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In 2012, members of the Chicago Teachers Union rocked the city with their historic strike. (Credit: flickr/cc/Sarah-Ji)

In 2012, members of the Chicago Teachers Union rocked the city with their historic strike. (Credit: flickr/cc/Sarah-Ji)

This Labor Day, ‘Black Lives Matter’ Means Justice for Black Workers

The economy was failing Black workers before the pandemic—and now, even as many are deemed essential, they’re being treated as disposable.

Tanya Wallace-Gobern

 by The Progressive

Every Labor Day, we celebrate the incredible contributions of the labor movement and working people to our nation’s progress. This year, with 13.6 million workers currently unemployed and around one million new people applying for unemployment benefits each week, many working families have little to celebrate.

"While many Black workers have been deemed essential, our country continues to treat them like they’re disposable—even as a national racial justice movement has declared that Black lives matter."

Millions of “essential” workers also get little or no paid sick leave or health coverage and consequently must choose between their health and their livelihoods. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the ways 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 more 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 low-wage essential service jobs, and are therefore more likely to face greater exposure to the virus than other groups. 

Though they make up about one in nine workers overall, Black workers comprise about one in six of all front-line industry workers, according to a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute. They are disproportionately represented in employment at grocery stores, public transit, warehouses, and child care. 

This shows that, while many Black workers have been deemed essential, our country continues to treat them like they’re disposable—even as a national racial justice movement has declared that Black lives matter.


Yet, as some elected officials have echoed that call, it remains Black workers who have been disproportionately 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 has exacerbated the impact of the pandemic itself and its economic consequences—especially for Black, brown, and working people. And with Congressional talks on a second stimulus package at a standstill, workers are increasingly forced to choose between paying rent or buying groceries or needed medicines—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, especially Black workers. 

That’s why, today, the National Black Worker Center Project is launching its fourth annual “Black Labor Day” initiative, a week of webinars kicked off with actions on September 5 in Raleigh and Durham, North Carolina, 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. 

"Truly supporting Black workers means not just centering them during the pandemic, but fighting for economic security for Black workers and their families beyond it."

This year’s theme, “#WeReady,” 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 economic and racial justice and lift up Black workers and their families in particular. Truly supporting Black workers means not just centering them during the pandemic, but fighting for economic security for Black workers and their families beyond it. 

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. Because Black workers’ experience in the workplace should reflect just how essential they are to our economy and our communities. 

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 first for all working people. Because there can be no economic justice without racial justice.


© 2021 The Progressive

Tanya Wallace-Gobern

Tanya Wallace-Gobern is the executive director of the National Black Worker Center Project and a board member for Jobs to Move America.

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