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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The Activist Legacy of the IBM Black Workers Alliance

It’s January 1976. Kwame Afoh, a 32-year-old activist and founding member of the IBM Black Workers Alliance, is testifying before the Council of the District of Columbia. He begins with a simple statement: “IBM is not an equal opportunity employer.”

He is speaking in support of a resolution to boycott IBM and other corporations doing business with apartheid South Africa. The DC Council is a key focus of the movement. A boycott by the nation’s capital would signal to the rest of the country—and the world—that the US was finally turning its back on apartheid.

Afoh’s argument is simple: IBM, a company that is racist and treats its own Black employees with little regard, can’t possibly be doing good in South Africa, a country openly brutalizing and oppressing its Black citizens. IBM, for its part, alternately claimed that its presence in the country was a positive force, creating jobs and opportunity for Black South Africans, and that it was simply “[following] the lead of the US government in foreign business dealings.”

Afoh’s six-page testimony was one of the first documents I came across in the fall of 2020 when searching for information on the IBM Black Workers Alliance. Reading it, I felt a thrill of recognition. By then, I had worked in the tech industry for a decade and had been organizing with fellow workers, mainly through the Tech Workers Coalition, for two years. I had believed that the current wave of tech worker organizing was the first. While inaccurate, my belief was understandable. Tech companies act like they are sui generis, with each new venture sprouting anew from the garages and dorm rooms of a handful of brilliant minds. It’s an industry that doesn’t like to look backward, focused instead on advancing its narrow idea of progress.

But Afoh’s testimony challenged this narrative of ceaseless forward movement. His words were similar to the language organizers use today. The year 1976 could be 2022. IBM could be replaced by Amazon or Google, and apartheid with AI-enhanced drones and databases tracking immigrants for surveillance and deportation. The endless internal incidents of racism that Afoh describes, including accounts of workers being harassed out of the company for speaking up, were all frustratingly familiar.

Afoh’s document also spoke to something else. With so few Black workers in tech today, I assumed that there had been even fewer in the past. His testimony revealed that there were many (tens of thousands, as I would later learn) Black workers at IBM: mostly regular people, working regular jobs. And they were no more in lockstep with management than workers today.

Soon after joining Google in 2010, I came into contact with the everyday frustrations of working at a company that consistently landed on “Best Place to Work” lists while ignoring the rampant racism and sexism within. Whether it was the uncomfortable advances of a senior product manager or white coworkers making racist jokes about non-white teammates, harmful behavior was part of the fabric of the workplace. As I became exposed to more of the business, I also became disillusioned by the disconnect between Google’s onetime motto—don’t be evil—and how it sought business with the military and big oil companies, not to mention its blatant disregard for the privacy and safety of the people who use its products.

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My coworkers and I shared disbelief at the decisions being made and attempted to nudge the business toward what we thought was a more responsible direction. Or we would try to support one another when dealing with difficult situations, sometimes filing grievances with HR only to be told that nothing could be done.

I left Google in 2017. At the time, I didn’t see a way that the complaints my coworkers and I shared could be anything more than just that. I wasn’t aware of the organizing efforts at the company or around the industry, and I knew very little about labor organizing in general. The next year, I joined a small startup, thinking it would be different. I quickly realized that, regardless of the organization’s size, the underlying culture of techno-utopian idealism and profit over all else was the same.

Then, at the start of 2019, I began attending meetings with the Tech Workers Coalition. I wanted to do more than complain; I wanted guidance on how to create change and a community for support. I began organizing meetings and participating in direct actions.

One of these was a protest at an Amazon Web Services conference. Multiple immigrant rights and social justice organizations had planned the protest for weeks, coordinating an indoor protest—the plan was to interrupt the keynote speaker to bring attention to Amazon’s support for ICE—alongside an outdoor demonstration. These groups had asked TWC if someone from our organization, in particular a woman of color, would join the indoor portion. I volunteered.

The Amazon protest was on a hot and sunny Thursday, and I took the day off from work to go. Two rows of people stood on the sidewalk in front of the conference hall. The first was a line of protesters with signs that read, “No Tech for ICE” and “Amazon puts kids in cages.” The second was a line of conference attendees in business casual clothing and tech company logo-emblazoned swag waiting to be let in.

As I rode the subway home afterward, I thought about how the next day I would go back to work, sit at my desk, and continue editing a presentation. My coworkers would ask how my day off had been. I would respond that it had been nice.

It felt easier to disrupt a conference than to talk to my coworkers about the issues in our workplace where I was alone, trying to feel out my coworkers’ stance on labor issues and build support against a deep-seated culture of individuality and corporate paternalism. I wondered whether direct actions were a way for me to feel like I was doing something while avoiding the problems at work.

At the time of his testimony, Afoh was no longer working at IBM. But he and the other anti-apartheid organizers used the same tactics the No Tech for ICE coalition was using that day: Both groups knew that the novelty of tech workers speaking out against their employers would attract media attention.

Seeing this echo of the present made me want to find out more. What had happened to the anti-apartheid campaign at IBM? What other issues had the group organized around? I decided to begin an oral history and research project to document the work of the BWA. Though I didn’t realize it at first, I was looking for a way to understand my feelings of uncertainty. I felt uncomfortable and impatient; I thought looking to the past would allow me to peek ahead to what would come next.

Digging through this history felt like a transgression of some unspoken contract. IBM was, for many years, the tech company. It was a representative of American industry around the world, and the pinnacle of innovation and design. Because of its former prominence, there is an abundance of information about the company, from the point of view of the company. It is photographs of sleek modernist buildings and interiors, pamphlets from World’s Fair exhibitions, and endless articles and books about IBM’s cutting-edge innovations and the foresight and business acumen of its leaders.

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In contrast, trying to learn about the experiences of everyday workers, particularly Black workers who spoke out against the company’s policies and culture, was like trying to listen to a conversation in another room. I could only catch a muffled murmur of a word here and there: a transcript from Afoh’s testimony, a discrimination suit filed with the EEOC in which several BWA members served as witnesses, a handful of articles exposing the unrest.

The BWA began in 1969 at a meeting in the basement of a Washington, DC home. Thirty engineers and salespeople, including Afoh, had come together at the urging of 29-year-old marketing manager Ken Branch. He had, at first, simply wanted a place for Black workers to connect and complain. Over the next few months, complaining led to action, and in August 1970 the group officially formed as the IBM Black Workers Alliance.

The BWA was active from 1970 to at least the early-1990s. At its peak, it counted several thousand members across the country and had chapters in New York City, the Hudson Valley, Washington DC, and Atlanta. Its mission was to bring Black IBMers together to “help change the corporation to improve [their] opportunities in the company and to engage in social activities to help [their] community.” They helped each other file grievances and legal complaints, organized for promotions and higher pay, initiated community programs, and were a crucial part of the campaign to pressure IBM to drop its business with South Africa. Their activities varied across each chapter, depending on members’ needs and interests.

As I researched the BWA, I kept trying to classify the group. Was it a proto-union? A diversity and inclusion initiative? Something else entirely?

I felt confused, and perhaps a little disappointed at first. Just like the media chasing stories of pampered tech workers rebelling against their employers, I was looking for stories of strikes, walkouts, protests, a union drive. I thought that was the story I needed to hear, a story of outright defiance and confrontation. There was some of that, but more common was a quieter, everyday story of resistance.

I heard my phone ding, altering me to a new message. It had to be the package I had been waiting for. I rushed out to my mailbox and retrieved the stiff cardboard, a red-and-white priority mail envelope from Richard Hudson, president of the NY chapter of the BWA from 1978-1980.

Hudson joined IBM in 1963. Hired directly from a technical school where he was the only Black student in a class of 75, he then became the only Black worker in his small team of 15-20 at IBM’s Poughkeepsie plant. Hudson, age 25, had heard that IBM operated via meritocracy and looked forward to his new role.

Eight months into the job, he knew the rosy, progressive picture the company projected was false. Recalling his early days with the company, Hudson said he hadn’t been sure then that he would stay long. Despite his reservations, he ended up staying for 18 years. During that time, he built a reputation as an advocate for his fellow workers, and someone people knew to reach out to when they were in distress. In 1973, Hudson filed a discrimination suit against the company.

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Five years later, as Hudson’s lawsuit was finally reaching the courts, word of it reached Ken Branch in DC. Branch told Hudson about the BWA and asked him to start a chapter in NYC. Hudson (who ultimately lost in court) agreed and for the next two years did his organizing under the umbrella of the BWA. One of his activities was writing a monthly newsletter.

Forty years later, he would send me the copies. At home, I ripped the tearaway seal and pulled out a manila folder, thick with yellowed pages crowded with neat, typewritten copy. I felt giddy as I carefully turned over each page, reading it in its entirety and stretching the time it would take me to get to the end. Just like Afoh’s testimony, so much in the newsletters read as if it could have been written today.

The issues were geared toward political education: information on worker rights, affirmative action and equal opportunity employment, and the outcomes of discrimination lawsuits. In one issue, Hudson wrote about how IBM tried to intimidate workers to discourage them from attending a BWA meeting. In another, he recounted how an employee opinion survey revealed that the majority of workers at IBM thought “the company’s efforts in the Equal Employment Area” were “too much.” Hudson reminded readers that the majority view was also the white view.

One of the main topics was IBM’s biased appraisal system. At the time, IBM was famous for never having layoffs. This reputation was an integral part of its image as a genteel corporate caretaker. But the company was not a family, as it claimed. It was a business. Rather than laying people off, managers would deliberately lower the performance review ratings of workers it wanted to be rid of until they were pushed out. Unsurprisingly, this tactic was used more often on Black workers.

In between the organizing reports, there was also mention of a disco night with over 200 attendees, a fundraiser cabaret with 400 attendees, and a 100-person dinner in Durham that ended with discussions of setting up a new chapter of the organization in North Carolina. Seeing the dates on each issue, I was reminded of the passage of time. When I heard Hudson telling his stories, they felt condensed, as if each moment of action had happened after the other. But the newsletters, spread over two years, reminded me of how slowly organizing activities unfold.

Those pages were also a hint of the work that never enters the public record: the trust Hudson built with his coworkers, the conversations over lunch, the after-hours meetings at cafes or bars close enough to the office to be convenient but far enough that you’d be unlikely to run into anyone you knew.

That work, the work that lays the foundation for direct actions if and when they happen, isn’t recorded in articles or documents. It doesn't generate headlines. But it is the work that makes everything else possible.

After meeting Hudson, I felt sure I would find others from the BWA who would be willing to share their stories. But one after another, I learned that people had passed, could not speak with me, or I was simply unable to find them. It was by chance that I connected with one other worker-organizer who had been working in parallel.

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“It was people struggling with serious issues, and they would turn up on my doorstep,” said Marceline Donaldson, a former IBM salesperson and organizer. “Some of them found my house. They would come and ring the doorbell because they did not want to be seen talking to me at IBM.”

Coworkers sought Donaldson after word got out that she was trying to bring in the Pullman Porters, the first Black union in the US. Donaldson was not a member of the BWA, though she met with the group and was in touch with BWA officers. Unlike the BWA, which was expressly not trying to form a union, she wanted to unionize IBM.

By the time she started working at IBM in 1967, Donaldson was used to being the only Black woman on her team, in her organization, and even in her field. And she had little patience for the protocols of the all-white, all-boys clubs she found herself in.

Like Hudson, Donaldson had been optimistic. She had heard that IBM was a great place to work and that employees were paid well and treated fairly. Her previous employment with Pillsbury had ended with her filing (with support from the NAACP) a discrimination suit against the company. The lawsuit had traveled all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was ultimately dismissed. IBM, she thought, would be different.

After hearing one horror story after another from coworkers, Donaldson resolved to try to unionize IBM so that workers would have a tool to oppose the company’s tight control. Despite her stellar record as a salesperson, which merited her an invitation to IBM’s “100% club” for those who met or exceeded their quotas, she was fired after just three years with the company, and before her efforts with the Pullman Porters could get fully underway. The message was clear: Unionization at IBM would not be tolerated.

Donaldson’s story was that of someone who tried to change an institution but whose hopes were not realized. How many people had I met who had tried initiating workplace organizing campaigns that faded out? Sometimes people were fired. Some simply failed to gain interest. And some lost their will after numerous setbacks.

When I asked Donaldson if she had advice for people trying to organize in tech today, she said she didn't, but that if we could keep sharing these stories of ordinary people trying their best, maybe we could understand who we are. And that would be something.

I wanted to research the BWA because I believed the work the organizers did should be shared and remembered. By the time I began my research, I had left the tech industry to attend graduate school. I felt guilty about leaving the industry and for not having done more, and I wondered what I could do to help from the outside.

When I started this project, I hadn’t thought of archiving or story-sharing as a form of organizing. I realize now that it is. When we share these stories, we build connections and solidarity across time. We acknowledge that the work is slow, and nonlinear. Sometimes it’s isolating and boring, and sometimes it’s joyous and hectic. And it’s not a story that ever really ends.

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A coworker once told me he'd never worked on a product that took more than a year from idea to launch. He didn’t want to think beyond a year-long time frame. He had never contemplated work that happens on the scale of a decade. Or a project that might not come to fruition until after he's gone.

It’s too simplistic to view the past as a template for present-day efforts. There are certainly lessons we can learn and similarities to what is happening today. But looking back isn’t so much about finding a guide to the future. Instead, it is about recognizing ourselves as historical actors, as one chapter of a story that unfolds over generations.


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