Labor Day highlights struggles of Black workers

USAF / Micaiah Anthony

News Analysis

August Nimtz professor of Political Science at the University of Minnesota, said, “Labor Day was a sobering reminder for all workers, especially those in black skin, of what it means to lack a government and political system that serves their interests.

“Friday’s job numbers revealed what they already knew. The greatest crisis since the Great Depression is knocking at the door. While White unemployment was at 7% for Blacks it was 14%, for Black teenagers it was 25%, a bit less than twice that of White teenagers. The latter numbers go a long way in explaining what took place two weeks ago on Nicolet Mall. It won’t get better,” Nimtz.

Labor Day came in a year that has been filled with efforts by those who work for a living to get a bigger slice of the economic pie which they produce for employers –this was especially true of Black workers. And this effort has been coupled with calls for racial justice on the job and in society especially as it relates to police violence which continues to plague the Black community.

While the US has designated during the COVID pandemic that certain workers are essential because the nation could not function without them, there was no corresponding effort to protect these workers, nor were there offers to better compensate them, until some took matters into their own hands and threatened and even carried out strikes.

An outsized percentage of these “essential” workers were Black which put them at greater risk of falling ill from COVID-19 while on the job.

According to a study conducted by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Black workers make up about one in nine workers, but about one in six of the front line industrial jobs that have been designated as essential during the COVID pandemic are held by Blacks.

“While many Black workers have been deemed essential, our country continues to treat them like they’re disposable, even as a national racial justice movement has declared that Black lives matter,” wrote Tanya Wallace-Gobern executive director of the National Black Worker Center Project in a Labor Day essay.

The National Black Worker Center Project launched its fourth annual “Black Labor Day” initiative, a week of webinars which kicked off on September 5 in Raleigh and Durham, North Carolina. The group put forth a call to action for a movement that fights for a living wage, quality benefits, and equal pay and employment opportunities for Black workers.

“The reality of the pandemic makes it all so clear why those who do have jobs, especially the so-called essential workers need to be working in safe environments. But that means that the workforce needs to organize itself to make that possible.

Most workers do not have a union. But the need is more evident than ever. Only workers organized into a fighting union can ensure safe working conditions.”

When the players of the National Basketball Association went on strike for a few playoff games and were joined by the WNBA, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer and threatened to strike the rest of the season the potential and power of unions was on full display.

The unionized members of professional sports nearly forced their owners all of whom all are comfortably a part of the wealthy one percent to have to advocate for an end to police violence and racial intolerance.

In July several mainstream unions joined in the effort by the Black Lives Matter organization calling for a strike for Black lives, which some saw as cynical. Cynical because some including Black unionists have accused mainstream unions of doing a poor job of advocating for Blacks and other People of Color that are members.

In fact, union leadership did not organize most of the strikes of workers during the early days of the COVID 19 pandemic, but rather watched as rank and file members took matters into their own hands.

However, the Teamsters and seven other national unions endorsed the July 20 Strike for Black Lives. Members of the Communications Workers in Memphis, Tennessee, protested outside an AT&T Mobility call center where 10 out of 20 new hires had contracted COVID-19 after the company refused the union’s request to do their training remotely.

The union pointed out AT&T’s hypocrisy in issuing statements supporting the Black Lives Matter Movement while ignoring the demands of the disproportionately Black and female Memphis workers.

Labor Day dates back to the 1880’s and was first celebrated in 1882 when Peter McGuire, a carpenter and labor union leader, proposed to the New York Central Labor Union that workers be honored in New York with their own holiday. Twelve years later with the nation embroiled in one of its largest labor strikes President Grover Cleveland made it a national holiday, purportedly to celebrate workers and gain support from the labor movement.

In 1894 George Pullman of Pullman Palace Car Company lowered wages by 25% but failed to lower the costs of the rent he was charging workers in company-owned housing. Workers complained that the wage was not enough to feed their families.

After Pullman fired the leaders of the union representing his workers, the remaining workforce of thousands walked off the job and went on strike. It was at the time one of the largest strikes in US history and paralyzed much of the country which was heavily dependent on rail travel.

U.S. courts taking the side of big business and the government granted an injunction calling for an end to the strike. Cleveland sent in federal troops to enforce the injunction which resulted in beatings of workers, and police riots in which thirteen strikers were killed.

Labor made progress with the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 which made union organizing less difficult but the Act left out agriculture and domestic workers as a concession to southern lawmakers. In the southern U.S. many Blacks were mired in jobs as sharecroppers, farm hands and domestics.

They were also exempted from the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which set minimum wage and the Social Security Act of 1935.

Historians and legal scholars point out that southern congressmen wanted to leave Black workers out of the new deal to keep intact their plantation like agricultural arrangement which was enabled by Jim Crow segregation.

Union membership reached peaked in 1950 with a high of 33%. In 2019 only 10.9% of workers belonged to unions.

“Because of the amount of death and infection that they’ve had to witness, either at the hands of police or because of the lack of personal protective equipment in their workplaces, there’s a lot of grief that people are holding,” said MaryKay Henry president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

“But there’s a lot of hope — because young people are in the streets, demanding change, and working people have either been in the streets or walking off their job, demanding change. It’s time to rebuild America,” said Henry.

“But we’ve got to build it in a way that’s brand new, and doesn’t sow the racial and gender inequity that has existed since we were founded.”

“Organizing and generalizing those local level fights will make it possible for the next essential step,” Henry continued, “for the working class organizing its own political party. What was so striking about both recent political conventions was the absence of any concrete plans on the part of either capitalist party to solve the jobs crisis.”

“Having its own party puts the working class, in all its skin colors and other identities, a party that comes out of thousands of fights at the local level, in a position to really solve the jobs crisis—to take governmental power,” said Nimtz. “It is indisputable that this needs to be done,.”