While many of us are mourning the outcome of the unionization vote among Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, we must not confuse the failure of this specific campaign with the wants and aspirations of workers on the ground. The Amazon drive is only one part of a larger tide of multiracial labor activism incubated in workplaces during the Covid-19 pandemic – activism that will undoubtedly grow as the lockdowns recede. Now is a time for reflection on recent union campaigns that have captured the imagination of workers of color and the communities in which they live. At the dawn of the Biden presidency, the most vital sector of the labor movement is in dialogue with the Movement for Black Lives’ call for reinvestment in communities of color. From the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) fighting for the rights of homeless students during the pandemic, to public sector unions at Rutgers University demanding layoff protections for the most vulnerable, a new generation of labor activists see workplace struggle as an essential staging ground for racial and gender justice. The turn toward intersectional unionism matters, because it is the new face of labor militancy in the United States.
In contrast to the images of a predominantly white male workforce in hard hats and heavy industry that has dominated popular imagination of unions over the past three-quarters of a century, this new labor movement skews black, brown and female. It is steeped in the social justice unionism that has been growing since the early 1970s. Black feminist concepts such as intersectionality and prison abolition have influenced a younger generation of labor organizers; they have repudiated the cold war’s narrow bread-and-butter unionism, which benefited the most elite workers, who were overwhelmingly white and male. “Why should we worry about organizing groups of people who do not appear to want to be organized?” argued George Meany, then president of the AFL-CIO, in 1972. “The organized fellow is the fellow that counts.”
Today, women of color workers in caregiving professions are at the forefront of labor struggle. Despite the focus on the white working class in popular discourse, black workers have the highest rates of unionization of all racial groups in the United States. In 2020, unions represented 13.9% of African American workers compared to 12% of white workers, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Higher rates of black union participation can be traced largely to African American employment in the public sector, which has been key to black economic advancement since the New Deal. Compared to the private sector, government employment has five times the rate of unionization and has been an important arena of intersectional labor organizing.
Over the past decade, public sector unions in K-12 schools and higher education have moved past single-issue fights over wages and benefits to more inclusive demands based on the needs of students and their families. Visionary black female leaders like Karen Lewis and Stacy Davis Gates of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) reconceptualized the terrain of labor struggle as a fight against privatization and structural racism. In 2013, Mayor Rahm Emanuel used mayoral control to order the closing of 50 schools serving mainly black children. This devastating swipe at the public school system meant not only that children of color lost their schools, but that the entire workforce from bottom to top lost their jobs – cafeteria workers, clerks, teachers and their assistants, janitors and even the principal were all laid off.
“It had a devastating impact on black working-class people, but on black middle-class people as well,” Gates, executive vice-president of the CTU, told me. “We have jobs because black people live in the city and send their children to public schools. If black people do not trust the public schools, there are no jobs.”
In response, Karen Lewis, the late president of the CTU, helped pioneer an innovative form of organizing known as Bargaining for the Common Good (BCG) that understands unions as a tool for transforming the lives of low-income black and brown families in the city. “The struggle is about justice and equity,” Gates has said. “Teachers are tasked with creating the common good by offering a great education and so our contract should also represent the common good to give us the tools to make sure that happens.”
The CTU’s successes – in bargaining to stop school closures, win nurses and counselors in every school, and get housing support for homeless students unable to shelter in place – have influenced unions throughout the US. Intersectional unionism is changing not only organizing among workers of color, but also how unions build supermajorities among white workers in conservative strongholds such as West Virginia and Oklahoma as well as in deep blue states like California and New Jersey.
A direct line extends from the philosophy and tactics pioneered by Lewis, Gates and the CTU to labor struggles in higher education. At Rutgers University, starting in March 2020, the central administration cut more than 5% of its workforce, targeting low-wage workers like dining hall staff, who are disproportionately black, brown and female. Given Rutgers’ importance to the communities of color where its campuses reside (Camden, Newark and New Brunswick), mass layoffs proved devastating to employees who relied on it not only for salaries, but also for health insurance and tuition remission for their children. In response, 19 campus unions came together in the Coalition of Rutgers Unions, a 20,000-worker-strong alliance built around the idea of “protecting the most vulnerable”. Drawing on the CTU’s Bargaining for the Common Good framework, two-thirds of the school’s workforce joined forces to fight for a compassionate response to the pandemic. Service to the broader community and coalitions with the lowest paid and most precarious segments of the labor force are hallmarks of their new organizing vision, which asks those with higher pay and greater job security to act in solidarity with those who have less.
As many organizers know, building solidarity between such a diverse group of workers is no easy task. But Rutgers activists embraced tools of the black freedom struggle, by participating in the Scholars Strike for Racial Justice and starting a Freedom School inspired by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. In a little over a year, this newfound unity produced a historic agreement in which the Rutgers administration is halting layoffs through 1 January 2022, removing restrictions to rehiring adjunct professors, and providing funding extension to graduate students – the first of its kind at a public university. The recent win at Rutgers is being carefully watched by the rest of the country, as higher education is suffering an unprecedented crisis with over 650,000 higher education workers losing their jobs.
The consequences of the Covid-19 crisis combined with the #Black Lives Matter protests – the largest in our history – are fertile soil for labor organizing. The Chicago Teachers Union and the Rutgers Coalition of Unions point towards a burgeoning “21st industrial unionism”, in which public schools, college campuses and the care sector are understood as the lifeblood of local communities and regional economies, just as the heavy industries of steel, automobile and manufacture once were. As Martin Luther King understood, “unions are the first anti-poverty program”, and they are an essential tool in the fight against structural racism, pay inequity and the devastating wealth gap in the US that the Covid-19 crisis has made worse.