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South Dakota Unions Against White Supremacy

Kooper Caraway

The Sioux Falls, South Dakota AFL-CIO recently banned white supremacists from union leadership. President Kooper Caraway says that's because labor has a duty to fight the far right.

A CIO anti-racism poster. From Agitate! Educate! Organize!

Interview by
Joe Allen

Late last year, Kooper Caraway ran for president of the Sioux Falls, South Dakota AFL-CIO as part of a reform slate that pledged to revive new organizing within unions and support struggles outside of them, especially among immigrants and refugees. In January, Caraway and his slate were elected. One of their first orders of business: banning members of fascist and white-supremacist groups from holding elected or staff positions in its affiliated unions.

Caraway is twenty-seven years old; he comes from a working-class family, with a mother who is Native American and father descended from German immigrants. In high school, he led student actions against local immigration raids. He’s held multiple positions in the public-employees union AFSCME, including serving as a community and union organizer in South Dakota.

He spoke to Jacobin contributor Joe Allen about the changes he and his slate brought to the labor body and why it is labor’s duty to fight the far right. You can read Caraway’s editorial on that fight, published on the eve of the anniversary of the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia, by a white supremacist, here.

 


JA

Many of us outside South Dakota were not aware until very recently that the Sioux Falls AFL-CIO passed amendment to its constitution that read, “No individual shall be eligible to serve as an Officer, member of the executive board or committee, or other governing body, or any committee of, or as a delegate from, or as a representative, agent, or employee of this body who is a member of any fascist or white supremacist organization. Or who consistently pursues policies and/or activities directed toward the purposes of any fascist or otherwise white supremacist ideology.”

Can you tell us what spurred you and others into action to pass such an amendment?

KC

When my executive board and I were elected in January, our constitution was way out of date. During the four-month process of updating and revising it, we began a discussion on the role of the labor movement today, how that role has changed, and how it’s stayed the same.

At that time, many organizations were pushing for Islamophobic and anti-immigrant legislation at the state level, so we decided to make our position clear.

The first thing we did was organize for the local city council to pass a “Welcoming City” resolution, in contrast to what was happening at the state level. And the second was to make it clear in our constitution that those fascist and so-called “alt-right” ideologies would not be welcomed or tolerated by the labor movement here.

 

JA

Was there significant opposition to your proposals?

KC

No. My slate and I had been elected by a wide margin and had a mandate to make the necessary changes. The labor movement had stagnated in South Dakota. It had been run by the same older white men for a very long time, and the activities of the labor council had been reduced to just managing the local Labor Temple.

My slate, made up mostly of young immigrants and people of color, ran on a platform calling for a return to an organizing-oriented labor council, taking an active role in organizing incoming immigrants and refugees, supported existing movements in oppressed and marginalized communities, and organizing the unorganized.

 

JA

Donald Trump won South Dakota with 61 percent of the vote in 2016. Did it spur the growth of white-supremacist and fascist groups in South Dakota?

KC

South Dakota has been experiencing an upsurge in hate crimes since Trump’s election. On top of that, legislators sympathetic to Trump’s racist and xenophobic positions have been attempting to rewrite state laws to make the state less welcome to immigrants, refugees, and Muslims.

The 2018 legislative sessions had several horrible bills come before it. One would have eliminated collective-bargaining rights for university professors, which we defeated. Another sought to officially declare that Islam is the cause of all the world’s problems. If passed, the writers of that bill insisted that every organization, every business, take a position on the bill, and any group that opposed it would be declared an “Enemy of the State of South Dakota.”

We were able to defeat that one as well, but these are the types of things we are up against here.

 

JA

How many workers are represented by the Sioux Falls local union council? Who makes up the membership of your local unions?

KC

The Sioux Falls AFL-CIO is made up of just over thirty local unions and about five thousand union members. Over half of our members are immigrants, refugees, and people of color. Most immigrants and refugees in Sioux Falls come from Africa — many from Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, some from South Africa and elsewhere.

 

JA

Many of Donald Trump’s “America First” policies are popular with sections of the US working class, including the trade war with China. Where do you see the struggle against far-right ideas in the working class going from here?

KC

The far right has always imagined it has some sort of base within the working class. But for the most part, this is a myth. There is no base within the working class that can benefit whatsoever by supporting a far-right agenda. The far right only begins to make inroads within the working class when organized labor is absent from the shop floor.

It is the duty of labor organizers, representatives, stewards and all union members to disrupt and dispute far-right talking points when you hear them in the workplace. That means our members must be trained to identify far-right ideas when they hear them.

So the labor movement must be present and out front in the streets when Nazis and Klansmen want to organize in our communities, and we must be present in the workplace when far-right sympathizers attempt to organize in more subtle ways in the workplace.