Why Labor and the Movement for Racial Justice Should Work Together

Maurice Weeks and Marilyn Sneiderman

It is exciting to imagine potential bargaining demands major unions could undertake alongside racial justice organizations. (Fix L.A./ Facebook)

The Move­ment for Black Lives (M4BL) has made tremen­dous strides in expos­ing and chal­leng­ing racial injus­tice, and has won real pol­i­cy vic­to­ries. The poli­cies, while often imper­fect, are a tes­ta­ment to the strength of the orga­niz­ing and activism of the moment. Not coin­ci­den­tal­ly, this upris­ing comes at a time when income and wealth inequal­i­ty are at peak lev­els and the econ­o­my for most black peo­ple looks marked­ly dif­fer­ent than the econ­o­my for their white counterparts.

Just as we are in a crit­i­cal moment in the move­ment for racial jus­tice, we are in a crit­i­cal moment for the right to union­ize. Unions, which have been a major force for eco­nom­ic jus­tice for peo­ple of col­or in the past 50 years, have been dec­i­mat­ed to his­tor­i­cal­ly low levels.

Labor should work along­side the Move­ment for Black Lives, a coali­tion with more than 50 orga­ni­za­tions, to ush­er in a rad­i­cal­ly new eco­nom­ic and social order. The path won’t be easy. But recent his­to­ry has shown that one of the ways to get at this new real­i­ty is through union bar­gain­ing. Con­sid­er the exam­ple of Fix L.A.

Fix L.A. is a com­mu­ni­ty-labor part­ner­ship that fought to fund city ser­vices and jobs alike, using city work­ers’ bar­gain­ing as a flash­point to bring com­mon good demands to the table. The coali­tion start­ed after gov­ern­ment lead­ers in Los Ange­les dras­ti­cal­ly cut back on pub­lic ser­vices and infra­struc­ture main­te­nance dur­ing the Great Reces­sion. The city slashed near­ly 5,000 jobs, a large por­tion of which had been held by black and Lati­no work­ers. Not only did these cuts cre­ate infra­struc­ture prob­lems — like over­grown and dan­ger­ous trees and flood­ing — but they also cost thou­sands of black and Lati­no fam­i­lies their livelihoods.

Fix L.A. asked why the city was spend­ing more on bank fees than on street ser­vices, and demand­ed that it rene­go­ti­ate those fees and invest the sav­ings in under­served communities.

What was the result of this ground­break­ing campaign?

The cre­ation of 5,000 jobs, with a com­mit­ment to increase access to those jobs for black and Lati­no work­ers, the defeat of pro­posed con­ces­sions for city work­ers and a com­mit­ment from the city to review why it was pri­or­i­tiz­ing pay­ment of bank fees over fund­ing for crit­i­cal ser­vices in the first place!

Bar­gain­ing for the com­mon good

Fix L.A. may seem nov­el, but the con­text is no dif­fer­ent from many places. We have seen mas­sive dis­in­vest­ment from pub­lic ser­vices in a way that dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affects black peo­ple. This struc­tural­ly-racist dis­in­vest­ment is often dri­ven by the cor­po­rate inter­ests that bankroll elect­ed offi­cials’ cam­paigns and by Wall Street actors that use their influ­ence over pub­lic finance to push an aus­ter­i­ty agen­da. Every­where you look, pub­lic offi­cials are mak­ing a choice between pay­ing fees and pro­vid­ing crit­i­cal services.

Chica­go Pub­lic Schools paid $502 mil­lion to banks in tox­ic swap fees at the same time that it was slash­ing spe­cial edu­ca­tion pro­grams and lay­ing off teach­ers to close a bud­get deficit. Detroit raised its water rates and paid $537 mil­lion in Wall Street penal­ties, set­ting the stage for mass water shut­offs when tens of thou­sands of poor res­i­dents of the over­whelm­ing­ly black city could not afford the high­er water bills.

Wall Street and oth­er cor­po­ra­tions don’t hes­i­tate to prof­it off of and per­pet­u­ate dis­in­vest­ment in com­mu­ni­ties of col­or, and too often we for­get to look up the food chain to see that at the oth­er end of com­mu­ni­ty crises there are rich bankers and bil­lion­aires lin­ing their pock­ets. Cam­paigns, like Fix L.A., that involve direct actions tar­get­ing banks, hedge funds, cor­po­ra­tions and bil­lion­aires are effective.

This sort of orga­niz­ing can be hard. In order to iso­late work­ers from their broad­er com­mu­ni­ties, the oth­er side has done a ter­rif­ic job of nar­row­ly defin­ing the scope of bar­gain­ing as wages and ben­e­fits. In many states, labor laws pro­hib­it pub­lic sec­tor work­ers from bar­gain­ing over issues that con­cern the wel­fare of the broad­er com­mu­ni­ty or the qual­i­ty of the ser­vices they provide.

The the­o­ry of bar­gain­ing for the com­mon good” seeks to chal­lenge this sta­tus quo. As artic­u­lat­ed by Joseph McCartin of George­town University’s Kalmanovitz Ini­tia­tive for Labor and the Work­ing Poor, bar­gain­ing for the com­mon good has three main tenets: 1) tran­scend­ing the bar­gain­ing frame­works writ­ten in law and reject­ing them as tools for the cor­po­rate elite to remain in pow­er; 2) craft­ing demands between local com­mu­ni­ty groups and unions at the same time and in close coor­di­na­tion with each oth­er from the very begin­ning; and 3) embrac­ing col­lec­tive direct action as key to the suc­cess of orga­niz­ing campaigns.

These may seem like sim­ple ideas, but they stand in com­plete oppo­si­tion to the way the pow­er elite expects union bar­gain­ing to be done. There­in lies their power.

There­in also lies the oppor­tu­ni­ty for unions to part­ner with the Move­ment for Black Lives. For all of their com­pli­cat­ed racial his­to­ries, unions are some of the largest orga­ni­za­tions of black peo­ple in the coun­try. About 2.2 mil­lion black Amer­i­cans are union mem­bers — some 14 per­cent of the employed black workforce.

That’s a huge num­ber of black peo­ple who are already mem­bers of orga­ni­za­tions with the capac­i­ty to orga­nize and mobi­lize. And these black work­ers, like all black peo­ple in Amer­i­ca, face real chal­lenges of struc­tur­al eco­nom­ic racism in almost all aspects of their lives. Their com­mu­ni­ties have been under­fund­ed; their schools are being dis­man­tled; they face mas­sive pover­ty and are under eco­nom­ic assault; and they reg­u­lar­ly encounter police violence.

Stronger togeth­er

Widen­ing the scope of bar­gain­ing in Los Ange­les led to real wins for the city’s black and Lati­no com­mu­ni­ties. The rest of the labor move­ment should take note. Imag­ine the pow­er that could be added to the Move­ment for Black Lives if unions, rec­og­niz­ing the trau­ma that sys­tem­at­ic racism wreaks on their mem­ber­ship, brought solu­tions that have been ele­vat­ed by the Move­ment for Black Lives to the bar­gain­ing table in nego­ti­a­tions with employ­ers rang­ing from the City of Bal­ti­more to pri­vate equi­ty giant Blackstone.

But unions can­not do this uni­lat­er­al­ly and expect uncon­di­tion­al sup­port from the black community.

Unions must make the effort on the front end to build a real rela­tion­ship with Move­ment for Black Lives groups and mem­bers, and part­ner with them in devel­op­ing com­mon good bar­gain­ing demands that start to go on the offense against Wall Street and the struc­tural­ly-racist eco­nom­ic pow­er struc­ture. There are groups of peo­ple orga­niz­ing for racial jus­tice under the ban­ner of the Move­ment for Black Lives near every union local in the coun­try. The onus is on labor lead­ers and rank-and-file union mem­bers to reach out to those groups and start to build a strong rela­tion­ship where one does not exist. This process will not be easy, espe­cial­ly because of the his­to­ry of racism that plagues unions, espe­cial­ly police unions. But the truth remains that there is a real oppor­tu­ni­ty to lever­age the pow­er of both move­ments to win real gains for black peo­ple and oth­er peo­ple of col­or through a strong partnership.

It is excit­ing to imag­ine poten­tial bar­gain­ing demands major unions could under­take along­side racial jus­tice orga­ni­za­tions. For exam­ple, they could demand that their employ­ers make a com­mit­ment to job train­ing pro­grams to strength­en the pipeline for black work­ers; city and state work­ers could demand pro­gres­sive tax­a­tion mea­sures that raise funds from cor­po­rate actors to fund schools and ser­vices in black com­mu­ni­ties; teach­ers could demand school dis­tricts enact restora­tive jus­tice poli­cies to stem the school-to-prison pipeline; hos­pi­tal work­ers could bar­gain for tar­get­ed health care access pro­grams in com­mu­ni­ties of col­or; retail work­ers could demand that their employ­ers ban the box” and let the for­mer­ly incar­cer­at­ed work. The list is almost infinite.

Bar­gain­ing for racial jus­tice is a rad­i­cal idea and will not be eas­i­ly won. It will require con­cert­ed direct action tar­get­ing the real deci­sion mak­ers in both the pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tors that have a vest­ed inter­est in keep­ing racial inequities in place. The Move­ment for Black Lives has proven that it can exe­cute effec­tive and cre­ative direct actions backed by sol­id demands. They are also inno­vat­ing cre­ative tac­tics that move beyond tra­di­tion­al march­es and pick­et lines to new types of dis­rup­tive actions that make pow­er hold­ers direct­ly con­front those they are harm­ing. By com­bin­ing the vision and mil­i­tant tac­tics of the Move­ment for Black Lives with the mem­ber­ship and resources of the labor move­ment, we can ush­er in a more just and equi­table society.

Mau­rice Weeks is the cam­paign coor­di­na­tor for Wall Street account­abil­i­ty at the Cen­ter for Pop­u­lar Democ­ra­cy. Mar­i­lyn Snei­der­man is the direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Inno­va­tion in Work­er Orga­ni­za­tion at Rut­gers University.
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