Black lives, the pandemic and unions

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The gruesome and public extra-judicial murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop sparked a gigantic wave of protests, which surprised everyone. This is a unique moment in American history when a majority of whites are recognizing how deeply racist our society is. How many people knew about all of those Army bases in the South named after Confederate generals? Monuments that honor the legacy of slavery, genocide and imperial conquest have been toppled, destroyed or defaced by paint and graffiti. 

But wouldn’t it be better to challenge the power of today’s living and breathing oppressors rather than just pull down stone and bronze statues of long-dead oppressors?

Black Lives Matter may do that in the future. It is emphasizing the issues of police brutality and the need for criminal justice reform now but it has a broad and inclusive agenda. It has demands in its platform for living wages, universal health care, affordable housing, restoration of the Glass-Steagall Act to break up the big banks, the right for workers to organize in public and private sectors, an end to privatization of education, and “a progressive restructuring of tax codes at the local, state and federal levels to ensure a radical and sustainable redistribution of wealth.”

The racial justice protests were preceded by many hundreds of pandemic-inspired labor and renter rebellions in the spring. This wasn’t an accident. Black people are dying of COVID-19 at three times the rate of white people.

Citing federal government data, the Economic Policy Institute has said only about 30% of workers have the ability to work from home. Less than one in five black workers and roughly one in six Latino workers are able to work from home. 

Many thousands needlessly died due to Trump’s colossal ineptitude and his refusal to use the Defense Production Act to compel American companies to manufacture personal protective equipment (PPE). Instead, he used the act to force meat industry workers to return to work. The Department of Labor ruled that workers who refused to return to their jobs for fear of infection could no longer receive expanded unemployment benefits.

Unionized workers with United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) were able to pressure big supermarket chains to secure hazard pay, extra sanitation provisions and paid leave for hundreds of thousands of members. In May, Kroger (which is King Soopers locally) eliminated the  $2 hazard “Hero Pay.”

On May 1, workers from Amazon, Instacart, Whole Foods, Walmart, Target, FedEx, Uber and fast food chains went on strike, citing their employers’ record profits at the expense of workers’ health and safety during the pandemic. Those companies are aggressively anti-union so their employees have no contract, which means they essentially have no rights. They called in sick or walked off their jobs during their lunch breaks.

“These workers have been exploited so shamelessly for so long by these companies while performing incredibly important but largely invisible labor,” labor historian Stephen Brier, a labor historian told The Intercept. “All of a sudden, they’re deemed essential workers in a pandemic, giving them tremendous leverage and power if they organize collectively.”

Recently, the AFL-CIO lost a lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia, which would have compelled the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue temporary emergency rules for worker protection during the pandemic. The union federation argued “infections and death among workers will rise” if the agency doesn’t draw up these standards. OSHA under Trump issues vague “guidelines.” Businesses can decide whether they want to follow them.

The Democratic-controlled House passed a COVID-19 stimulus passage, which included requirements that OSHA adopt an emergency standard for enforcing safety measures related to the pandemic. However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuses to put the bill up for a vote because he wants special legal protections for companies that might be sued for failing to provide safe workplaces. In other words, businesses shouldn’t be punished if their employees or customers get sick or die from the virus.

Meanwhile, corporate America has embraced racial justice and equality in response to the protests. They have given contributions to civil rights organizations. “The inequitable and brutal treatment of Black people in our country must stop,” Amazon tweeted. Walmart CEO Doug McMillon proclaimed that George Floyd’s death was “tragic, painful and unacceptable.” McDonald’s CEO Joe Erlinger said “We do not tolerate inequity, injustice or racism,” claiming that “when any member of our McFamily hurts, we all hurt.”

Toni Gilpin, writing in Labor Notes, says that a large percentage of the workers at Amazon, Walmart and McDonald’s are black and that they tend to be in low-wage jobs. They aren’t paid living wages, have few if any benefits and have to put up with lousy working conditions. These corporate executives claim they want a “dialogue” and want to “listen” but they fervently oppose unions, which make workplaces more democratic and equal. 

A study by the Center for American Progress shows that while a union collective bargaining contract increases the wealth of all members, it boosts the wealth of non-white members the most because white families start out with significantly more wealth. So unions can make America more equal and less racist. That may be why blacks are twice as likely to approve of unions as whites.  

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.

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