Solidarity with Mumia Abu-Jamal

Trade Union Support for a New Trial

Revolutionary Worker #1071, September 24, 2000

At its July 18 convention this summer, the California Labor Federation AFL-CIO passed a resolution demanding a new trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal, the revolutionary Black prisoner facing execution on Pennsylvania’s death row.

The resolution pointed out that Mumia was "convicted of shooting a police officer in a trial in which there was compelling evidence of his innocence and of gross misconduct on the part of the police, prosecutor and judge... Should he be executed without a new trial, it would be an affront to all who believe in fairness, and it would be an irreversible, tragic miscarriage of justice and a disgrace to the United States of America as a whole."

This resolution marks a recent advance in the efforts to mobilize within the trade union movement against the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

As the movement to save Mumia has grown over the past few years, trade unionists have played a significant part— forming contingents in the protests, passing resolutions in union conventions and official bodies, organizing letter-writing campaigns, educating other union members, and providing transportation to the mobilizations and in some important cases, stopping work in support of Mumia.

In 1995, when Mumia faced an execution date, police in Philadelphia used threats to prevents pro-Mumia events in that city. It was the local chapter of 1199 Hospital Workers that stepped up to host a crucial fundraising benefit—and held firm even after 300 cops showed up to protest.

Some of the most powerful trade union actions for Mumia have happened on the West Coast. In January 1999, teachers in the Oakland Education Association (OEA) organized a day of teach-ins for Mumia in their high school classrooms. They defied threats from police, city authorities and administrators to carry off this day of action.

Then on April 24, 2000, the longshore workers of the ILWU staged a one-day shutdown of the West Coast docks from San Diego to Washington State. The action was timed to show solidarity with the major mobilizations for Mumia happening on that day.

Meanwhile in Brazil, on April 23, 150,000 teachers, members of the State and Teachers Education Workers Union (SEPE) stopped work for two hours in Rio de Janeiro and joined with students in a massive demonstration outside the U.S. consulate.

On Record, In Support

Trade unions often express political support and solidarity by passing resolutions at various levels. Such resolutions add the voice of unions to the larger social demand for a new trial and also bringing this important case to the attention of broader circles of union rank and file. And as these resolutions get passed by more and more unions and by conventions of their membership—these public statements come to represent a significant voice in the larger struggle over Mumia’s case.

Many large trade union organizations, in addition to the California Federation of Labor, have voiced opposition to the execution of Mumia—including the Ontario Federation of Labor and Canadian Auto Workers Council; the California Nurses Association; the United Farm Workers; the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA); the American Postal Worker’s Union; the General Confederation of Workers (CGT) in France; and the I.G. Medien in Germany.

In May 2000, 1,100 delegates to the international convention of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) voted unanimously for a resolution demanding a new trial for Mumia.

In their 1995 statement, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) pointed out that, "It is clear from the report that we received that the trial procedures were fraught with bias and prejudice... Our organization has struggled against all forms of racism, oppression and the use of the death sentence to silence political activists. We are therefore vehemently opposed to the death penalty on both ideological and humanitarian grounds."

The National Writers Union put the case of Mumia in front of many people by placing full-page ads in the Bay Area press, listing writers who demanded justice for Mumia.

These statements and resolutions have raised common themes. They repeatedly point to all the ways that Mumia did not receive a fair trial and to the large number of innocent people who have been recently freed from prison.

The Labor Council for Latin American Advancement AFL-CIO noted in its resolution that "Mumia’s case concentrates the whole atmosphere of criminalizing African American men, the expanded death penalty, and the gutting of defendants’ rights."

The resolution from the Island Boatmen’s Union of the Pacific Marine Division of the ILWU stated: "Although our Union has not taken a formal stand, either for or against capital punishment, it is our opinion that there are too many unanswered questions in this case to put a man to death. Regardless of whether you are, or are not a supporter of capital punishment, by putting this man to death without the right to appeal, is nothing short of murder."

After the West Coast dock stoppage for Mumia, Jack Heyman of the ILWU executive board wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle that the recent police killings of Amadou Diallo, Tyisha Miller and other African Americans, as well as the lynching of James Byrd Jr., "have resonated deeply among members in the heavily black unions of bus drivers, postal workers, hospital and longshore workers in cities across the country. Now the state of Pennsylvania is about to execute an outspoken black journalist."

An Injury to One, An Injury to All

The trade union movement in the United States has been hard hit for decades. Global restructuring has intensified capitalist pressures on the living and working conditions of organized sections of the working class, and the numbers who are unionized has been shrinking. And among the unionized workers themselves, there has been considerable debate over how to fight back against these developments and how their unions can become part of such resistance. The campaign to demand a new trial for Mumia is an important rallying point within a trade union movement where "politics" far too often means supporting ruling class politicians and reactionary protectionist schemes.

Mumia, a fearless journalist known as the "Voice of the Voiceless," has become a symbol of solidarity and resistance in the face of oppression. He is famous for writing from death row—not only (or mainly) about his own case, but about the lives, sufferings and struggles of others— including the strikes and actions of organized workers. And many of the support statements coming out of the trade union movement remark on this. Mumia is himself a member of the National Writers Union.

When scabs worked to break a British dockworkers strike in 1997, Mumia wrote from death row to support the ILWU’s refusal to unload a ship called the Neptune Jade carrying scab cargo.

Many trade unionists took note when Mumia refused to give an interview to ABC’s Sam Donaldson while union workers at ABC were on strike. The recent California Federation of Labor resolution notes that "despite his life-and-death need to put his case before the public, Mumia Abu-Jamal showed courageous solidarity with locked out NABET/CWA workers by his refusal to be interviewed by a scab ABC television crew, helping to bring national attention to NABET’s just struggle."

On May 12, 2000, a Labor for Mumia Conference was held in Oakland, California. Sponsored by the San Francisco Labor Council, it drew over 100 participants from around the country. The gathering planned to spread support for Mumia in the trade union movement and organize a media campaign.

Mumia sent a message to the conference: "Truly it can be said that workers make the world go round, for the labor and toil of working people the world over [feeds the global] economy by actually producing the many and varied products that serve the public needs, public wants and public tastes. The power therefore that labor wields is truly immense, if somewhat latent. I’m therefore quite thrilled to have your support, to have you join us in this titanic struggle with the state to make your presence known on the side of life and liberty. For as we have learned in the recent battle in Seattle and the anti-IMF demonstrations, the rights of workers is also a core human right and an important part of a movement that is reshaping social and power relations. I thank you for being a part of this movement.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)