Across the US, tens of thousands of workers joined a walkout against systemic racism and for fundamental social and economic change
On July 20, tens of thousands of workers walked off the job in towns and cities across the US in support of Black Lives Matter. The one-day strike, which was called a coalition of labour unions and racial and social justice groups,represents the biggest industrial action by American workers thus far during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Those joining the strike included workers in fast-food, app-based delivery, airports and nursing homes – essential services in which BAME workers are heavily represented. A key organiser was the Service Employee International Union (SEIU), long active among McDonald’s workers.
“Companies like McDonald’s,” said Angely Rodriguez Lambert, an Oakland (California) McDonald’s worker, “cannot on the one hand tweet that ‘Black Lives Matter’ and on the other pay us poverty wages and fail to provide sick days and adequate PPE. We’re going on strike because McDonald’s and other fast-food companies have failed to protect us in a pandemic that has ravaged Black and brown communities across the country.”
Other labour unions backing the strike include the International Brotherhood of teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the United Farm Workers.
Striking workers and the organisations supporting the mobilisation have issued specific demands, including:
- Justice for Black communities, with an unequivocal declaration that Black Lives Matter, as a necessary first step to winning justice for all workers
- A ‘reimagining’ of America’s economy and democracy by government officials
- Immediate action by corporations and businesses to dismantle racism, white supremacy and economic exploitation by raising wages; allowing workers to form unions; providing sick leave and expanded healthcare coverage to uninsured workers or those made redundant as a result of Covid-19; and providing child care support
- The right of all workers to form a union, no matter where they work
- A $15 minimum wage
Protests on July 20 took various forms. In New York, strikers and demonstrators painted a giant ‘Black Lives Matter’ slogan on the road in front of Trump Tower. In Missouri, striking workers rallied at the Ferguson branch of McDonald’s before marching to the nearby memorial for Michael Brown, killed by police in 2014.
In Minneapolis, the city where George Floyd was asphyxiated by police May 25 2020, striking nursing home workers participated in a caravan that made its way to the airport, where it was joined by airport workers (among them including wheelchair attendants and cabin cleaners) demanding a safe and just plan to bring people back into public and travel spaces.
On the West coast, striking fast-food and nursing home workers in Los Angeles joined forces with Uber drivers and delivery, janitorial and security postal workers in a car caravan that progressed from McDonald’s to the Los Angeles United School District and the University of Southern California, where strikers demanded that both institutions drop the deployment of police on campus.
In Memphis, AT&T call centre and logistics workers called out the rank hypocrisy in corporate America’s response to Black Lives Matter. Since the resurgence of the movement, AT&T (along with McDonald’s and other big corporate players) has contributed a flow of fine-sounding sentiment, detached from any concrete action. “Take the steps you need to protect the lives of your black employees,” said Randall La Plante, an executive member of the Communications Workers of America Local 3806. “This is a company that has all the resources in the world to slow the spread of the pandemic and they are failing.”
Workers who were unable to leave their jobs staged other forms of protest: taking a knee, for example, or standing in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds: the span of time Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin spent with his knee pressed down on George Floyd’s neck.
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, there have been strikes or co-ordinated sick-outs at a number of big corporate employers, from Amazon and Instacart to Whole Foods and Walmart. Workers at meat plants, fast food restaurants, grocery stores and other essential workplaces have also withdrawn their labour.
The Strike for Black Lives of July 20 signals a widening of this movement, together with an explicit emphasis on the inherent links between economic exploitation and systemic racism. As the pandemic powers ahead in Trump-ruled America, workers confronting what’s been called the “triple threat” – of white supremacy, public health emergency and broken economy – can be expected to respond with growing militancy and organisational muscle.
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Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.
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