon with, it would do well to organize against the economic foundations of racism.

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