The Activist Legacy of the IBM Black Workers Alliance
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.