• Taylor Mitchell

Black Lives Matter Leads Labor Movement - Now Others Must Step-Up


Before manufacturing jobs were largely outsourced to the global South in the late 1970s, the US labor movement was the central institution protecting and fighting for the rights of average workers in America. According to The Guardian reporter Mike Collins, private sector unionization now sits at a mere 6.5%. With Trump’s anti-union twitter rampages and legislation, the labor union’s peak - a revolutionary 35% unionization rate in the 1950s - seems distant and unachievable (Collins). Labor unions, however, play a key role in the fight for economic justice. Social advocacy organizations such as Black Lives Matter have reminded us of the need for unionization in recent years through social media, protests, and coalitions with other labor groups. Because of their mobilization, Marc Bayard, director of the Black Worker Initiative at the Institute for Policy Studies, says that multinationals are increasingly concerned about “being seen as anti-union, anti-community, and racially insensitive” (Elk).

Bureaucracies rely on the exploitation of people of colour, and black people are some of the most affected. In fact, "over $120 billion in wages are lost to African Americans thanks to discrimination in the labor market” (Wise). Thus, unions are necessary to hold corrupt and racist businesses accountable on an institutional level; their decline disproportionately affects people of colour, who are vulnerable not only to corrupt businesses practices, but also to daily racial microaggressions and devaluation of their work based on the colour of their skin. As a result, such decline has contributed to the "growth of economic and political inequality, stalled progress on racial integration and the removal of an established pathway for immigrant populations to assimilate economically” (Rosenfeld).

Despite the heightened challenges Black people face in the workplace, Black Lives Matter is drawing international attention to the racist and corrupt practices of multinational companies. Their valiant fight against Nissan drew attention internationally; even 2016 Democrat presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders made a guest appearance at the rallies (Elk).

In August 2017, Black Lives Matter joined forces with the Sierra Club, church groups, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to press charges of racism and illegal anti-union busting against Nissan (Elk). With an 80% black workforce, and the reputation of being “racially insensitive to the community,” Nissan received considerable backlash as a result of the unionization protests, according to Elk. Afterwards, labor leaders said they are “starting to see a shift and that multinationals, particularly European companies, are concerned about being seen as racist when they move their operations to the South” (Elk).

Black resistance against hegemonic bureaucracies is not new; in many cases, such resistance is necessary for survival. One requires a job to live -- but throughout history, the jobs many Black peoples had - and have - also threatened their livelihoods through workplace discrimination. 20th-century Afro-Trinidadian historian, journalist, and socialist C. L. R. James famously said that Black people, "due to their place as the most oppressed section of the labor force and their sense of national oppression, have always shown themselves on the whole exceptionally ready to join the forces of organized labor” (Imani). According to Imani, Black peoples who seek to challenge such oppression have two options: “integration into trade unions organized by white workers or form independent organizations on their own.”

In the past, however, both options generated resistance - and even violence - against Black peoples by those who sought to keep the labor movement exclusively white (“Labor Day: a History of Racial Injustice”). The continued celebration of “Labor Day” is a legacy of such exclusion. Labor Day was created by President Grover Cleveland in 1894 to honour white railroad workers -- those were the only ones who were allowed to participate in the railroad union, and the only ones allowed to protest unfairness in their workplace (“Labor Day: a History of Racial Injustice”). On the other hand, those who formed their own labor alliances, “faced not only loss of employment and being blacklisted, but also faced being victims to violent actions by the police” (Imani).

Black workers, therefore, should not be left alone to fight against unfair bureaucracies — especially because they face more obstacles in their fight compared to their white, male colleagues. The fact that labor union protests - organized and carried out by Black people - are meeting relatively less police violence than they have in the past does not mean that the rest of America can let themselves off the hook, nor give themselves a pat on the back for so-called ‘social progression.’ Rather, we see the disproportionate division of labor in a different sense. Rather than being violently excluded from the fight for justice - and the subsequent benefits attained - People of Colour are bearing the burden of social change.

Not only is the occupational labor of Black people undervalued, but so is their emotional labor. The latter form of labor is defined as the the sacrifice of one’s time and energy on “unpaid and unacknowledged tasks” such as educating others, protesting, and mobilizing (Ang). For privileged people, these tasks are often treated simply like charity work or community involvement; for racialized folks, however, such tasks are integral to survival. Tim Wise, in “White Dependence on People of Color”, traces this problem back to the dependence of colonizers on land and natural resources from the Americas, Africa, and Asia. To form the nation of America and generate wealth, Europeans depended upon slave labor.

The fight for labor unionization, and the fight against exploitative multinationals, is one that affects all those who feel undervalued and unprotected in the workplace.The increasing number and power of obstacles facing unionizers affects all people who are not in the top percent of wage earners — especially as the wage gap in America continues to increase (Florida). As important as it is to recognize and support Black Lives Matter for their endeavours, a simple tweet of recognition and celebration is not enough. It’s essential that others give to the cause, whether that be financially or through time. The fact that some groups have been doing important and radical work doesn’t give the rest an excuse to back out or to ride the wave of unionization success. Rather, the successes - continued injustices - and should invigorate the activist in all of us to mobilize and fight bureaucracy.

Works Cited

Ang, Ally. “Bitch Better Have My Money: Emotional Labor & Women of Color.” Ally Ang, 4 Dec. 2015, allysonang.wordpress.com/2015/12/04/bitch-better-have-my-money-emotional-labor-women-of-color/.

Collins, Mike. “The Decline Of Unions Is A Middle Class Problem.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 23 Mar. 2015, www.forbes.com/sites/mikecollins/2015/03/19/the-decline-of-unions-is-a-middle-class-problem/#7ae74c8d7f2d.

Elk, Mike. “Pro-Union rally in Mississippi unites workers with community: 'We are ready'.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 5 Mar. 2017, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/mar/05/union-rally-mississippi-nissan-bernie-sanders.

Imani, Zellie. “African Americans and the Labor Movement – Black Culture.” Black Culture, 19 Feb. 2014, black-culture.com/african-americans-labor-movement/#sthash.5tec7PlF.dpbs.

“Labor Day: a History of Racial Injustice.” Moral Monday CT, 4 Sept. 2017, moralmondayct.org/2017/09/04/labor-day-a-history-of-racial-injustice/.

Rosenfeld, Jake. “The rise and fall of US labor unions, and why they still matter.” The Conversation, 7 Mar. 2018, theconversation.com/the-rise-and-fall-of-us-labor-unions-and-why-they-still-matter-38263.

Wise, Tim. “White Dependence on People of Color.” Race, Racism and the Law, racism.org/index.php/articles/race/66-defining-racial-groups/white-european-american/377-white10a2.

Florida, Richard. “America's Wage Gap Just Keeps Getting Worse.” CityLab, 19 Aug. 2014, www.citylab.com/life/2014/08/americas-wage-gap-just-keeps-getting-worse/378704/.


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