‘Strike for Black Lives’ targets racism, demands HEROES Act passage
Fast food workers, union members from various area locals, and community members march to a McDonald’s location in downtown St. Louis on Monday as part of the nationwide 'Strike for Black Lives.' | Al Neal / People's World

WASHINGTON—Even with a recent raise, thanks to her union contract, Alberta Tapia doesn’t make enough from her janitorial job to keep herself and three other adults well fed and with a roof over their heads. She winds up falling behind on house payments.

And that’s what brought her, along with dozens of other people of color, marshalled by Service Employees Local 32BJ, to the U.S. Capitol lawn in 103-degree heat in D.C. on July 20.

“Black lives matter!” and “Pass the Heroes Act!” the crowd’s chants alternated.

“A mistake can get you infected, and many of my coworkers have contracted COVID, yet we don’t get an extra penny for our essential work preventing others from sharing our fate,” said Alberta Tapia, janitor at a Tysons Corner health center and SEIU 32BJ member. | SEIU 32BJ via Twitter

It’s also what brought thousands of other workers—aided by the New Poor People’s Campaign and unions including the Service Employees, the Teamsters, the Amalgamated Transit Union, Unite Here, the United Farm Workers, and the Communications Workers, among others—out into the streets that day.

Their objective, along with those of at least 40 other demonstrations nationwide: To strike in memory of police-murdered African-American George Floyd, and to honor him by demanding the U.S. root out systemic racism—and that includes racism against Black and brown jobless workers.

“Even before George Floyd’s life was so horrifically taken, the ‘normal’ everyone keeps talking about going back to wasn’t working for us. From racially motivated attacks to being forced to go to work without protective equipment or hazard pay in the name of the economy, our lives have not been valued. We cannot go back to that. We must move forward,” airport wheelchair attendant Glen Brown, another 32BJ member, said on the strike website.

Justice for Black communities “is a necessary first step towards justice for all,” strike sponsors declared.

“To win higher wages, better jobs, and Unions for All, we must ensure that Black workers can build economic power. To win Healthcare for All, we must address disparities in accessibility and quality of care. Action on climate change must center communities of color. Immigrant communities stand in solidarity with Black workers to build power together.”

“Education, housing, and criminal justice reform must start by listening to Black workers and leaders. We will support and align with Black-led organizations and their demands,” the coalition of unions and other organizations added.

“Elected officials and candidates at every level use their executive, legislative, and regulatory authority to begin to rewrite the rules and reimagine our economy and democracy so that Black communities can thrive.”

It’s fear of the coronavirus, Floyd’s murder, the economic depression, joblessness of 11% (officially) and at least double that (really), and systemic racism, especially from police murdering unarmed Blacks, that drove workers into the streets in the summer heat.

Jaime Contreras, head of 32BJ and a Service Employees vice-president, and emcee at the D.C. rally, added a fourth fear: Re-election of GOP President Donald Trump, a racist who gives people of color the back of his hand, at best. SEIU, Contreras’s and Tapia’s 2.2-million-member union, formally endorsed Trump’s Democratic foe, Joe Biden, the week before.

Night shift janitors in Seattle keep the Strike for Black Lives going well into overnight hours with a walkout and moment of silence to honor George Floyd and to fight for racial and economic justice. | Justice for Janitors via Twitter

“That unqualified president will hopefully be gone by November,” Contreras said, to cheers.

Pass the HEROES Act

But another type of politics, in the U.S. Senate, dominated the talk at D.C. One point of the rallies, including one at GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Louisville, Ky., home state office, was to pressure senators to approve the House-passed $3 trillion HEROES Act before its aid to the jobless runs out on July 31, costing at least 20 million people the money they need to survive.

Losers would include at least one of the other adults living with Tapia, who toils for 52 hours a week: 40 at straight pay plus 12 of overtime. She walked to the microphone in front of the U.S. Capitol to tell her story and those of her co-workers, victims of exploitation by a janitorial firm hired by Kaiser Permanente to bring cleaners to its health care clinic near Dulles Airport in the D.C. suburbs.

“I clean places people stay in while they’re being treated for the coronavirus,” which has hit people of color especially hard, she explained in Spanish through a translator. “I feel I’m being pushed more and more beyond my limits, and I feel I’m at a higher risk of being infected.”

“We want essential workers like myself to receive essential pay.”

The virus is yet another form of exploitation of Black and brown people, other speakers said, since they’re the overwhelming majority of “essential” workers—cleaners, grocery workers, security guards, truckers, nurses, meat and poultry plant workers, farm workers—who must toil and expose themselves to the virus every day.

Some of those “essential” workers got premium pay during the first weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, though their firms have since cut it off. Others, like Tapia, never got it at all. “I have a hard time paying my bills and I live with the fear of contracting the virus,” as several of her clinic co-workers, all people of color, already have. “They didn’t get extra pay when they were out,” Tapia said in a later interview.

The United Farm Workers joined the Strike for Black Lives, declaring, “Your fight is our fight.” | UFW via Twitter

But all the hurting workers and families need help, and McConnell, who is reportedly working with the Trump White House on yet another GOP economic stimulus package, doesn’t want to give them much of it. Neither does Trump. His advisers already recommend he veto the HEROES bill.

Leaked reports of pieces of McConnell’s plan show Black and brown people would lose again—the very result the July 20 protesters are campaigning against, and urging others to as well.

The checks for the jobless would either disappear, or be cut from $600 weekly down to $200 or $400 and keyed to prior income. Special checks for “gig” workers, so-called “independent contractors,” and the like would completely disappear after July 31.

Schools might get extra money, but state and local governments, which employ disproportionate numbers of workers of color, wouldn’t, and would have to fire them. The same goes for the U.S. Postal Service. “And we don’t need to bail out the billionaires like we usually do,” Contreras said. Trump demands a business payroll tax cut in the GOP version of economic aid.

McConnell’s also nixed House-passed legislation to root out police racism, restore and strengthen voting rights, promote and strengthen the right to organize, and to change U.S. corporate culture, all objectives of the Black Lives Matter movement and of its strikes.

Corporate racism also a target

The strikes also didn’t spare the capitalist class. “Corporations must take immediate action to dismantle racism, white supremacy, and economic exploitation wherever it exists, including in our workplaces,” as well as protecting essential workers—such as Tapia—against the coronavirus, another demand says.

“And every worker must have the opportunity to form a union, no matter where they work,” BLM demands.

“This moment of crisis has built a new opportunity…for declaring we will not return to normal, and to declare the power of the people to join together in union” to right wrongs, Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minn., told the D.C. crowd. She represents Minneapolis, where the cop murdered Floyd.

In Durham, N.C., strikers painted ‘Strike for Black Lives’ in the middle of the intersection outside a McDonald’s they were picketing. | Ted Corcoran via Twitter

“We are living through a pivotal moment in global history that will determine the future of our nation,” said ATU President John Costa, who said all his union’s 200,000 members would strike at noon local time for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the length of time the Floyd murder took.

Other union-backed groups encouraging their members to strike included Jobs With Justice, the A. Philip Randolph Institute, the Labor Network for Sustainability, Fight for $15 and a Union, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, along with the United Food and Commercial Workers.

“Now is not the time to be observers on the sidelines. Now is the time to rise up together to inaugurate a new day of racial and economic justice for all,” Costa said.

Those demands were repeated at the July 20 strike rallies, but the focus was on the HEROES Act and the July 31 deadline for when jobless benefits expire. “Leaders should do it”—pass the HEROES Act—”for the millions of people in this country who need their leaders to do their damn job!” said Contreras.

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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. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).