Panel on Black workers: Government action critical
Labor union members and supporters during a 2015 Fight for $15 rally for fastfood workers in New York. In the fast food industry there are large numbers of Black workers who, experts say, are in need of government intervention to improve their conditions. | Bebeto Matthews/AP

WASHINGTON—Times of crisis produce “dramatic transitions that happen with government intervention” in society, benefiting Black workers and other marginalized groups, the leader of a recent panel on the state of those workers says.

And only government can step in, adds Bill Fletcher Jr., the outspoken former AFL-CIO Education Director and a frequent consultant for the Government Employees and other unions, because “business has no interest” in that goal.

That time of government intervention is now, the panel declared, due to the triple impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the widespread death, suffering, business closures and economic depression it has produced, and the crusade to end endemic, historic U.S. racism.

But at the same time, the U.S. is at a key tipping point, just as it was in the depths of the Great Depression in 1933, about whether society’s transition and government interventions “will be unjust and authoritarian or just and democratic,” Fletcher warns.

Fletcher and the other panelists – Unite Here Vice President Nia Winston, Jhacova Williams of the Economic Policy Institute and Tanya Wallace-Gobern of the National Black Workers Center – reached those conclusions when the entire nation is, for once, focusing on the endemic racism that has permeated U.S. society for 401 years.

It includes racism in the workplace and in government programs, they said. Wallace-Gobern said capitalism means it permeates the economy, too.

Exploiting workers, tanking economy

“We need to put an end to this capitalistic culture,” she stated. “It exploits workers and tanks the economy and goes towards accumulation of wealth for the 1%.”

The panel did not, and did not have to, state some obvious truths: In the workplace, Blacks are often last-hired, first-fired. They’re pigeon-holed into lower-paying – and in the coronavirus pandemic, often-dangerous —  jobs. If they reach corporate suits, they’re often siloed into positions dealing with “diversity,” not power and money.

And the Black jobless rate, before the current Depression, hovered around double that of whites. In May, the most-recent month available, the overall jobless rate declined by 1.4 percentage points, to 13.3%. Black joblessness rose 0.1%, to 16.8%.

Winston, a Detroit resident, told the group, and viewers on Zoom, that members of her union are particularly affected by present racism in the workplace. Blacks and Spanish-speakers are overrepresented in the hospitality industries, in warehousing and in heavy-duty  “essential” work, such as truck driving and stocking supermarkets.

Federal data for 2019, the most recent year available, show Black and Spanish-speaking workers are 30% of all workers, one-third of retail grocery workers, 39% of wholesale grocery workers, 56% of warehouse workers and 38% of truckers.

Many jobs to never return

The hospitality industry was almost completely shut down by state orders for quarantines, social distancing and business closures, decimating hotels and restaurants in particular. “Ninety-eight percent of our members” in those areas “have been on layoff or furlough,” she said. Economists predict many of those jobs will never return.

And the warehouse workers, truckers and supermarket stockers, unless they have union protection, are much more likely to lack health insurance coverage, have employers who refuse to protect them, and to – because of community spread and widespread exposure – “attract COVID-19,” the coronavirus, “and die.”

Those same workers now deemed “essential” were labeled as “unskilled, low-wage and  ‘not essential,’” Wallace-Gobern noted. They were “taken for granted” because bosses “don’t value work as a resource.”

Fletcher pointed out government discriminated, too, and still does. And not just in police killings of unarmed Blacks.

The New Deal, he noted, specifically excluded several groups of workers – farm workers and household workers among them – all with one distinctive characteristic: People of color were in the majority. But excluding them from unemployment benefits and the 40-hour week was the price FDR paid to avoid Southern racist filibuster against the Fair Labor Standards Act and other legislation.

A threatened march of 100,000 people on Washington in 1941, organized by A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the nation’s first and leading majority-Black union, forced Roosevelt to desegregate defense industries. The war helped open eyes, but also produced a white counterreaction at home.

That continued after peace came, and brought with it housing and banking practices, such as redlining, that enhanced housing segregation and shoe-horned people of color into unhealthy segregated neighborhoods. It still continues.

“We have an 85-mile stretch of roads from New Orleans to Baton Rouge,” says Williams. “It’s called Cancer Alley. Who lives there? Us.” And local officials, using federal highway cash, often used interstate highways to deliberately split off and isolate Black communities.

And in right-wing-run states, unemployment insurance payments are low, coverage is short and workers are turned down. Winston singled out Florida as the worst case, saying workers are forced back on the job because they never got jobless benefits. Florida has certified only 7.9% of applicants, the lowest rate in the U.S. Thousands of Florida’s 921,000 jobless have yet to get their first unemployment benefits.

All this repression, exploitation and angst should radicalize the workforce, Fletcher said, and not just Blacks who have hit the streets in mass marches, along with white allies against continuing U.S. racism, either. The question he raised is how to channel that and produce change in the state of Black workers.

Voting matters, but is not the be-all and end-all, Jhacova replied. Not only must Blacks and their allies elect people to office who want to create a more-just society, but they must keep the pressure on those officeholders to offset corporate clout.

Corporations profiting, workers not

“Look at the Cares Act,” she said of the $2 trillion economic stimulus law Congress passed in March to try to offset the impact of the depression. “Look at how much went to big corporations, while workers got those $1,200 checks” each. “Economics is built on politics.”

And hitting the streets – and staying there – works, too, Wallace-Gobern said.

“What we see in the streets must continue. Surveys show even U.S. House Republicans are 4% more likely to vote for (pro-worker) bills, if there are demonstrations in their own districts,” even though an overwhelming majority of GOPers have opposed aiding workers and continue to do so. The marches and demonstrations also produce an 8% increase in Democratic support.

And beyond those percentages, “there’s people power,” she continued. Workers lacking personal protective equipment (PPE) against the coronavirus’s spread on the job “because they weren’t going to work.”

“There is power in withholding your labor.”

But the corporate class continues its onslaught on the right to vote, Jhacova said. “Some people” – the corporate class and the right wing — don’t want people to vote because they don’t want certain people in office,” she said. The “certain people” the corporate class opposes, she implied without saying so, are pro-worker.

“If we don’t figure this out, lives could be at stake,” Winston warned.

The entire discussion,  entitled The Just Transition Listening Project, is on YouTube at #WorkingWhileBlack.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.