What does it mean to sit at the lunch counter, but not have the money to buy lunch? At the Beloved Community Center we believe it is a basic requirement of a healthy community to have adequate food, clothing, housing, and other basic necessities of life. Our economic justice work is multi-layered. As an organization the BCC advocates that all workers deserve a living wage. Our particular role in this undertaking is to help educate the community as to why a living wage is a necessity for the whole community. While taking significant steps through community building, grassroots campaigns, and collation building towards fighting to substantially increase the current minimum wage and living conditions for many in our community.
– The Kmart Labor Struggle, An Example of the BCC Approach
Perhaps the best example of the BCC approach to this issue is the mid-90ʻs Kmart labor struggle. The mostly Black workers at a huge Kmart distribution center were mistreated by the mostly White management and voted to form a union. Kmart would not enter contract negotiations in good faith. The BCC – together with the Pulpit Forum Black ministers group – played a key leadership role in the successful effort to transform this volatile dispute from a racially charged labor-management issue to a community issue, thus giving space for the community to get constructively involved and make this a positive community experience.
To accomplish this, the organizing emphasis was placed on the unjust treatment of five hundred men and women who were a part of the Greensboro community. The challenge was to find creative ways to stand with the workers so that others would feel compelled to join and all could stand for the best interest of the whole community.
The further challenge was to do this in the face of public attacks, like one that characterized the struggle as a “conflict between Kmart and the radical fringe elements committed to Kmartʼs demise;” Kmartʼs attempt to divide the Black community by making a large donation to the NAACP – which was returned; and Kmartʼs lawsuit against selected workers and supporters, a tactic that ultimately backfired.
A community wide boycott of Kmart stores linked to civil disobedience at the stores brought the conflict to a head. In order to define this as a community matter, rather than as a labor-management dispute led by outside union agitators, ministers instead of workers were arrested first. Over the next several months, a wide range of people from the community – White, Black, students, professors, church members, citizens – participated with workers and ministers in ongoing demonstrations and arrests.
At the same time, the Pulpit Forum ministers invited business leaders to meet and discuss what was happening. After some contentious discussion, a group of business people, including the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce board, agreed to continue meeting. The “Business-Pulpit Forum Work Group” met weekly through the successful resolution of the dispute.
Kmart finally returned to the bargaining table and – four years after the struggle began – reached an agreement with the union that gave the workers a $2.50 per hour raise and improved benefits and grievance procedures. Soon after the settlement, the Business Pulpit Forum Work Group held a Town Meeting attended by a cross section of over 300 people to discuss the issues raised in the struggle. The struggle itself and the subsequent Town Meeting demonstrated Greensboro’s still unrealized potential to come together and deal with the most divisive economic and racial issues as one community.