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Blacks lead resurgent national fight for labor rights

Aswad Walker

The connections between the labor rights or economic justice fight and movements for Black empowerment are many and stretch back to the ultimate combination of these struggles – efforts to end the system of U.S. slavery. And though many people may be slightly familiar with the contributions to these movements by union leader A. Phillip Randolph or organizations like the National Urban League, many are unaware of just how integral Blacks have been to the centuries-old fight to secure better pay and better conditions for workers.

What’s worse, many know little about the fact that in 2023 a resurgence of this fight is happening, with workers striking and fighting to unionize across America. And again. Black people are playing critical leadership roles in this struggle.

Black leadership

Three of the nation’s largest unions are currently led by Blacks.

Lee Saunders is president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. AFSCME’s 1.4 million members serve in hundreds of different occupations — from nurses to corrections officers, childcare providers to sanitation workers. AFSCME advocates for fairness in the workplace, excellence in public services and freedom and opportunity for all working families.

Everett Kelley is the national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union representing federal and D.C. government employees, totaling 750,000 people.

Claude Cummings Jr. of Houston leads the Communications Workers of America, whose 700,000 private and public sector workers make up arguably America’s most diverse union. CWA members work not just in the communications and information industries, but also in news media, airlines, broadcast and cable television, public service, higher education, health care, manufacturing, high tech and more.

Add to these three presidents Fred Redmond, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the U.S., made up of 60 national and international unions, together representing more than 12 million active and retired workers, and there is scarcely an industry not touched by Black voices advocating for worker rights.

And then there are grassroots workers like Chris Smalls, who made international news for his efforts beginning in 2020 to unionize Amazon workers in New York. “We don’t need millions of dollars. We just need the peoples’ power and the power of the community behind us,” said Smalls.

Where’s the battle?

Because most national media outlets report on worker battles for improved conditions as isolated incidents, the nation is missing the fact that a huge movement is taking place from coast to coast and includes multiple industries.

Most people are familiar with the Screen Actors Guild and Writers Guild of America strike seeking full-time jobs and profit-sharing from the corporations that run Hollywood.

Malaika Jabali, Essence senior news and politics editor and author of “It’s Not You, It’s Capitalism: Why It’s Time to Break up and How to Move On,” recently interviewed actor and Houston-native Kendrick Sampson (“Insecure,” “How to Get Away With Murder”) about the strike.

“The way they have it now set up is so nobody can work full-time in Hollywood and pay their bills and get health care. You only need to make $24,000 as an actor to get health care. Like 90% of actors, and I’m not joking, are unemployed and are not making $24,000. $24,000 is below the poverty line … I could be a guest star on three different hit shows and not qualify for health care … So, we have to figure out how to cater, find other skills, become massage therapists and whatever else in order to get by,” Sampson told Jabali.

Sampson connected the Hollywood strike to the larger movement.

“You saw UPS was ready to go on strike. You saw the teachers. You saw hotel workers. You see fast food employees. You see Amazon workers unionizing. You see so many folks coming out and saying we’re tired of conditions that are inhumane. We know y’all have a ridiculous amount of money. And you’re making it off of our labor and then forcing us to struggle. When you compare what labor is asking, to what is available in revenue, it’s always the smallest amount that these greedy people be hoarding at the top, competing on who can get the biggest bonus on the backs of people’s healthcare.”

Also in California, fast-food workers numbering over 500,000 (80% of which are people of color; 66% of whom are women) are seeking to transform that industry with efforts to unionize their workforce and secure more worker benefits. And in November 2022, 48,000 University of California academic workers went on strike, impacting 10 campuses, demanding higher wages to help cover sky-high housing cost, improved childcare subsidies, enhanced health coverage and other benefits.

Hundreds of United, American and Southwest Airlines staff recently picketed in Dallas and San Francisco as negotiations between labor unions and the airlines stalled.

On Aug. 25, auto workers in Detroit voted overwhelmingly to authorize United Auto Workers leaders to call strikes against Detroit car companies, while Amazon workers in Motown took to the picket lines.

“Our fellow co-workers shouldn’t have to DoorDash. They shouldn’t have to Uber. They shouldn’t have to do all these side gigs to make ends meet. They shouldn’t have to rely on overtime to get their rent and their bills paid,” said Amazon associate Nick White.

Teachers in a southwest Washington state school district are on strike over class sizes, postponing the start of the school year there.

The country’s largest locomotive manufacturer, Pittsburgh-based Wabtec, and its striking union workers (Local 506 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America) have reached a tentative agreement that could end a two-month strike that saw about 1,400 people walk off the job at its Pennsylvania plant.

Earlier this year, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick proposed revoking tenure for professors, eliminating their job security, at public universities whose curriculum includes teaching about critical race theory, though CRT is taught only at a few law schools nationally.

“The irony is, they don’t want us to teach our students about the fact that what Patrick and others are doing is the exact same thing the Nazis did in Germany and Pol Pot’s regime did in Cambodia, where he killed millions of his own people,” said a professor from a large state public institution who spoke only if name and campus were not mentioned, out of fear of repercussions. “In both cases, the powers felt threatened by teachers, professors, intellectuals and artists — people whose professions centered around inspiring people to think. It was an attack on labor, in a sense; first, removing them from their livelihoods, and then literally killing them. I’m not saying that’s where we’re headed in the US. But in Texas, we’re certainly taking first steps in an ugly direction by halting academic freedom.”

In Houston, Superintendent Mike Miles sought to silence the Houston Independent School District’s largest teachers union, the Houston Federation of Teachers, by requesting the removal of the requirement that HISD administration consult with district employees regarding working conditions and program changes. HISD’s Board of Managers denied the entirety of Miles’ request but did reduce HFT’s voice in representing teachers.

Hurdles

Workers, especially Black workers, see growing CEO profits and shrinking worker wages in addition to the racial and gender pay gaps and want something done about them.

In 2022, CEOs of S&P 500 companies received, on average, $16.7 million in total compensation — the second-highest level of CEO pay in history for S&P 500 Index companies — while U.S. workers’ real hourly wages fell for the second straight year by 1.6% after adjusting for inflation, according to www.aflcio.org.

Workers want to share in those profits while getting safer working conditions.

In Hollywood, Sampson said, creatives want “fair wages, a solution for AI and a solution for residuals.”

He also mentioned an increased participation in the profits.

“The filmmaking industry made something like $77 billion last year in revenue worldwide. So, what we’re asking for, if you look at this pie chart, it’s less than 2% of their total revenue to solve this problem,” Sampson said.

Aswad Walker is associate editor of the Defender Media Group (Houston Defender).

Black empowerment, Black workers, labor rights, unions