Racism Is a Working-Class Problem

Protesters march outside a McDonald’s in Detroit. The national workers’ strike, dubbed the Strike for Black Lives, saw people walk off the job on Monday in U.S. cities to protest systemic racism and economic inequality. Photo: Paul Sancya/AP/Shutterstock

For thousands, this Monday isn’t a typical workday. In fact, it isn’t a workday at all. They’re on strike. Frontline workers in dozens of cities are participating in the Strike for Black Lives, which links racial and economic justice amid a catastrophic recession and protests over police brutality. Supported by a coalition of unions that includes the Service Employees International Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers union along with advocacy groups like the Poor People’s Campaign, the strike has a simple premise: If Black lives truly matter, Black workers need unions, living wages, and health-care benefits they can actually use.

“This strike is an expression of our members’ fierce belief that there is a reckoning in this country, both on unchecked corporate power that has caused too much poverty and on systemic racism that has caused the over-policing and criminalization of the Black community,” Mary Kay Henry, the president of SEIU, told Intelligencer by phone. “We see the strike as a way to unite with the Movement for Black Lives and all of the partners in this struggle for justice by using economic power to say we want to win justice on every front.”

Workers, of course, have understood the connection between racial and economic justice for a long time. So have civil-rights leaders. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, he was there to rally support for striking Black sanitation workers. His Poor People’s Campaign, lately revived by the Reverend William Barber and the Reverend Liz Theoharis, established racism as the axis around which a series of economic injustices revolves. But the events of this year take historical truths and project them wide-screen, filling our whole field of vision. The coronavirus kills Black and brown people at the highest rates. The recession the pandemic created saps wealth mostly from Black and brown households. And the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor illuminate the far reach of prejudice. The precise statistics change for each crisis, but the reality they convey is constant: Racism impoverishes and kills.

That fact affects every aspect of Lisa Elliott’s life, including her work at a Detroit-area nursing home. “Our managers don’t even speak to us. Being a Black person and working in any nursing home during this time is very hard. It’s very stressful,” said Elliott, a certified nursing assistant and SEIU member who is participating in Monday’s strike. She’s had panic attacks as she’s worked through the pandemic, she explained, and the racism she experiences on the job contributes to her stress. Most workers in Elliott’s facility are Black, and, according to her, managers ignore them when they ask for better COVID-19 prevention in the facility. Managers barely listen to them at all, in fact, and treat them mostly as the help. Rather than pick up for themselves, they even leave personal trash behind for the Black housekeepers to clean up.

When Black workers complain, Elliott added, the same managers call them insubordinate and the facility’s administrator is no help. “To be honest with you, the administrator really thinks that all we do is lie. He thinks all Black people lie,” she said. That unfair treatment filters down to the home’s Black residents, she added. “In the upstairs dementia unit, the Black residents don’t get treated well at all,” she said. White residents in the rehabilitation unit get hot meals and a variety of food. “But the Black residents, they give them what they give them,” she continued. The meals are often cold.

“I support the strike 100 percent,” Elliott said. And so do her co-workers. “We’re ready. Dietary department, housekeeping, laundry, activities. CNAs on all three shifts. We are ready.”

The strike affords workers like Elliott a chance to demonstrate their might and then leverage it for better conditions on the job. But Monday’s action has additional significance. It not only commands attention on behalf of Black workers; it undermines key conservative claims about the political ambitions of the working class, and it gestures toward new challenges for a changing labor movement.

Though Republicans, including Donald Trump, frequently insist they represent a silent majority of working Americans, that rhetoric has little in common with reality. The lowest-wage workers in the U.S. are overwhelmingly Black and brown. They’re more likely than either whites or Asians to take jobs in blue-collar fields like transportation and service, and these days, the average construction worker is also more likely to be Latino than white. The work of child and elder care isn’t just underpaid; it is also increasingly performed by women of color. Racism keeps their pay low, arrests their children, and sends ICE to their doorstep. There’s no way to lift up American workers without breaking down the racist institutions that keep them poor and vulnerable — and that makes police brutality a working-class problem too. Monday’s strike occurs amid ongoing protests over the police killings of Black people and follows a massive Juneteenth strike organized by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in Los Angeles. McDonald’s workers in Chicago went on strike the same day.

“A lot of workers of color live in communities where they are also overpoliced,” explained Missouri state representative Rasheen Aldridge, a former Fight for $15 organizer who entered the legislature in 2019. “On top of making these low wages, which I call slave wages, you also have these same individuals that are constantly in oppression and constantly being pushed out, if not from their job then from law enforcement in their community.” Over-policing can also happen at work. Elliott told Intelligencer that the administrator of her nursing home has a nephew in the local police department, a family connection he has allegedly exploited in order to punish his workforce. When staff parked in front of the home instead of in the back, per the administrator’s preference, he called the police. Everyone who parked in front of the home received a ticket.

Like Elliott, Aldridge knows intimately that Black workers fight a war for liberation on multiple fronts. Before he entered politics, he worked at Jimmy John’s, a national chain of sandwich restaurants. He was working hard, he told Intelligencer, but his pay was low. After Aldridge finished community college, his life took an unexpected detour: He got involved with the Fight for $15. A year later, Darren Wilson, a white cop, killed Michael Brown, a Black teenager, in Ferguson, not far from where Aldridge lived in St. Louis. Aldridge joined other Fight for $15 activists on the front lines of the ensuing protests. “Mike Brown was killed right around the corner from a McDonald’s where a lot of our organizing had been going on. It was one of our strongholds,” he explained. “This isn’t the first time we’ve been stepping up for Black lives.”

Six years have passed since the Ferguson protests, but the circumstances that produced them feel painfully familiar and provide the most immediate context for Monday’s strike. While the formal demands of the Strike for Black Lives emphasize collective-bargaining rights and wages, unions invested in anti-racism have to address police brutality, too — and that sets up a potential fight within the labor movement itself. Protesters have demanded the defunding and even the abolition of police. Police unions, meanwhile, use the collective-bargaining process to enshrine broad immunity from oversight in their contracts.

A pointed statement from No Cop Unions, a coalition of rank-and-file union members in various trades, expressed support for the strike but called for labor to disavow law enforcement. “Police, correctional officers, ICE agents, and Border Patrol agents must be expelled from the AFL-CIO and the broader labor movement,” the statement read. “We must divest from punitive institutions, such as policing and prisons, that serve the class interests of the rich and powerful.” Several AFL-CIO affiliates, including the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, have recently passed resolutions asking the federation to expel the International Union of Police Associations, and in June, the Seattle-area MLK Jr. County Labor Council voted to expel the Seattle Police Officers Guild.

So far, though, most labor leaders have adopted a more moderate tone, urging some reform but not expulsion. Henry, the SEIU president, is somewhat more critical. SEIU doesn’t belong to the AFL-CIO, and on the phone with Intelligencer, Henry estimated that “a little over half” of SEIU’s membership is Black, brown, or Asian, which places her in a somewhat unique position. Though she hasn’t called for the expulsion of police unions from the labor movement, she told In These Times in June that the option to do so should remain on the table.

“We’re asking that our law-enforcement members commit to the principle that our unions, including police unions, are never used as a shield to protect abusive conduct,” she explained to Intelligencer. “I think we are at a moment of reckoning, which has helped catalyze a debate that reform isn’t enough. Better training, body cameras, psychological testing are all good steps, but they’re insufficient to the demands being made by the movement.”

For now, though, supporters see the strike as a positive, even necessary step toward broader change. “I hope that it continues to uplift the message that not just the Black Lives Matter movement has been pushing but that the Fight for $15 and a Union have also been pushing,” Aldridge said. “We’re talking about changes in policies when it comes to policing, but we’re also talking about change in policies at every level, not just the executive level and not just the local level. We need elected officials to understand. We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Black Workers Matter