On June 8, the Columbus Dispatch carried a poll that measured people’s opinions on issues concerning affirmative action, race, and LGBT questions. While the results were generally what readers here would consider positive, the affirmative action/race, questions & answers were far more revealing in how it was said and it what wasn’t said.

First of all, the LGBT results showed the basically positive movement in people’s opinions that all media outlets have been reporting recently. Marriage equality was supported by 52%, vs. 43% in opposition. Support for anti-discrimination legislation that includes gays, lesbians was higher, with 73% supporting it and only 22% stating opposition.

Where the poll got really interesting was the next, affirmative action section.

In answer to the question;

“In order to make up for past discrimination, do you favor or oppose programs that make special efforts to help blacks and other minorities get ahead?”

The results were a positive, and overwhelming, 68% in favor with only 24% in opposition.

However, in answer to the very next question, worded as follows: “Do you think blacks and other minorities should receive preference in college admissions to make up for past inequalities?”

To this, similar, if not exactly same, question, however worded much differently, the results were a surprising only 29% in favor and 64% against this proposition, basically opposite!

The easiest answer to this point is that the public is overwhelmingly in favor of affirmative action favoring minorities, unless they are overwhelmingly opposed to it. However, the poll actually contains some further valuable information on this question. The next two questions were whether those being polled had ever been (1) personally either helped or hurt by race in college admissions, and (2) whether those polled had ever been personally helped or hurt in their job/career by race or ethnicity?

In answer to these two questions concerning the actual real life experience of the folks answering the poll questions, an unbelievably tiny percentage of people reported that they’d been affected personally in any manner at all. To the first, only twenty percent (10% both ways) said they’d been affected, while only 18% felt they’d been affected at all personally, with 7% saying they’d been “helped” and 11% “hurt,” on their job situation.

For those, working class and social justice activists who want to, as Karl Marx said, “Change history, not just observe it,” the answers are much more revealing. People have extremely strong views on race and affirmative action, but honestly have never noticeably been in any way personally affected one way or another by issues of affirmative action.

Placed another way, the poll exposes the deeply felt racial (& sometimes racist) views that capitalist society has driven into them, however those views in most cases have no real, actual, connection to their own personal lives. The wider issue for us is that it shows how the wording of messages, the “feeling” on an issue, regardless of real, personal experience in most cases, influence their opinions on real, life issues in regard to race and affirmative action. For us, I believe, the real question becomes; “What is the class perspective of those asking, forming, the question, and what result is the question actually aiming to get?”

This poll brought up the experience of the fight against entrenched racist corporate practices that took place, led by the Rank & File Movement, in the steel industry.

In 1974, a Consent Decree was signed by the Steelworker’s Union (USWA), the major steel corporations and the U.S. government which did the following:

• Opened the craft/trade jobs to African Americans, women, Latinos, including the apprentice training programs, also setting target numbers that had to be met.

• Set up a bidding system that opened all jobs to a bidding process, that allowed all workers, regardless of race, etc., to bid to leave departments where they were assigned and move to other, higher paying or more desirable areas. African American workers were given some preference, due to past discrimination, on some jobs.

• African American workers who’d suffered past discrimination received monetary compensation.

While this is hardly a definitive explanation of the entire process, it hits the main points of implementation of this historic agreement. It was the result of years of tough struggle by African American steelworkers, as well as the multi-racial and left-center led Rank & File Movement in steel. In this fight, George Edwards, chair of National Steelworker’s Rank & File Committee (NSWRFC) and leader of the Communist Party, USA played an extremely important role. Almost before the ink was dry on the Decree, an ultra-right assault was launched by corporate supported, racist elements aiming to reverse the gains won in the Consent Decree. Most prominent of those challenges was the ‘Weber Case,’ where a white worker at a Kaiser plant in Louisiana sued, stated that he should’ve gotten a craft position (only 1.8% of craft jobs were held by African American workers), that he was “better qualified” than a minority worker who was awarded the job. This case had immediate political impact on mainly white workers across the steel industry, with racist-supported groups popping up opposing the Consent Decree.

George Edwards and NSWRFC rallied the pro-Consent Decree forces, calling national meetings and getting out literature supporting the Decree. The key point, however, was that he insisted that the fight be oriented on the gains that ALL workers got from the victory over racism in the Decree. All workers now had the right to bid jobs and move, not only African American workers. The companies had to begin recruiting badly needed tradesmen, and all could apply. Further, the victory over racism was a victory against the boss’s favoritism, as well. It leveled the playing field for all. Within this overall context, the argument that the victory over racism also meant unity for all workers and strengthened our joint hands together, while weakening that of the corporation/boss, carried real concrete meaning for those workers on the job.

While a tough struggle, not to be minimized, it was not long before those arguments had solid positive impact. It is not an exaggeration at all to say that anyone coming to a steelworker’s union hall to propose ending the Consent Decree would be thrown out on their ear, and the arms doing it would be multi-racial! Weber lost his case in ’79 and the language of the Consent Decree was placed into the basic steel contract. While those gains have certainly been harmed by jobs loss and mill closures, the lessons are still very applicable.

These lessons apply to today’s battles. While we’ve won gains unless a principled independent, working class voice can carry the unifying message to regular working folks, working folks will continue to hear only those messages coming from ruling class sources, confusing and carrying racist poison pills.

A pro-corporate, racist Supreme Court stands ready to kill key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Social Security, Medicare, worker’s rights to organize and be represented by unions are all under attack. Unless an independent working class voice can carry the unifying message to regular working people in our nation, they will continue to be influenced by irrational fears, divisive messages from corporate sources.

The real lesson, however, is that when regular working people see their united interest in the struggles and victories we win, they will unite and act in their own interests!