My grandmother worked for a white family for more than thirty years as their housekeeper. Unlike most others in my grandmother’s position, her employer set up a college fund for my mother, her twin brother, and their older sister when my grandmother indicated that she wanted to leave the job to care for her own family.
My mother cleaned houses too, but not as her primary profession. She cleaned houses when I was a child, to supplement her income so that she could provide for her family.
Labor cannot make gains if it turns a blind eye to the ways in which race, class, and gender shape our economy.
My mother and grandmother did what they had to do to survive. When I became an organizer, I did so because I wanted to build a world in which women like my mother and grandmother would not be forced to make the tough choices that they did. It is why I support the organizing of domestic workers today through my work with the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
Stories such as these should undergird any strategy for how to strengthen and support labor organizing in this country. I unwaveringly support the rights of workers to form a union, to be able to collectively bargain to win the gains that they deserve, and to have workplaces free from abuse, violence, and other forms of exploitation. With all of its deep contradictions, I will defend organized labor to anyone who claims that unions encroach on their “economic freedom,” as one young man attempted to explain to me during a talk I recently gave at a university. Those kinds of arguments are red herrings, distractions from the underlying agenda to have unfettered capitalism, a system I will never support so long as it exploits people and the planet to generate profits.
And yet we cannot accomplish those kinds of gains, we cannot create those kinds of workplaces, if the very organizations designed to protect and empower workers continue to turn a blind eye to the ways in which race, class, and gender shape our economy. I offer this critique in response to Pope, Bruno, and Kellman’s claim that racism used to be an issue in unions, but it is not a major concern now. They are right that it was; they are wrong to say it is not any longer.
Domestic workers such as my grandmother and my mother have been excluded from federal labor protections since the New Deal, when union leaders and southern lawmakers came together and won protections for millions of workers on the backs of blacks and Latinos. This legacy of racism continues to plague union leadership, and frankly, keeps organized labor from being as effective or as representative of the working class as it can or should be. At a time when union density is declining rapidly and attacks on organized labor have increased exponentially, this phenomenon is more than a blind spot. It is, as others have noted, a structural issue that continues to deprive millions of workers of the protections they need and the dignity that they deserve.
I want a world in which women like my mother are not forced to make the choice between work and family.
As an organizer for economic, racial, and gender justice, I have experienced this time and time again. More than a decade ago, an organization I was a part of took on a campaign against Walmart, at the urging of local labor leaders. Walmart, a notoriously anti-union, anti-worker, anti-black, and anti-woman multinational has reaped billions of dollars off the labor of poor and low-income communities of color. Union leaders lamented Walmart’s anti-union practices and abuse of workers—particularly workers of color and women—and urged us to support them in a campaign to keep the corporation from locating a new store in Oakland. After agreeing and waging the campaign, investing extensive resources and capacity, we learned that the union’s leadership had struck a deal with Walmart. In exchange for the union’s support of the project, Walmart would provide it with resources for a worker education center. Nearly twenty years later, no such education center has been built and Walmart has come and gone, leaving the community that depended on its low prices—and the workers who depended on those jobs—high and dry.
Fast forward to another campaign we fought: Lennar, a multibillion-dollar developer was vying to control the largest redevelopment project in the history of San Francisco. The project was situated in the city’s biggest remaining black community, Hunters Point, a former naval base that was, unbeknownst to many, also horribly polluted with radiation and heavy metals from bomb testing. We fought to gain real benefits for community members that would ensure environmental cleanup of the radioactive land, as well as quality housing affordable to community members who earned the neighborhood’s median income or less. Then union leaders struck a deal with the developer. In exchange for their promise not to oppose the project, the union was promised card check neutrality and some money for job training. Today the agreement has become virtually unenforceable and the same forces that sold low- and middle-income black and Latino communities down the river struggle to receive the benefits that they were promised.
Trump has promised white workers that they will have a shot at economic prosperity on the backs of black and brown workers.
Still today, the president of the AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka, a fervent supporter of domestic workers and communities of color, abruptly changed tune when Donald Trump was elected, advocating for “compromise” with the new president and turning a blind eye to the racism and environmental devastation that underlies Trump’s promises of jobs for Americans. When Trump declares that he will deport millions of Americans, make criminals of millions more, and then build destructive pipelines through rural communities and indigenous lands, he is promising white workers that they will have a shot at economic prosperity on the backs of black and brown workers who have no one to fight for them. When organized labor becomes complicit in this agenda, we all lose.
In Trump’s America, this matters more than ever. When the president of the United States goes after organized labor, our response should be to fight back. And yet we also have to be smarter than to sweep a few crumbs off the table for promised short-term gain—many of which will never materialize. We have to make sure that economic reforms benefit all Americans, not just some; we have to bring the whole working class, not just a part of it. Instead some labor leaders have chosen to capitulate to racist elements within their ranks that continue to espouse a narrow vision for the future of the economy and of our communities. When this happens, women like my grandmother and my mother lose. They cannot afford to wait; they need a union that will fight for them now.
Racism is, indeed, a structural issue that plagues organized labor. It keeps it from being the powerful force that it must be to protect the rights of workers and to guide the economy away from deregulated businesses and financial institutions that prey on all of us. If we are unable to address it, we may see the eventual disappearance of organized labor, of protections for workers, and of a dignified way of life.
Unions are being strangled by laws that block workers from organizing, striking, and acting in solidarity. Becoming a rights-based movement is the only way to save labor.
But I do miss the hymns, / the small, hard apples with their dimpled skin. I do miss / things.
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We must reject the legal liberalism that attempts to cordon off constitutional questions from democratic politics.
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