North Carolina Activists Apply Labor Solidarity to Flood Relief

"We give solidarity during a strike; a disaster is also that time," says Ajamu Dillahunt of Black Workers For Justice (BWFJ), a workers' center based in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. "We wanted to demonstrate solidarity between workers."

Dillahunt's union, the Raleigh local of the American Postal Workers Union, collected food and clothing for those devastated by Hurricane Floyd and caravaned 50 miles to deliver the aid. The APWU is part of the Workers and Communities Aid and Relief Project (WACARP), a coalition initiated by the Black Workers for Justice.

The group's slogan is "social justice, not charity." Its aim is to help those wiped out by Floyd to organize themselves to fight for power in the relief effort.

"We feel it's a human right and a democratic right," said UE organizer Saladin Muhammad of BWFJ, "to have access to resources with dignity during times of disaster, as opposed to making people feel like they're hustlers or criminals or beggars."

"It's so people don't feel like just victims, helpless, waiting for someone to come and save them," said Dillahunt. "They don't exactly have their hands on the levers of power in the relief effort, but at least they can make some demands on the relief agencies FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] and the Red Cross.

FEMA says that 7,890 homes in the area suffered minor damage, 4,282 suffered major damage, and 3,680 were completely destroyed. Forty-eight people are dead and five are missing, presumed dead. Much of the relief effort is focused on the town of Princeville, said to be the oldest incorporated black town in the South. Formerly a plantation, Princeville was founded by freed slaves after the Civil War and incorporated in 1885.

POLITICAL POWER

Today, Princeville is no more. Houses, stores, the funeral home--all were swept away. "Put it in one word, it's devastated," said Ida Boddie, who lives nearby and is working at the WACARP relief center. "That whole little Black town was drowned out. Some people drowned; some they haven't found yet. Some people lost their homes, their cars, and their jobs."

From other parts of the country, organizations such as churches and students at historic black colleges are taking up the Princeville cause. "It's a question of political power, especially when people get dispersed," explains Muhammad. It's common in North Carolina, he says, for town boundaries to be gerrymandered to create a white majority, even if the area as a whole is sixty-five percent African American. If Princeville residents are scattered to the four winds, they lose whatever small amount of political clout their town once had.

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The situation is worsened by speculators who are offering to buy people's land at a time when they are in desperate need of money.

WACARP's goal is to allow the affected people to assess their own needs for reconstruction and have democratic input into shaping how local, county, and federal government agencies organize recovery. "Don't confuse relief and recovery," says Muhammad.

He describes an area 20 miles from Princeville where people are being housed in 500 6' x 15' trailers, usually four or five people to a trailer, but up to eight. The camp uses Porta-johns, and is considered a step up from the shelters where many people are still living. Most people housed in trailers come from Princeville and from East Tarboro, a black section of town next to Princeville. Most whites (and some blacks) are sent to motels. "You could tolerate each other for a week, going camping, but not for 18 months," says Muhammad.

LOSS OF JOBS

Some Princeville residents had been able to survive on the low wages prevalent in the area--often around $6 an hour--only because they were living in paid-off houses left to them by their parents. No relief grant will be enough to buy another house. "The government response makes them more vulnerable to speculators," Muhammad points out.

Government aid thus far looks meager and slow. "We want to make sure people in certain areas are targeted that may be left out," says Dillahunt.

Just as catastrophic for people's lives as loss of their homes is loss of their jobs. The Merita Bakery, for example, with 600 to 800 workers, is to be closed for six months to a year. There is no guarantee that flood-damaged businesses will reopen at all. Nineteen thousand people in the state have applied for emergency unemployment benefits.

Muhammad describes a company called Vermont-American in Greenville, where a UE committee is functioning, which was shut down for two and a half weeks. Management offered loans to workers--but said they would have to be paid back by workers putting in seven-day weeks, with one day unpaid. Workers refused to sign and the company compromised. "Thirty-eight people lost their homes," said Muhammad. "They're saying, `We can't work seven days.'"

At WACARP's relief center, the group seeks to organize and train neighborhood relief committees to do community needs assessments, aid distribution, and community education; to organize a transportation pool; to organize food and clothing collections at workplaces; to set up an information hotline; and put out a relief information bulletin.