Larry Hales of the youth organization Fight Imperialism Stand Together (FIST) and Workers World Party visited Detroit April 3-6. Within hours of arriving in the city, Hales grabbed a picket sign and joined the striking workers at American Axle. WW Contributing Editor Bryan G. Pfeifer interviewed Hales about his experience and analysis of the strike.
You started your visit to Detroit on the picket line at American Axle. Why did you go?
LH: When I was growing up my family worked in the factories of Erie, Pa. My father has had 39 years at General Electric. My mother worked making ceramic tiles and other ceramic items. My brother worked making plastic items.
Erie is very similar to Detroit in a lot of ways, except it’s a lot smaller. I grew up being very familiar with the struggle of industrial workers against those who own and run the factories.
American Axle being one of the major battles happening—not just in Detroit, but around the country—I wanted the opportunity to talk to the workers and meet them. I went to see about issues like the foreclosures, deindustrialization and police brutality as well.
WW: What were your experiences on the picket line?
LH: One of the clear things is that U.S. society is constantly trying to dumb people down. Public education is run by the oppressor. When you have a country like the U.S.—that has built its wealth off the backs of not only the “third world” nations abroad, but the internal nations, the oppressed nations within the U.S.—then an education from the oppressor is going to be an education from the ruling class, which is primarily white and has gotten its gains off the backs of darker people, using racism as a weapon.
The popular media try to make it seem as if the culture of the oppressed and of the workers is superficial, but it’s not. People are paying attention. It matters what the educational system is, but it doesn’t matter as far as people’s understanding of who their oppressor is.
On the picket line I could see that people are very much aware of what’s happening and are very articulate in expressing their opposition to it. The superficial news programming and television programming are not having the effect the bosses want. People may partake, but it doesn’t affect their overall thinking of how they relate to those trying to take away their jobs.
I was able to get into very heavy conversations on the picket line with people that when there’s a struggle, they’ll be right there, with a very deep understanding of who their enemy is. They’ll ultimately be the ones who will push the struggle forward.
WW: We visited the Local 235 union hall and the picket line. You noted the many Black workers participating in the strike, in particular the Black women playing leading roles in the community support committee and elsewhere.
LH: The great thing about Detroit is that you can drive for miles and miles and not see anybody but Black people. There are lots of cities in the South that are that way, but being a northern city I think Detroit’s very unique. It has been this way for a long time and still to this day Black people, Black workers, make up the largest progressive force in this country.
Seeing the workers engaged in the struggle at American Axle, at the union hall and on the picket line, just proves that fact. Whatever Black middle class exists, the beginnings of it were industrial labor. So when the industrial base began to be eroded and taken away, these were the workers hit the hardest. But the fight of Black people—which is historical, facing the conditions of U.S. society—is still there. When you see a worker on the picket line, of course you see someone fighting against their oppression. When you see a Black worker, you see somebody fighting against numerous oppressions at the same time. So it’s very important to see especially the white workers and the Latin@ workers, all together, fighting against a common enemy: the bosses.
WW: Why is FIST supporting the American Axle strike?
LH: I’m 31 and a lot of these issues affect my generation profoundly. When people talk about the foreclosure crisis, the next bubble to burst is going to be student loans. You have people who are taking 30, 50, some as much as $100,000 out in loans just to go to school and there aren’t any jobs to pay that back. There are less and less jobs and they pay lower wages. And the state and federal governments are already backing off on guaranteeing loans. So we have to begin to orient ourselves to youth. What’s it going to be like even 10 years from now for people who have to go out into the workforce and pay their loans back?
As at any particular time in history—it’s a cliché—but youth are the future, the future of the struggle to free ourselves from this anarchic, brutal system from which massive layoffs and home foreclosures come.
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