Photo credit: @Pretiblkunicorn, one of the Memphis 7
The following article which originally appeared in TheStand.org was reprinted by the Washington State AFL-CIO which gave People’s World permission to reprint it here.
Black labor built this country, and Black folks recognizing and seizing their economic power as workers is the basis of the liberation movements of our time. February is a celebration of Black history, Black excellence, and Black experiences. But we celebrate Black folks, our history, our power, 24/7, 365 in the labor movement.
Fundamentally, the legacy of Black labor in this country is unique. Its origins in mass kidnapping and chattel slavery are part of that legacy, as is the fierce tradition of resistance and resiliency. In this history we see some of the worst abuses of humans by their fellow human beings, and some of the most profound models for how to fight back.
Capitalism underpinned slavery; it underpins our current economy. This system’s capacity to accommodate brutality is immense. But we have successful models for protecting working people, for challenging the otherwise unfettered profit drive of bosses. Models out of Black history, out of Black-led labor struggles, provide us strategies that get at the heart of the economic exploitation and racial oppression that is used to diminish and divide working people.
Black workers have been pivotal figures in moving the labor movement forward, by taking bold, direct action to advocate for their rights on the job and for respect as working people. In February of 1968, after two sanitation workers were crushed by a malfunctioning broken-down truck, a tragedy in a long line of health and safety abuses of Black employees. In response, 1,300 Black men struck for recognition of their union, better wages, and safety standards. The Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike, rooted in the fight for respect as Black men and as working people, successfully won improved working conditions and union recognition; it also used a model of direct action and civil disobedience that drew other community members to the struggle, building multi-racial support for the strike and winning middle class support.
Right now, Black folks are leading brave, innovative organizing drives across the country, despite harassment and retaliation. Starbucks stores across the country are unionizing, and despite the company’s claims of progressive values, they fired seven baristas who were involved in organizing in Memphis. These workers, several of whom are Black, started their organizing drive on MLK Day, in honor of his commitment to the struggle for working people in Memphis over 50 years ago. Other Black workers at Starbucks recount facing greater retaliation from management for engaging in union activity than non-Black workers.
In Bessemer, Alabama, the workers at an Amazon fulfillment center are gearing up for another union vote after the National Labor Relations Board determined that Amazon violated labor laws in their previous election. These working folks, the majority of whom are Black and brown, are facing down one of the biggest companies in the world, a company that’s proven it’s willing to break the law to bust the union. But despite spending millions to fight the union, Amazon can’t slow them down; another facility in New York won a union vote with one more facility on the horizon. (Check out the BAmazon Union twitter to hear directly from these workers about what a union would mean for them.)
Black folks’ central role in this wave of organizing makes sense. Let’s look at Washington state, for example. Here, Black folks are disproportionately represented in the workforce, meaning very few Black people are not workers. New data from the Washington Labor Education Resource Center shows that throughout the pandemic, Black people were consistently more likely than white people to be working or looking for work. In fact, Black women were the only group of workers who were more likely to be at work at the end of 2021 than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, the data confirms what we have experienced: Black workers in Washington – like all workers of color — experienced much more volatility in their paid work than white workers.
We know that Black folks are unionized at a higher rate than any other ethnic or racial group. And as the demographics of our movement change with time, we know that the rising generations of working people are more diverse than ever.
We also know that Black workers face real, systemic challenges in exercising their rights and living full lives here in Washington and nationwide: underinvestment in our communities, discrimination in education and on the job, criminalization instead of protection.
Black folks’ role as both central to our economy yet exploited is born of a unique history of racialized oppression and marginalization; but Black workers are not the only working people who are essential, yet exploited. Frankly, most working people are.
So we see that when we center Black working people, when we focus on the issues that constrain the potential of Black folks, we are attacking and dismantling the barriers that all working people face.
We are a people-powered movement, a coalition created by working people for working people. Our history is complex, sometimes fraught. Yet from our inception, we have fought the systems that harm workers. Historically the labor movement has been the “principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress,” in the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
We stay true to that legacy when we take up the hard fights that directly challenge the systems and practices that harm workers. Black working people are valued, beloved members of this labor family; it is a transformative action to uplift Black workers, the kind that can turn despair into hope and misery into progress.
Interested in practical tools for how to advance racial equity in your work? Check out the Racial Equity Policy Toolkit; developed to guide policy work, this is a framework for centering racial equity that can be applied to all our work building power for working people.
April Sims of Tacoma is Secretary-Treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO.
People’s World, March 4, 2022, https://www.peoplesworld.org/article/black-workers-struggles-inform-labor-history/