Every Labor Day, we celebrate the incredible contributions of the labor movement and working people to our nation’s progress. This year, with 10.2 million workers unemployed and over 38 million applying for unemployment benefits, many working families have little to celebrate.
Millions of “essential” workers also get little or no paid sick leave or health care coverage and, consequently, are forced to choose between their health and their livelihoods. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare how our current economy fails to meet the everyday needs of working people.
Black workers have been hardest hit by both the pandemic and its economic fallout. They are disproportionately likely to lose their jobs as a result of the pandemic. And Black workers who are still working are more likely to be employed in essential service — and low-wage — jobs, and therefore face greater exposure to the virus than other groups. Black workers make up about one in nine workers overall but comprise about one in six of all front-line industry workers, according to a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). They are disproportionately represented in employment at grocery stores, in public transit, at warehouses and in trucking, and in child care.
While many Black workers have been deemed essential, we continue to treat them like they’re disposable — even amid a national racial justice movement that has declared that Black lives matter.
Yet, as some elected officials have echoed that call, it is Black workers who have been most impacted by our government’s inadequate intervention in this economic crisis. Congress has poured billions of public dollars into the coffers of corporations, leaving workers with a one-time stimulus payment and now significantly reduced unemployment benefits that fall even shorter of what many families need to stay afloat. Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s ineptitude and indifference have exacerbated the impact of the pandemic itself and its economic consequences — especially for Black, brown, and working people. And with Congressional talks on another stimulus package at a standstill, workers are increasingly forced to choose between paying rent or buying groceries or medicine — a bind that, disturbingly, was a reality for millions of working people even before the pandemic.
And that’s the point: our economy is failing working people right now — especially Black workers — because it was failing them before. That’s why today, the National Black Worker Center Project is launching our fourth annual “Black Labor Day” initiative, a week of webinars kicked off with actions today in Raleigh and Durham and putting forth a call to action for a movement that fights for a living wage, quality benefits, and equal pay and employment opportunities for Black workers. This year’s theme, “We Ready”, declares our readiness for the fight ahead and affirms Black workers’ legacy of resilience and leadership in movements past. As the Black Lives Matter movement calls us all to the table, labor’s fight for working people must recognize the inextricable link between racial and economic justice and lift up Black workers and their families in particular. Truly supporting Black workers means not just plugging an economic gap during the pandemic, but fighting for economic security for Black workers over the long run. We must continue to fight for a raised minimum wage, for paid sick and family leave, and for meaningful health care coverage — and to end race-based pay and employment discrimination in the workplace.
Our post-pandemic economic recovery cannot return us to business as usual. We must fight for an economy that works first for working people — not corporations.
In July, I was thrilled to see so many unions and labor allies turn out in support of the Strike for Black Lives, a call from Black Lives Matter activists for labor to stand with Black people in the fight against police violence and in our unique struggle for economic justice. This Labor Day, the National Black Workers Center Project again amplifies that call. Our post-pandemic economic recovery cannot return us to business as usual. We must fight for an economy that works for all working people. Because there can be no economic justice without racial justice.
This Labor Day, “Black Lives Matter” means justice for Black workers.