Reprinted from The Future We Need: Organizing for a Better Democracy in the Twenty-First Century, by Erica Smiley and Sarita Gupta. Copyright (c) 2022 by Cornell University. Used by permission of the publisher, Cornell University Press.

Global capitalism created the situation we currently find ourselves in, with right-wing populism, both in the United States and around the world, exploiting the fears and insecurities of working people to maintain their hold on power and the riches it generates. Global capitalism has systemically deregulated one business sector after another, privatized public services for private profit, and turned the future itself into a commodity to be wagered on through financial speculation. But while these varied effects are ultimately driven by a single cause, the individual experiences of those who suffer the impacts often feel disconnected. It is important to look beneath the surface to understand what is happening. And one of the most important under-the-radar dynamics of the current era is the way white supremacy is being used to crush the spirits of white workers.


Divide and Conquer: White Supremacy as a Tool of Capitalist Dominance for White People

White workers are not immune to the destruction caused by global capitalism. Millions have experienced job loss, the lack of needed services such as health care, poor housing conditions, and limited educational opportunities. While communities of color are suffering from chronic conditions like diabetes and hypertension, white communities are suffering in growing numbers from “deaths of despair” — death attributable to drugs, alcohol, and suicide — and to the ravages of killers like heart disease and cancer. As a result, the mortality rates of whites with no more than a high school degree, which were around 30 percent lower than the mortality rates of Blacks in 1999, grew to be 30 percent higher than Blacks by 2015.

There is no way around it: global capitalism has kicked the butts of white workers over the last several decades. And they have not gotten much help from either dominant political party.

The fate of Youngstown, Ohio, beginning in the late 1970s has been used by community organizer Kirk Noden to illustrate this dynamic and the way it has served the interests of those in power.

Noden begins by explaining the implications on working people after steel companies and other manufacturing industries left Youngstown:

In a place like Youngstown, that means not only an inability to get a well-paying job at the steel mill; it also means owning a house that has failed to appreciate in value for 20 to 30 years, in a city that continues to lose double-digit percentages of its population every 10 years. It is not just a stripping out of economic opportunity but a stripping away of identity for these communities. It is the sense of abandonment and perpetual decline that people feel mired in. Resources, jobs, decent housing, quality neighborhoods and schools are all in decline. It creates a “scarcity mentality” for White working-class people and others who live in the heartland.

White workers initially fought back. Many joined with others in the community, including faith groups, private investors, and neighboring Black families, to attempt to get federal support from President Jimmy Carter’s administration to reopen the mills as community-owned, cooperatively run enterprises. But President Carter caved to the interests of US Steel and other corporations in hopes of getting reelected. Says Noden, “The impact of this betrayal on White working-class people was a universal distrust and dislike for institutions—none of which were able to defend their livelihoods or their futures. The unions didn’t stay around to organize a new strategy for revitalizing Youngstown. They moved to another line of defense elsewhere, as they grew increasingly insular and focused on protecting their shrinking base.”

Youngstown is emblematic of countless other communities where similar chains of events have played out. The tendency of corporate class leaders and their supporters in politics and the media to downplay the impact of the loss of manufacturing — or, worse, to accept it as a necessary by-product of globalization — continues to feed this feeling of betrayal among white communities. But it is the use of white supremacy by right-wing leaders that ultimately prevents white people from seeing global capitalism as the problem and instead aims their righteous anger at the wrong people, including Black workers, immigrants, refugees, and Muslims who themselves are also suffering under the same oppressive economic policies.

What Noden refers to as a “scarcity mentality” is coupled with a sense of entitlement that is encouraged by white supremacy — a sense that I, the white Christian male, should have a good job or government support, not “those people” who are different from me in race, ethnicity, or religion. Combine this mentality with rising social expectations for tolerance and even acceptance of those from different backgrounds and some white workers’ sense of scarcity turns into outrage over the belief that they are threatened with extinction. Reverend J. C. Austin describes this reaction as “anger at feeling that the concerns and beliefs of White Christians, in particular, are being actively and intentionally displaced in our culture in order to favor those of other religions and racial/ethnic backgrounds.”

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 focused new interest on the plight of working-class white voters. Books like White Working Class by Joan C. Williams, Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance, and Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild were scrutinized for clues to the frustration of working-class white people. Many assumed these working-class voters had been responsible for Trump’s victory. But exit polls consistently showed that Trump’s base of support included more well-to-do white voters than working-class and poor whites. Certainly white workers were part of Trump’s base. But they were far from being the majority of that base.

Still, it is true that Trump capitalized on both the scarcity mentality and the racial resentment of working-class whites in winning his narrow election victory. Many white workers have been encouraged to feel that “those others” are cutting in front of them in the line to claim the fruits of the American Dream, somehow breaking the rules that whites have always followed. Many decided they needed a standard-bearer to stop all of this rule-breaking — someone like Donald Trump.

Leaders on the Left have not done enough to push back against this false narrative that too many white workers have absorbed. While labor unions have historically played an important role in mobilizing white workers against right-wing populism, they are much weaker today than they once were, and arguably many union locals did not take on race as aggressively in the 2016 election as they should have. And until recently, most progressive organizations had not done much to build membership in poor white communities or to change their thinking, often brushing them off with comedic quips about incest and missing teeth.

In reality, of course, the economic woes of white workers in towns like Youngstown are not caused by people of color, immigrants, or any other familiar scapegoats. In those same towns Black and Brown workers are struggling just as much, and usually more. White working-class levels of wealth have stagnated in recent decades. But if those levels were to remain fixed while people of color had the opportunity to grow their own wealth at current rates of increase, it would take more than eighty-four years for Latinos to amass the wealth that white Americans currently have, and 228 years for Black families to close the wealth divide.

Racial divisions are not just irrelevant to the real problems victimizing white workers. They actively make matters worse for all working people. Consider, for example, the phenomenon known as white flight. Author Chris Arnade interviewed a woman named Maria Garcia about what happened when economic decline came to Gary, Indiana: “This street used to be filled with good neighbors,” she said. “Then in 1981, people started moving out. They started seeing Black people coming in, and they said they would bring drugs and crime, so they left. Racism killed Gary. The Whites left Gary, and the Blacks couldn’t. Simple as that.”

As communities like Gary begin their decline, the remaining jobs often pay less than before. And the increasing number of lower-wage jobs in every industry makes it more difficult for many in manufacturing to keep wages increasing at the same pace as productivity. For example, transnational auto companies like Nissan and Volkswagen have focused their US manufacturing growth in the southern part of the country, where the remnants of Jim Crow and tough legal impediments to unionization prevent the overwhelmingly Black workforce from organizing successfully. Simultaneously, the base of the UAW throughout the Midwest, unable to avoid the downward pull of their southern peers, is struggling to maintain gains it won over the last several decades, forced to accept increased numbers of temporary and contract workers, regressively tiered wages, and cuts to health care.

Immigrants, documented and undocumented, are also used by global capital to victimize workers in general. Immigrants are often concentrated in jobs that put them in precarious situations, in many cases recruited because of their vulnerability. While not fully protected by the NLRA, undocumented workers struggle to access remedies to help them recover stolen wages, overtime, and being paid below poverty levels. And many holders of temporary work visas are bound to one employer who could threaten their families and their livelihoods if they step out of line. It is one thing to work a low-wage job. But what happens when that same employer can hold the threat of ICE or social services over the heads of workers to keep them from improving their conditions?

Yes! magazine shared the experiences of Mexican guest workers in the small town of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana: “Martha Uvalle and her co-workers at C. J.’s Seafood, a Walmart supplier, faced abuses many Americans imagine only take place in poorer, faraway countries: They were forced to work shifts of up to 24 hours, with no overtime pay; threatened with beatings if their breaks lasted too long; and, on at least two occasions, locked inside the facility to work. Some fell asleep at their workstations from exhaustion.”

Conditions like this drive wages down for everyone. Workers on all sides suffer as those in power play one group against another.

To their credit, some white working-class voters identified with Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary elections. In Michigan, a high-union-membership state, Sanders won 62 percent of white men and a third of the overall electorate according to exit polls. But after the primaries, too many of these voters saw Trump as the only “outsider” politician left in the race. Their vote for him in November was a vote for change, any kind of change, even if it came in the form of reactionary solutions touted by the extreme Right against much of their shared self-interests with workers of color.


Gender Discrimination and the Cycle of Inequality

In US society, patriarchy is just as pervasive as white supremacy—and it is just as powerful a tool in the hands of global capital.

The historical roots of patriarchy go very deep. In the early colonial period women from Europe who came to America as indentured servants had years added to their contract if they got pregnant. This incentivized the masters who owned the contracts to rape female workers in order to keep them longer as servants. In similar fashion enslaved Black women were raped and impregnated by plantation owners to force them to reproduce their “assets.”

Laws validated this behavior. As Erik Loomis notes in A History of America in Ten Strikes, “In 1662, after a slave sued for freedom by claiming his father was White, Virginia decided that slave status was confirmed by the mother. This gave masters the right to rape their slaves and keep their own children as property. Forced sexual labor became central to a system that denied slaves basic human rights.”

Similar practices persist today. Despite the fact that slavery and sexual abuse have become less culturally acceptable, the bodies of women of color continue to be viewed by many as more accessible than their white counterparts. The trafficking of women to the global north from around the world is a phenomenon of both sexual and economic exploitation. Workers in low-status, low-pay industries like hospitality, housekeeping, and food service are also vulnerable to harassment and abuse on the job. The psychological impacts of this abuse are incalculable, even as it is part of the routine experience of millions of women. Here’s just a single example, drawn from the testimony of a Black woman named Laurie Terrell in a report from the Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC United):

I’ve been bit, I’ve been grabbed, I’ve been licked. You name it. . . . And you just learn to let it go. Then when you get older, when you start dating you have a hard time distinguishing between good touches and bad touches in your subconscious. It’s very, very damaging, especially when you learn how to wait tables before you’ve had any sexual experiences, and you have people manhandling you before you’ve ever even kissed a boy.

The death of Sandra Bland in 2015 while jailed in Texas after a routine traffic stop illustrates the extreme, disturbingly frequent instances of violence on the bodies of Black women. Bland was thrown on the ground and harassed before the officer concluded she had in fact assaulted him. She was later found hanged in the cell where she was kept, despite no history of depression or suicidal tendencies.

Women are also subject to forms of economic exploitation that men rarely experience. For example, much of the domestic labor done by women remains unseen and unrewarded. Many women essentially work two full-time jobs, one of which — managing the home — goes completely unpaid. Adding insult to injury, the wages women earn in their paid occupations average 20 percent less than men make for the same work. For women of color, this gap is higher. And similar dynamics persist among queer and gender nonconforming workers. A June 2020 ruling by the US Supreme Court acknowledged the discrimination that transgender employees suffer and ruled that such discrimination is barred by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — an opinion that three of the court’s most conservative justices strongly opposed. The future will show whether this positive step will stand up to the assaults we can expect from right-wing legal operatives. It remains the case that fewer than half of the fifty states currently ban employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.

There is particularly pervasive discrimination against women as a side effect of their reproductive labor, including the opportunities and benefits child-bearing workers lose when they take parental leave or when they leave the labor force for an extended period of time due to caregiving responsibilities. In addition to missing out on opportunities for promotion, these workers suffer later in life because they’ve paid less into Social Security.

Women, particularly women of color, are easily exploited by the forces of global capitalism. Patriarchal attitudes encourage men (or those who identify as masculine) to consider themselves superior to women and all forms of femininity, and therefore to disregard the complaints of women and gender nonconforming people and dismiss them as potential leaders. This helps strengthen the hand of capital in its efforts to keep working people divided. This is why patriarchy, like white supremacy, must be centrally targeted by labor organizers and others who want to build a truly effective movement for economic democracy.


Pushing Back: Multiracial Organizing in the Twentieth Century and Today

Working people are resilient. They altered the relations of power and reshaped the frameworks of collective bargaining in the United States in the twentieth century by building explicitly multiracial strategies against common exploiters. In their long struggle to unionize workers at Ford Motor Company in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the UAW had been excluding Black workers from their organizing efforts, and many white workers did not believe Black workers should get equal pay for equal work. The company had successfully thwarted unionization efforts by playing on these divisions, not only offering jobs to Black workers but also promoting them into higher-level positions — including within Ford’s own security forces. In so doing, Henry Ford obscured his famously racist and anti-Semitic viewpoints with a new reputation that saw the company as a pathway — albeit a paternalistic one — out of poverty for Black workers, pitting them against the mostly white union.

Black workers who were supportive of the union fought back. They pushed the UAW to realize that in order to expand collective bargaining power for workers in the auto industry, they would have to confront white supremacy. Thus the UAW began exposing the discrimination Black workers still faced in Ford plants, including most of the Black workers in low-paying jobs. Pushed by the demands of Black workers, the union started to hire Black organizers and began engaging Black communities. They also renegotiated some of their existing collective bargaining agreements that had consistently disadvantaged Black workers in promotions, seniority, and higher-paying positions.

This comprehensive effort united the interests of Black and white workers in the auto industry, leading to increased bargaining power at Ford and throughout the sector for all workers. The efforts gave birth to a new local, UAW Local 600, which included Black workers. These workers’ relationship to the union and to bargaining rights was based in campaigns that confronted discrimination. Local 600 became one of the most powerful locals in the union.

Leaders coming out of the local, having demonstrated their ability to win significant gains for workers and their families, established channels that would develop inspiring new leaders for future struggles around housing, public education, and voting rights. As Nelson Lichtenstein explains in his book The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit:

With almost one hundred thousand Black workers organized in the Detroit area, African-American unionists from the Rouge and other UAW plants poured into the Detroit NAACP chapter, demanded the promotion of Black workers in metropolitan war plants, and mobilized thousands to defend Black occupancy of the Sojourner Truth Homes, a federally funded project that became a violent center of conflict between White neighborhoods and the housing-starved Black community.

Today’s workers are just as creative. They have not been waiting for a top-down team of experts to come up with the perfect strategy. Instead they have been experimenting with new models that the present generation can learn from as it attempts to rebalance the relations of power in our society — in the workplace and in our communities.

Several twenty-first-century movements have integrated the struggle against white supremacy with campaigns for workplace power with profound scalability. Here are just a few powerful examples.

In November 2014, protests in Washington, DC, that mobilized in response to the acquittal of Missouri-based Mike Brown’s police murderer managed to shut down a local Walmart store — prompting several retail employees to leave their workstations and join in the chants.

In July 2016, the SEIU made the courageous commitment to address anti-Black racism in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement as part of its Fight for Fifteen campaign for a living wage. That month the national convention of Fight for Fifteen workers took place in Richmond, Virginia, to highlight the need for racial justice against the backdrop of the former capital of the Confederacy. Two months later, Fight for Fifteen workers who went on strike in Charlotte, North Carolina, also protested the murder of Keith Lamont Scott, a Black father of seven children murdered by police near his home.

Both movements realized that they could not win without one another, and the leaders of the two movements incorporated this reality in their messages. Rasheen Aldridge, a former fast-food worker who led the Fight for Fifteen in St. Louis, served on the Ferguson Commission established by former US attorney general Eric Holder to investigate the death of Mike Brown, became an elected Missouri legislator in 2019 and used his comments to the Jobs With Justice national conference in February 2016 to highlight the link between economic and racial democracy:

In zip code 60105, the majority is African-American, and the median income is $15,000. In zip code 62105, the majority is White, and the median income is $90,000. The life expectancy between these two zip codes is a 15-year gap. These issues are connected. These issues matter. And we have to look at them like that. We cannot separate them anymore.

In New York, individuals from both struggles converged again in April 2016 to protest the shooting of unarmed Akai Gurley, the father of a two-year-old daughter who was shot near her home. Dawn O’Neal, who traveled to New York from Atlanta to support both movements, explained her thinking to ThinkProgress:

When you think about the Fight for 15 and you think about Black Lives Matter, it intersects. Police violence is usually, predominantly in communities that suffer economic violence. So it goes hand in hand.

In similar fashion, Black Lives Matter Bay Area joined food service, homecare, and childcare workers in Oakland in their strike against the fast-food in- dustry in November 2015, stating: “As an over-policed and underpaid community the Fight for Fifteen is personal for Black people. When we say Black Lives Matter, we are continuing a generations-long struggle for the dignity of Black people ev- erywhere, from the courtroom to the workplace.”

The victories won by this collaborative movement go far beyond the fast-food industry. The fight for a $15 an hour minimum wage flooded cities and states nationwide, including Greensboro, North Carolina (Smiley’s hometown). The fight became a framework for workers of all races in low-wage service businesses, the public sector, and even in manufacturing, where what used to be good jobs are now low wage. Making race central to an organizing and collective bargaining strategy generated momentum and success far beyond any immediate union base, establishing a new floor for what an acceptable livable wage is in the United States.

The relationship between Black Lives Matter activists and the Fight for Fifteen campaign is not the only example of the integration of the fight against white supremacy with the battle for organizing and collective bargaining rights.

In May 2016, incarcerated workers throughout the country went on strike, starting with an initial call from workers in three prisons led by the Free Alabama Movement, and then spreading to workers in prisons across eleven states. In September 2016, when predominantly Black inmates in Alabama acted against inhumane conditions at the W. C. Holman Correctional Facility, including forced labor and violence, the prison guards, many of them white, also went on strike.

The Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of organizations supporting the upsurge, also released a policy platform outlining the right to organize and collectively bargain as essential to the freedom and security of Black people. And in 2020, the movement was reenergized after the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Derek Chauvin, the officer who murdered George Floyd, had eighteen previous complaints against him, but the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis had helped prevent his removal from the force. The blatancy of this led the second wave of the movement to more aggressively challenge labor unions on their relationship with the police. Despite the historic record of police being used to break up labor disputes, their members are still a part of local, state, and national federations.

The events of 2020 led to some changes. The labor council in Seattle, Washington, gave the police union an ultimatum to address the disproportionate violence on Black lives or leave. They left. Union bus drivers in Minneapolis, many Black, refused to help transport police protestors to jail. And in several cities, union nurses supported protestors with masks and water. Nationally, the SEIU and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) put out statements that were generally in support of the Movement for Black Lives’ demands.

In contrast, the AFL-CIO defended the membership of the International Union of Police Associations (IUPA) in the federation while calling for some general reforms that IUPA was still heavily offended by. The tensions arising from the fact that much of organized labor is too often out of relationship with the majority of the US workforce were exposed by the 2020 uprisings for Black lives. During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, a disproportionate number of Black workers got sick and died from the virus. Many of these workers were deemed essential, yet their employers did not provide them with adequate protective equipment or comply with social distancing rules. Left exposed to the virus, they were infected. Essential workers staffing meat-processing plants, mostly immigrants from Latin America, were forced to continue working in unsafe conditions for the sake of delivering the United States’ chicken and pork. In fact, the only time that the Trump administration activated the Defense of Production Act — a law that authorizes the president to expedite and expand the supply of key commodities and/or services in order to promote the national defense — was to keep meatpacking workers at work, not to produce more ventilators or tests that might have actually helped the country get through the pandemic. Once again, essential workers of color were hung out to dry.

The message is clear: labor leaders urgently need to expand organizing and collective bargaining in ways that address the needs of Black and Brown communities as a central part of their strategy — not just because it is morally right but also because failing to do so will render them irrelevant.

While we have focused primarily on US examples here, the international workers’ struggle against global capitalism is part of the same intersectional effort. In order to combat global capital, unions and progressive organizations will have to unite across national borders, not just in moral solidarity but also through shared organizing and collective bargaining demands on multinational corporations and their government supporters. Such a multinational organizing campaign will require US workers, particularly white workers, to abandon the belief that workers in China, India, Mexico, or Tunisia somehow deserve less than them. This will require organizers to recognize the negative effect of white supremacy not only on the global south but also on workers in the global north, beginning with a deeper understanding of what various trade agreements actually do and the driving forces behind them.

The Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA), which Jobs With Justice has proudly supported since its inception, has begun to build a campaign like this, establishing regional living-wage mechanisms that are translatable across countries and that target strategic transnational corporations. The AFWA has also pressured a number of multinational companies into agreeing to a global convention to end gender-based violence at work.


The Power of Centralizing Race and Gender to Win at the Bargaining Table

As we have explained, the history of the prevailing political economy throughout the world makes it natural that Black and immigrant workers in the southern region of the United States and people of the global south have some of the most creative approaches to transforming that economy and replacing it with a healthy democracy. This is just one of the important reasons why a reimagined and reinvigorated labor movement for the twenty-first century needs to embrace the goal not just of organizing all people, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, and other characteristics, but also of tapping the leadership skills and experience of all people. Economic democracy is for everyone — not just a few.

Clarifying workers’ shared self-interests against common corporate exploiters is the only way to motivate white workers who have legitimate worries and fears to act in their shared interests with workers of color. Thus, the parents of children in rundown schools in a predominantly poor white community should align with the parents of children in similar schools in Black and Brown communities to confront the individuals who are responsible for underfunding, from local schoolboard members to the corporate actors who benefit from privatizing public schools. The same thinking can be applied to issues like housing, health care, public services, public utilities, and jobs. Lasting power and shared governance require us to adopt defeating white supremacy as a central strategy.

Similarly, efforts that centralize the struggle against patriarchy and gender-based violence have positioned many working people to negotiate directly with political and economic decision-makers when narrower workplace issues failed. For example, the #MeToo movement sparked shifts in workplace policy, such as banning nondisclosure agreements that cover sexual harassment as well as energizing campaigns aiming to raise the economic status of women workers. In at least one case in India, a small caucus of women workers did a better job than their union of forcing a powerful multinational brand to the table by centering the discussion on the gender-based violence they experienced in supplier factories. US unions, still overwhelmingly headed by white men, can learn a lesson from this example. Sometimes what gets the union to the table with some of the largest corporations is getting out of the way of women workers.

The current economic, political, and social state of the world in 2020 looks like a catastrophe — police violence, a global pandemic, a Saharan dust cloud, a plague of locusts — all creating fissures within the corporate class and devastating blows to the economic sustainability of most working people. But crisis breeds creativity. As Arundhati Roy noted in the Financial Times, “unlike the flow of capital, this virus seeks proliferation, not profit, and has, therefore, inadvertently, to some extent, reversed the direction of the flow. It has mocked immigration controls, biometrics, digital surveillance and every other kind of data analytics, and struck hardest — thus far — in the richest, most powerful nations of the world, bringing the engine of capitalism to a juddering halt. Temporarily perhaps, but at least long enough for us to examine its parts, make an assessment and decide whether we want to help fix it, or look for a better engine.”

The crisis may offer an opportunity for unions and community organizations to build a new workers’ movement, intentionally aligning the shared self-interests of white workers with Black workers, workers of color, and workers of all genders against systems of white supremacy, corporate control, and sexism.

This is not just a matter of doing what is right. It is also the only way to build lasting power for working people. Treating the battles against white supremacy and patriarchy as extra projects that can be compromised would be like making a boat lighter by removing the sails. Confronting the systems of white supremacy and patriarchy must remain a central element of our overall strategy to prevent the opposition from dividing workers and weakening our collective power.


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