Celebrating Juneteenth, Labor Finds Its Voice for Racial Justice

Hamilton Nolan June 20, 2020

Long shore workers with ILWU rally for Black lives at the Port of Seattle’s Terminal 46 in a West Coast port shutdown on June 19, the day commemorating the end of slavery. (Photo by Jason Redmond / AFP)

In work stop­pages, ral­lies, motor­cades and a spec­tac­u­lar West Coast port shut­down, labor tied itself to the move­ment in the streets.

BROOK­LYN, N.Y. — The enor­mous white stone arch in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza is a memo­r­i­al to the Union’s vic­to­ry in the Civ­il War. Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments are top­pling across the coun­try, but the arch is only get­ting more pop­u­lar. At 11:30 on a hot June­teenth morn­ing, Kyle Bragg stands in its shade, wear­ing a red T‑shirt, a New York Knicks-brand­ed face mask, and a pur­ple hat with the logo of 32BJ SEIU, the 175,000-member union that he leads.

My son is 25, and my daugh­ter is 29. I wor­ry every sin­gle time they’re out of the house,” says Bragg, a Black man who has spent decades as a labor leader. The most impor­tant con­ver­sa­tion I had with them when they were young was not about sex or drugs. It was about how to deal with the police.” 

The upris­ings that have swept Amer­i­ca this month are spon­ta­neous, mas­sive and often lead­er­less, and the struc­tured world of unions ini­tial­ly seemed puz­zled as to how to react. The burn­ing of the AFL-CIO’s head­quar­ters in the ear­ly days of the protests was sym­bol­ic of the dis­con­nect between orga­nized labor and the streets. But as the days went by, labor ral­lied to the cause. In the week lead­ing up to June­teeth, the June 19 hol­i­day com­mem­o­rat­ing the end of slav­ery, it seemed unions found their voice.

The ILWU, the longshoremen’s union, spec­tac­u­lar­ly shut down West Coast ports on June­teenth. Unit­ed Auto Work­ers nation­wide stopped work for eight min­utes and 46 sec­onds in hon­or of George Floyd. The AFL-CIO’s head­quar­ters, board­ed up but new­ly fes­tooned with Black Lives Mat­ter” ban­ners, became a stag­ing ground for march­es and ral­lies. The labor fed­er­a­tion orga­nized a set of coor­di­nat­ed Work­ers First Car­a­van” events across the coun­try on Wednes­day, June 17, with union mem­bers dri­ving around in cars cov­ered in signs demand­ing racial and eco­nom­ic justice.

It was not quite the social­ist dream of meld­ing labor’s class war with the move­ment for racial jus­tice into one big, huge, per­fect rev­o­lu­tion, but it was some­thing. It was an effort by orga­nized labor to pub­licly tie its fate to that of the peo­ple march­ing in the streets, many of whom have no con­nec­tion to unions. It was a start. 

And in New York City, 32BJ — a union whose pur­ple shirts and hats and ban­ners are famil­iar to any­one who has been to any protest for eco­nom­ic jus­tice in the city in the past decade — held protests for the entire week. On Tues­day, union mem­bers took a col­lec­tive knee near Rock­e­feller Cen­ter, in hon­or of the 30th anniver­sary of SEIU’s Jus­tice for Jan­i­tors” strike in which Los Ange­les police infa­mous­ly beat and injured work­ers. And on Fri­day, June­teenth itself, 32BJ gath­ered in Brook­lyn for a motor­cade that would wind through the city, all the way up to the Bronx, a pur­ple riv­er flow­ing through a land­scape of anti-racism ral­lies citywide. 

The pre-motor­cade ral­ly began just before noon at the Grand Army Plaza arch. Three chil­dren were assigned to hold up a green ban­ner read­ing JUNE­TEENTH DRI­VE TO JUS­TICE,” which kept droop­ing in the mid­dle as the kids’ atten­tion strayed. Assort­ed local offi­cials had shown up to pay homage to the day, and to the union, and to the assem­bled media. The twist-the-knife ethos of New York City pol­i­tics has been height­ened by the weeks of upris­ings, and the politi­cians who con­sid­er them­selves the philo­soph­i­cal brethren of the pro­test­ers are enjoy­ing their sud­den moment of advan­tage against the entrenched pow­ers. Jumaane Williams, the pub­lic advo­cate, gave an oblig­a­tory nod to the city’s new ban on police choke­holds, but made a point of not cred­it­ing city leaders.

The only rea­son that’s hap­pen­ing is because the streets have been hot,” he said. I know the gov­er­nor said you won and you don’t have to protest any more. Noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth!”

When 32BJ pres­i­dent Kyle Bragg’s turn came at the podi­um, he pulled his Knicks mask down to his chin. It’s our mis­sion to pro­vide eco­nom­ic jus­tice — but there is no eco­nom­ic jus­tice with­out social jus­tice,” he said. There’s a triple threat. There’s an eco­nom­ic cri­sis. There’s a pan­dem­ic. And now there’s a racial crisis.” 

As he was speak­ing, the micro­phone abrupt­ly cut off; despite fran­tic effort, it could not be revived. All fell silent. But after a moment, some­one hand­ed Bragg a mega­phone. He held it up to his mouth, and car­ried on.

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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