Sending Love: A Letter to Black Workers, Organizers, and Labor Leaders
As the world and the United States navigate the coronavirus pandemic, there’s a common refrain that we’re living in unprecedented times, with mass unemployment, unsafe working conditions for those still working, lack of access to health care, and food scarcity.
For some Americans these experiences are unimaginable, but for many Black people they are too familiar.
Black people make up 23 percent of the deaths from COVID-19 while only 12.5 percent of the population. As the disproportionate rates of Black people infected and dying emerged, some placed the blame on Black Americans themselves. Senator Bill Cassidy, M.D., interviewed on NPR, reduced the toll of systemic racism on Black folks’ health to “rhetoric.” The New York Times suggested that the disproportionate COVID-19 infection rate in Black communities stemmed from a collective belief in an internet rumor that Black folks were immune—despite opinion surveys demonstrating repeatedly that Black people have been more concerned about the pandemic than white people.
These sentiments ignore the systemic racism embedded in this country’s core, resulting in worse health outcomes and lower life expectancy for Black and Brown people. We need a larger discussion about racial disparities and what can be done to protect Black lives.
RACISM IS WHAT’S KILLING US
Institutionalized racism has put Black communities at particularly high risk for the harsh impacts of this pandemic.
Due to a legacy of housing segregation, staying home does not mean staying healthy. Black and Brown people are more likely to live in neighborhoods with polluted air, which contributes to higher rates of asthma, high blood pressure, cancer, and other conditions that put us at risk for COVID-19 infection and illness. Black people are more likely to live in densely populated areas and homes with multiple generations, making it easy to spread the virus in the community and in the household. The legacy of discriminatory policies in housing creates inequities that, in turn, create disproportionate risk for COVID-19.
As we stare down the deepest global recession since the Great Depression, Black people have been hit hard by devastating job loss due to COVID-19. Thirty-eight million people have filed for unemployment since the pandemic began and the unemployment rate for Black people is 16.8 percent. Even before, due to systemic racism many Black and Brown people have been locked out of the job market and the new unemployment numbers won’t capture the devastating impacts of this economic crisis.
At the same time, millions are still going to work every day. Black and Brown workers are more likely to work in jobs and industries deemed essential and are therefore more likely to be exposed. Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) workers are overrepresented in the lowest-paying occupations, and Black people in particular earn the lowest median wage of any racial group in the U.S.
History has shown that Black workers are the canaries in the coal mine: for any negative impacts on workers, Black workers are almost always impacted first and worst. As states reopen, Americans of all backgrounds will increasingly face the challenges many Black and Brown workers have struggled with for months.
SOUNDING THE ALARM
That’s where our unions come in. The union difference for many is an opportunity for higher wages, fair scheduling, paid sick days, health care, and pensions. But even more, the union difference is a voice on the job. Black workers continue to have the highest unionization rates of any racial group, especially in public sector jobs. In this moment of shortages of personal protective equipment and overcrowded warehouses, factories, and grocery stores, Black folks have sounded the alarm to protect all workers.
With the coronavirus straining systems and having a crippling impact on our lives, how do we dismantle a racist system, get our communities the resources we deserve, and live to tell the tale?
Many strategies will be needed. One of the first and most important things is not to misplace causality: it's racism that is creating dangerous outcomes for Black people. Our work to support and sustain each other is powerful and healing, both within and outside the labor movement. This moment is calling for us to be unapologetic and unwavering as we advocate for anti-racist policies. We will stand up unashamedly in our organizations to lift up Black and Brown workers in Washington State.
UNIONS ARE NOT ISLANDS
As we attempt to make it out alive, we have to organize in and out of our union halls.
In Washington State, Black and Brown workers are organizing. Washington Federation of State Employees (AFSCME) Council 28 workers built their own Plexiglas barriers to protect workers at three area hospitals, when bosses refused. Workers from four unions joined together to win furlough protections for health care workers at two area hospital systems.
Workers have advocated for safety in food processing plants, at wineries, and on farms; Latino non-union apple packers organized strikes and held the lines until their demands for workplace safety and hazard pay were met. Workers have swiftly joined together across sectors to host PPE drives for essential workers.
We are also organizing outside of our union halls. Workers from every corner of the state are supporting mutual aid groups and funds that directly serve people of color who have been left out of government relief. Members of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance have organized town halls for essential workers on worker rights. Members of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and the A. Phillip Randolph Institute are continuing critical work for Black census participation through the #BeCounted campaign.
As Black labor activists, we can demand union resources be used to empower BIPOC-led community organizations who are allies in this fight. But we cannot think of labor as a savior. Community organizations are providing support to the very workers we want to join our movement. Our work is to keep building relationships with these empowering community organizations, making clear the common cause labor shares.
Inside our organizations, we cannot allow racism to divide us. Any organization founded in a racist system is rooted in that same racism; this is why we must work to become actively anti-racist organizations. One way to achieve this is to ensure BIPOC staff have the support they need to continue organizing.
FIGHT AT WORK, AND BEYOND
As governors make plans to reopen states, we need to be involved. As health care, community, and economic task forces are created, we need to collaborate. We must make sure any economic restructuring doesn’t leave BIPOC communities behind.
We must organize digitally and expand beyond traditional frameworks. Engagement on social media has skyrocketed: Zoom talks, webinars, lunch and learns, #becounted. We need to ensure everyone has access to these new ways of mobilizing.
In this moment we must extend ourselves grace, patience, and compassion, remembering that we are among the Black workers we are fighting for. We know we carry the struggles of Black people on our backs because no one else will. We are the ones we’ve been waiting on.
Sending our love to ya.
We raise our voices in solidarity with our sisters, brothers, and siblings who are putting their bodies on the line, calling for justice for Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and Manuel Ellis, who was recently murdered by police in Tacoma, Washington. While the profound words of union leaders calling out racial injustice are important and necessary, we will also act—now and in the future—for freedom, an end to police brutality, full employment for our people, and the power to determine the destiny of our Black community.
Cherika Carter is Political and Strategic Campaigns Director and Sybill Hyppolite is Legislative Director at the Washington State Labor Council.