Listen to the interview here

 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

 

Jeremie Greer: Hi, I’m Jeremie Greer.

Solana Rice: Hi, I’m Solana Rice. We are co-founders of Liberation in a Generation, a national movement support organization building the power of people of color to totally transform the economy – who controls it, how it works, and, most importantly, for whom. We at Liberation in a Generation are beyond excited to partner in guest editing this edition of The Forge

JG: The Forge is an online journal started by the Center for Popular Democracy. The mission is to elevate the strategy and practice of organizers through the sharing of ideas, methods, history, inspiration, and by building connection and community among organizers and between sectors of the progressive movement.

SR: For this edition, we have curated a group of experts to provide their perspective on an array of topics that intersect with racial capitalism.

JR: Solana, I am really excited to learn from the two experts that we have today talking about labor and worker power and its connections to racial capitalism. For most of us, as people of color, our labor is how we make money and how we protect our families. The effect of racial capitalism is in stark relief in our labor market: what job you have, where that job is located, who we work for, and how much we’re paid. All of these things take place in an incredibly racialized labor market.

SR: Yeah, and we’re seeing this in the middle of a health pandemic, COVID-19. Right now, headlines are forecasting when our economy will “reopen,” but, to be clear, for essential workers, the economy never closed. According to Brookings, 50 - 60 million people are essential workers, and that’s about 35-45 percent of the entire workforce. When The Guardian did an analysis by race, they found that Black people were more likely to be in these essential industries and especially overrepresented in healthcare, which we know is pretty dangerous right now.

And that’s to say nothing of the fact that, way before COVID, Black people faced unemployment rates twice that of the national average. And LatinX people faced unemployment rates a little lower than twice the national average. And, again, that’s to say nothing of the gender disparities. So when we can get a job, then we are faced with this huge pay gap. Black and LatinX women earn 86 percent and 84 percent, respectively, of what our white male counterparts make. This is by design. We see outright discrimination and occupational segregation — and that means that the essential workers who are keeping our economy open and risking their health to do so.

JG: The exploitation of people of color in our labor market is nothing new. In fact, it is built on a historical foundation of unpaid labor. Research by David Blight reminds us: In 1860, the nearly 4 million American slaves were worth some $3.5 billion,  making them the largest financial asset in the entire U.S. economy, worth more than all manufacturing and railroads combined.

And while slavery was outlawed in 1865, our lawmakers then acted to support corporate pursuit of continuing to uncompensate labor for immigrant workers. In fact, the Chinese built the railroads, and Mexican farmworkers really made up  our agricultural sector. And we continue to undervalue care work, which is largely occupied by women of color.

SR: We wanted to understand more about worker power and how to use it to upend racial capitalism. So we talked to our friends, Daniel Bustillo and Rebecca Dixon, to keep it real about our racialized labor history, what it means for workers, especially care workers today, and what bold transformations in labor law we need.

JG: Daniel is Director of the Healthcare Career Advancement Program (or H-CAP), a national organization of SEIU unions and healthcare employers developing innovative career pathways and quality healthcare career education models. He is going to talk about the role that unions can play in being a key partner in dismantling racial capitalism. Click here to jump to our interview with Daniel

Rebecca Dixon is Executive Director of the National Employment Law Project. Rebecca leads NELP in supporting a strong workers’ rights movement that dismantles structural racism, eliminates economic inequality, and builds worker power. Click here to jump to our interview with Rebecca

Spoiler alert: She’s going to break down how we stop profiting from racism, in part by ensuring sectoral bargaining and ending mandatory arbitration to protect workers, among many other bold ideas.

 

But, first here’s Daniel Bustillo from H-CAP.

Several of these interviews were recorded before the uprisings surrounding the latest police murders. 

SR: We want to get to know you a little bit first, Daniel. Why have you focused your whole life and career fighting for racial and economic justice?

DB: Well, let me just start by saying thanks for inviting me to do this, and it's a real pleasure to see the two of you today as well. Just a disclaimer to start, the opinions that I'm expressing today are my own and do not represent any official organizational view.

Thinking about that question, when looking back, I think there were a series of consciousness-raising events that placed me on this path. I attended a well-known Jesuit high school in New York City, which was a little bit of a culture shock to me. The school was located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, between Park and Madison, not far from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And, every day, I'd take the bus to and from school from the Upper East Side through Washington Heights and Upper Manhattan, and the spatial segregation and research differentiation, even at that young age, was really evident during my daily travels. That had a huge impact on me.

I was also heavily influenced by a lot of the political and cultural context during that period of time. Remember, and I'm dating myself here, this is during the late eighties and early nineties, so immediately post the Reagan presidency and, in New York City, you had the murders of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst, you had Michael Griffith in Howard Beach. In college, during the early nineties, there were campus battles around increased funding for and the codification of African-American studies departments and Latinx studies. I remember those battles vividly, and that was not that long ago. During this period of time, I really became more and more interested in mechanisms to increase worker power through collective action and also in interrogating our politics of incrementalism.

After college, when I entered the world of work, I worked at a hospital in New York City, where I was a union member, and it seemed pretty clear to me that this was the best mechanism for me to substantively participate in aggregating power in the fight for racial and economic justice. Since that time, I've mostly been affiliated with labor in one form or another, with a brief interlude in academia. And, as time has passed, I've been really fortunate. I've also had the great privilege of interacting with many, many organizers, academics, public thinkers, too many to name, that have deeply influenced my understanding about our struggle for racial and economic justice.

SR: How do you think about racial capitalism? In your world, what does racial capitalism look like?

DB: Yeah, that's a good question. I think about this in the context of how I talk about racial capitalism with others. When talking about racial capitalism with others, I discuss it as a term that describes how race and capitalism intersect to produce intentional and persistent inequality in racial stratification. Our system of racial capitalism has been premised on a notion that satisfies some as worthy and others as unworthy, and this sorting is by race. And underpinning all this is the idea that markets are presumed to be self-regulating, fair, and colorblind, but, in reality, markets are not self-regulating. They're politically managed.

Markets are politically managed, with racial capitalism frequently attempting to block democracy in favor of a lead interest. It is also an asset-stripping system which has historically been dependent on slavery, violence, genocide, and more. This system of racial capitalism has used racism and also the creation of subaltern classes to intentionally and strategically consolidate all sorts of power — economic, political are the two that we most frequently talk about, but there are more — in order to maintain a hierarchical dominance in our society, with the economy in the U.S., frankly, built on the exploitation and occupational segregation of people of color.

SR: That's a beautiful definition. It's a sobering one, but-

DB: Very sobering, it's very sobering, but it's something that I feel is really important to speak directly about, as well, which many people do not do.

JG: Right. That’s so true, and I wonder if you could dig in a little bit on that. It’s really always been that way, since the first year European colonizers landed on our soil. Slavery, sharecropping, migrant workers, the use of immigrant workers. There's always been this racialized labor market in this country. Can you paint a picture of the history of how we got there, and how that has been transformed into what we see in the labor market today?

DB: When thinking about a racialized labor market, it's really characterized by a series of intentional policy choices, whereby racism has been used as a tool to suppress the economic and political power of people of color. That's baseline, and, as you talked about, it's rooted in the institution of chattel slavery, with the bottom line being that our racialized labor market is profitable and beneficial to some, with racism used strategically to ossify these racial hierarchies in order to consolidate power for elites at the expense of broader segments of society.

Our labor market as a whole, looking at the history, was built on the exploitation of workers of color and a system of employment discrimination with a variety of policy decisions that, one, concentrated workers of color in undervalued occupations, and, two, institutionalized a whole series of racial disparities in wages and benefits and more, which have resulted in a series of persistent racial economic disparities. There's a history, but these are not just historical facts; this is present day reality as well.

To be specific, I'll take the New Deal as an example, as we move along in history. We can point to a series of policies that were enacted under the New Deal that were, as Ira Katz-Nelson talks about his book, When Affirmative Action Was White, primarily reserved for the benefit of white workers while excluding many workers of color. I'm also going to touch upon the health care sector, just because that's the sector that I'm most familiar with. One of the ways that [racial capitalism] manifests itself is in the occupational segregation that's endemic to health care. In health care, we have Black and Latinx workers severely overrepresented in lower wage, entry-level occupations and underrepresented as we move up the occupational ladder of higher-wage occupations.

As an example, Black and brown workers constitute over 50 percent of occupations such as home care and certified nurse aide, which are also occupations where we have tremendous projected occupational growth over the next ten years. But that number falls precipitously when we get into some of the higher-wage occupations. The labor market is also heavily immigrant in health care for those occupations. This, in turn, leads to many important and well-intentioned efforts to increase human capital attainment through training, education, etcetera — oftentimes valuable, particularly when you have a supply and demand side structure like we have, where labor is a full and equal partner. But I think the issue is that, in the broader sense, particularly where you don't have a structure to provide for worker advocacy, those efforts are still couched within a system of individualism and a bootstrap mentality that oftentimes neglects to even provide bootstraps. In my estimation, this [emphasis on human capital] is done in order to remove the spotlight from the deleterious effects of our racialized labor market. Not only does our racialized labor market devalue certain kinds of work, but it also places the blame for disparate outcomes in this market squarely at the feet of individuals by oftentimes positing that these outcomes are the fault of individuals because they're the result of a lack of grit or skill differentials, as an example.

SR: You've spoken a lot to the impact of the racialized labor market on workers and workers of color, and you're brilliantly talking about care work and how it's been undervalued. It's been a profession that people of color have occupied in our economy for a long time, and so it's true that these are unpaid or low-paid positions. What are some of the things that you're seeing in terms of how racial capitalism has affected how we value care work in our economy, especially right now? How do we weave that bootstrapping and recognize all workers are essential and care workers are especially essential? 

DB: Ironically, now, we're calling these workers essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, but we have a long history of treating them as anything but. I think it is important to ground in that history too because racial capitalism has had profound effects on societal perceptions related to care work in our economy. And we’re still dealing with that today. This is not ahistorical information. Let's take the National Labor Relations Act, which is landmark New Deal legislation passed in 1935, which, amongst other things, guaranteed workers the right to organize and collectively bargain. The NLRA intentionally excluded domestic and agricultural workers. Those were low-wage sectors in the 1930s where nearly half of Black men, 90 percent of Black women worked. This served to reinforce the racialized and gendered hierarchy of that time, but the disproportionate effects of that are still present with us to this day. We still don't have a federal domestic workers bill of rights to this day. Those exclusionary practices are still with us to this day. 95 percent of domestic workers right now are women — foreign-born or women of color. We have this interaction between a racialized labor market and a gendered labor market as well that still exists in pretty much that same format today.

Care work, to this day, remains a devalued, racialized, and gendered space, where — and this is important — where determinations are continuing to be made that the providers of care work are not considered worthy of basic rights that others have: dignity, sufficient remuneration, wages, and protection under the law. That historical context that I talked about is still with us to this day and affects us to this day when we're thinking about how we value care work in a racialized labor market.

JG: You talked about your background in the labor movement. And unions have been a big part of helping people enhance their wages, access health care, and build wealth, really get a foothold in the economy. But that history is a bit mixed from a racial standpoint. While being on the forefront of many civil rights accomplishments, the labor movement has also, at times, been on the wrong side. Recognizing that history, can unions be a tool to dismantle racial capitalism and, if so, how would they do it?

DB: I think it's important to begin by acknowledging that history but also being clear about the fact that labor unions are not currently, nor have they ever historically been, monolithic either. I think there's a tendency to use this umbrella term — labor unions, labor unionization — but they're not monolithic. But it’s certainly important to acknowledge that history and some of the issues that exist to this day. But I do think that, in answering the question, I do think that it's fairly evident that, when workers come together and build collective power, these movements, in their best sense, could have profound impacts on the dismantling of racial capitalism. We  also know this from history.

Unfortunately, one of the things that history also tells us is that, unsurprisingly, as unionization rates among Black workers surpass those of white workers, that's when we saw this concurrent increase in attacks on organized labor. Simultaneously, the economic gains of Blacks were framed as threats to the economic and societal position of whites. If we think about 1973, unionization rates among Black men were, I think, over 40 percent, while rates among white men were somewhere between 30 and 40 percent. And by the late 1970s, almost one in four, about 25 percent of Black women, which was nearly double the share of white women, belonged to a union.

Even as we fast forward into 1983, at that time, over 30 percent of Black workers and 23 percent of the entire workforce was unionized. Those numbers are much lower today. In 2020, if we just look at the current year, the numbers have fallen to a little over 11 percent of Black workers are union members and a little over 10 percent of the entire workforce is unionized. That's a precipitous decline. This decline in unionization rates has really occurred in tandem with rising racial wage inequality. We know that average hourly earnings of Black men since the 1970s have fallen from somewhere in the range of  80 percent of white male earnings to 70 percent of white male earnings — with the fall in unionization. For Black women, average earnings fell from near parity with white women to 82 percent of white female earnings.

We have plenty of evidence to indicate that unionization can be one tool to help in the dismantling of racial capitalism because, one, strong unions can play a role in [narrowing] the racial wage gap, because of Black workers' overrepresentation in labor market sectors that have higher rates of union membership. And we know that union jobs pay, on average, about 16 percent higher wages than do nonunion jobs, so that just makes sense. There's also, through union membership, a larger wage premium to Black workers than white workers. Hourly wages for Black union workers are almost 15 percent higher than those of their nonunion counterparts while for white unionized workers, it's more in the range of 9 to 10 percent.

You mentioned the racial wealth gap. We can also look at that relative to unionization, where we see, just over the last decade or so, the median wealth of non-white union members was nearly five times greater than that of their nonunion counterparts, while the median wealth of white union members was only 39 percent [greater] than that of white nonunion workers. 

We see this across a variety of economic indicators — the effect that unionization could potentially have on racial capitalism. Research and history provide us with a compelling case for the role of strong unions in furthering economic progress for Black and brown workers. I think that's why conversations about the importance of unions really need to be race-conscious as well, exactly what we're talking about here. In short, unions can really help create the collective worker power as one tool needed to dismantle racial capitalism.

SR: This begs the question: If we have seen unions make a difference in history for Black and brown people, and these are staggering numbers, why aren't we seeing unions everywhere? What was the decline? What's holding us back from a million unions, everybody's in a union?

DB: Listen, we all know what some of the issues have been so I'll focus on a couple. I think one is, first, the pervasive and persistent concentrated effort to limit and dismantle unionization. You heard me talk about, in the previous question, the connection between rising unionization rates, particularly for Black workers, and then concentrated efforts to limit the power of unions and dismantle unions. The expansion of right-to-work laws, the Janus case that was just a few years back targeted at public sector unionism — these are all intended to make wider unionization of workers, and especially in the sectors where low-wage people of color are overrepresented, difficult. There is certainly that intent, a pervasive and persistent concentrated effort, to limit the possibility [of unionization].

Second, we have the antiquated nature of labor law. Current labor law fails to enable workers to engage in substantive activities that help build broad worker power, especially for Black and Latinx workers, workers with precarious immigration status, who are overrepresented in the sectors of the labor market, like care work, with the fewest labor protections.

Third, there's a long legacy of exploitation, occupational segregation of workers of color, that has disproportionately concentrated those workers in low-wage industries and fissured workplaces. We have to talk about fissured workplaces, which are oftentimes really harder to unionize under the current labor law. 

JG: You mentioned something that I think the people who follow The Forge would be really interested in: right to work. It's one of those narrative tropes that the Right play. I wonder if you could dig in and explain what that is and how it's been holding back worker organization.

DB: It’s right to work or, as many people call it, right to not work,  or right to not work for good wages. What does right to work mean? Most of the people who follow The Forge, I think, are really familiar with this, but so-called right-to-work legislation sanctions a state's right to pass laws that prohibit unions from requiring a worker to pay dues. Even when that worker is covered by a negotiated collective bargaining agreement, there's no requirement that a worker has to pay dues. This, in essence, entitles employees to the benefits of the union contract, including, as an example, the right to have the union take up a grievance against an employer, without paying any of the cost. The right-to-work laws are fundamentally designed to strip funding and bargaining power from unions, which obviously has a substantive impact on people of color since Black and Latinx workers who are union members, as we just talked about, have higher wages than those that are not in unions.

The Economic Policy Institute has done a variety of work around this. Broadly speaking, wages in right-to-work states are, I think, somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 percent lower than those in non-right-to-work states. And this is a really important point. Eight out of the ten states with the highest percentage of Black residents have right-to-work laws. There is a clear connection here between the institution and expansion of right-to-work laws and those states where we have the highest percentage of Black and brown workers.

JG: We’ve been seeing, in this year, big, transformative ideas being thrown out and debated in the mainstream media, from the Democratic primary to conversations around big, bold changes to respond to the economic crisis that's been created by the coronavirus. I'm wondering what ideas that you've heard out there — big, bold, transformative ideas — that would really have a big impact in the labor market and help people of color achieve liberation?

DB: There are many, many big, bold, transformative policy changes that should be enacted to enable a more moral society that upends the effects of racial capitalism. You can talk about Medicare for All, free college. Specific to the COVID-19 pandemic: the Paycheck Guarantee Act, which is some guaranteed income. [Beyond those,] in the context of labor policy, I want to mention the work done by the Clean Slate for Worker Power, which posited that, when labor law enables working people to build organizations of countervailing power, the people can demand for themselves a more equitable nation. And I'll focus on two specific recommendations there. The first being that labor law reform should be inclusive to ensure that all workers can build power to address systemic racial and gender oppression. That's one. That's aimed at directly addressing the exclusionary history of labor law in this country that we talked about a little while back.

Then the second is the notion of sectoral bargaining. This would enable collective bargaining between unions and industries, as opposed to the current system, which we call enterprise bargaining, which is a system of collective bargaining between unions and individual firms, which is just much harder. Amongst other things, this system would be a much better and more efficient way of addressing racial and gender pay gaps through increased unionization and aggregation of worker power.

I think you all know that I've been a proponent of a federal jobs guarantee as well. Angela Glover Blackwell and Darrick Hamilton just had an opinion piece in the New York Times that discussed the economic fallout during the COVID-19 pandemic that's hitting Black and brown communities particularly hard. We can take these numbers for what they're worth as the unemployment rates are in actuality likely higher, but for the first time since 1973, which is when BLS [the Bureau of Labor Statistics] began tracking unemployment by ethnicity, the Latinx unemployment rate is the highest of all racial and ethnic groups right now at 18.9 percent. The Black unemployment rate: 16.7 percent. The Asian unemployment rate: 14.5 percent. And, for whites, it was 14.2 percent.

And we know historically, there has always been a roughly two-to-one relationship in terms of the Black unemployment rate to the white unemployment rate regardless of whether it is what folks would consider a tight labor market or otherwise, and the Latinx rate it's always been about one and a half times the white unemployment rate, and that has held for decades.

Angela and Darrick also noted that people of color are overrepresented in jobs that are considered essential. A federal jobs guarantee, [which is] a public option for a job with good wages, full benefits, and worker rights, would do two really important things in the context of the discussion we're having today. One, it would tackle poverty by providing a viable alternative that sets the wage floor. There are over 40 percent of workers who earn less than $15 per hour. And then, two, [it would] reduce racial employment disparities by guaranteeing good jobs for everyone. That certainly is something that is well worth supporting. 

JG: Yeah, the federal jobs guarantee shifts the framework on which we think about the economy, too, to more of a rights framework, everyone has a right to a job, which is a really different way of thinking about how the economy is supposed to work — and one that is advantageous to workers of color.

DB: I'm glad you brought that up because, frankly, that is the conversation we need to be having, toward a rights framework. With any of the policies that we’re talking about. We could say the same thing for some of the universal policies that we talked about up front, whether it's Medicare for All, free college for all. In essence, the question is: What should and should not be a public good? What's a fundamental right? That’s the framework that we need to be talking about.

SR: Our conversation today has been illuminating and foundational in our understanding of the role of labor as capital, for one thing, and how race-based exclusion, exploitation and even theft have played a role in racial capitalism. This is not anything that's going to be dismantled overnight, but I'm curious: What should activists and listeners of The Forge be thinking about? What should we be doing? Is it getting involved in labor reform and labor law reform? Is it getting out in the streets? What would you recommend in terms of both rectifying the role of labor and valuing labor, but also ending racial capitalism?

DB: I would say people should do everything that you talked about. But I realize that there are many different forms of worker advocacy in thinking about the aggregation of worker power. And I do want to say, I think that there are so many unbelievable activists that are doing fantastic work in this space already, but, broadly speaking, I think activists can continue to work towards building narratives around some of the conversation we've had today, whether it's a rights-based framework around things such as common morality and shared prosperity. [Narratives] that really have the purpose of advancing powerful coalitions that enhance worker power designed to upend racial capitalism and provide economic inclusion. And I think one of the ways that this can be done, and sometimes it's an ongoing struggle, [is to create] discourse that stops centering whiteness as a societal reference point — clearly, we still have a ways to go there — but that instead deals explicitly with the historical and present-day nature of our exclusionary racial capitalistic practice. I've been fortunate in the sense that I've been situated at the intersection, over my career, of activism, labor, and academia. Part of this effort is the breaking down of silos between narrative change work and the advancement of substantive policy change — and the interaction between those two. There's been a lot of great movement over the past little while, but we are still somewhat siloed in that regard. It's almost like you have the activist work over here, you have the policy change over here, and you have the academic work off to the side somewhere as well. We need to do a better job of breaking down those silos, so activists, academics, etcetera, can be working in common cause to attempt to create and co-construct the world that we want. In this spirit, I commend the work that you all are doing at Liberation in a Generation because you're really situated at that intersection.

SR: Thanks, Daniel. This is one of our last questions. We try to leave on a positive. I'm curious about what's giving you life right now? What's giving you hope?

DB: Well, I will say, I'm really fortunate, as part of my official job, to have the great pleasure to be able to, in some small way, support a variety of healthcare caregivers around the country. Seeing what they're doing and seeing how they're doing, behind the scenes and otherwise, with everything that they're dealing with, independent of COVID-19 — that gives me energy. They’re dealing with everything we’re talking about here pre-COVID-19. And they will be dealing with it post-COVID-19. And then, on top of that, the pandemic that’s occurring and what it’s doing to them, the people they provide care for, and their family members. That certainly gives me life. We have to keep at this. When we fight, we win. They’re certainly leading the way here and showing us that that’s true. 

JG: Well, thank you, Daniel, for being in this fight for racial and economic justice and thanks for taking a moment to talk with us today.

DB: I appreciate it. Great seeing you two. That also gave me life.

SR: And we didn't have this question listed, but I am curious about what you are most challenged with right now. What are the things that are happening right now that you're really trying to figure out?

DB: In the context of work?

SR: Yeah. or the meaning of life and time and all that we're all dealing with.

DB: I think the biggest challenge is: How do you provide value in a substantive way that is meaningful to people on the ground, to caregivers directly? D.C. is a challenge, of course, in thinking about what's occurring there. But how do we use what's occurring now as a mechanism to be able to better provide support and influence some of that substantive policy change we've talked about in a way that really meaningfully impacts Black and brown caregivers. I think that's the biggest challenge right now. It's the question of how do you do that immediately while, at the same time, not losing sight of the longer-term systemic stuff that we're talking about and the change we want to influence because the immediate has such primacy right now. There are so many immediate needs. [How do we respond] in a way that doesn't have negative, unintended consequences in the long term?

 

SR: And now, Rebecca Dixon, Executive Director of National Employment Law Project. She’s fire. Take a listen. 

The unemployment numbers cited here are from May 2020. 

SR: Rebecca, thank you so much for joining us today. We are delighted to have you with us, and we wanted to start it out by getting to know you. We know that you have dedicated your life and career to racial and economic justice. I'm curious about why you focus on those things. And you've done so much considerable work in the South. I'm also curious about how that's informed your work.

RD: I grew up in the South, in the Deep South — rural, southwest Mississippi. In my family, your work ethic was a kind of currency, which was important because of the racial and economic inequities in the South at the time. My dad was born in the year of the New Deal. He worked in agriculture most of his life,  and he — and just about everybody he knew — were left out of the New Deal. What's exciting about what NELP does is that we work to make sure that policy is inclusive and that policy meets the needs of workers of color and Black workers.

SR: From your perspective, what is racial capitalism?

RD: From my perspective, it is using racial stratification to exploit workers and being able  to use racism in America to make money. We see that black workers are at the bottom of the hierarchy and have been consistently since slavery. That hasn’t really changed. So we have Black workers stratified into jobs that are dangerous, that are dirty, that no one else wants. There’s a persistent narrative that Black folks don't want to work, which underpins access to the safety net. We've seen that in the unemployment insurance (UI) system in the South. The benefits are not as generous and it's much more difficult to get benefits because of the narrative around Black workers.

JG: You've talked about how racism is baked into the design of our economy. Something we've heard a lot about recently, with the advent of COVID-19 and the impact it’s had on the economy is this concept of the “essential worker.” This includes, of course, healthcare workers but has also expanded to grocery store workers, agricultural workers, meatpackers, retail workers — this whole class of employees. I've become kind of obsessed with the concept of an essential worker because it hasn’t quite matched how we as an economy have valued workers — and particularly workers who we’re now valuing as essential. Could you talk about this concept of the essential worker and how racial capitalism has defined how we determine the value of certain kinds of occupations in our labor market.

RB: I think most Americans are aware of this, but it hasn't been on display the way it is now. The opportunity and labor market are intertwined. And opportunity is segregated in this country, just like the labor market. So almost 90 percent of jobs can be classified as racially segregated. The “Blacker” an occupation, the lower the wages. We know that Black workers in particular are in these frontline jobs that are considered essential. So are immigrant workers. So are Latinx workers. So “essential” [means] that “you can sacrifice yourself for the rest of us.” But not “essential” in the sense that we're going to put in protections for you. 

Last week, I spoke before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the protections that are not there for workers. Workers cannot sue their employer if they get sick or have an injury related to COVID-19 because they are bound by their workers’ compensation system. And customers can’t sue. So we're in this place where [workers] have no protection. And OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] hasn't issued an enforceable standard. So workers have no enforceable way to ask for common safety precautions like [social] distancing or the ability to regularly wash their hands. 

We know that these workers have traditionally been undervalued. We know that our policies have consistently left them out. We could argue about the intent, but the impact of OSHA not issuing a standard is that workers of color are getting sick and dying.

SR: Is “essential worker” a legal term? Are there legal ramifications? You just mentioned workers not being able to sue their employers. How do we designate “essential worker”?

RD: It's not a legal term. Different localities — whether we’re talking about the city, the state, or, in the case of the federal government, where the President decided that meat packers were essential…. It's just a term that's being thrown around and we don’t have any standardized definition of it. OSHA hasn't issued any standardized definition. Neither has the CDC [Centers for Disease Control]. So it's not a legal term. And depending on where you live, you’re being asked to put yourself at risk — or not.  

SR: Have you seen any movement from OSHA around COVID-19? What’s playing out there?

RD: The only way for workers to enforce their right to a safe and healthy workplace is to file a complaint with OSHA and then for OSHA to do an investigation. There have been over 4,000 complaints filed, but OSHA has not opened any investigations to enforce the CDC guidelines. So they're missing in action, basically, in terms of protecting workers, which is their primary function.

SR: That's a great segue to the next question. How are workers finding safety in this time? What are their protections or safety nets that are available right now?

RD: I want to call out the way in which workers are stepping into their power. We've seen workers arrange strikes. We've seen workers walk off the job. They are realizing they have to band together to be able to enforce these rights. We've seen some cases where folks have filed lawsuits that were thrown out.  But the fact that the lawsuit brought attention to the issue — they were able to get protections put in place in their workplace.

I think we should be pressuring OSHA to issue a safety standard that's enforceable so that workers who are deemed “essential” actually have some protection when they go into work so that they're not risking their lives unnecessarily. People are getting sick and it's totally preventable. We're not taking the action that is needed. Workers are standing up for themselves. And we should be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them to help get some standards put in place. 

In terms of safety nets, we know that the unemployment insurance program was enhanced by the federal government in the CARES Act. We also know that, historically, Black and Latinx workers have lower recipiency of UI. Just whether they even apply for UI is an issue. We know that there are lots of states that are having trouble processing claims because of volume and because they've neglected their IT systems over many years. With that as the backdrop, in some states, they are calling folks back to work when it's not safe and threatening to report them so that they lose their unemployment insurance. We're fighting against that. 

There's a standard called a “suitable worker” standard. When you're on UI, you have to take a job — and it has to be a suitable job. We’re arguing that if the job is now a job where you have to risk your life, it's not suitable. It is not the same as the job you had before. 

Workers are going to have to fight this out state by state because states have different rules about what is considered good cause for leaving a job. Just about every state has a health and safety standard around that. If your health and safety [are] in danger, you can quit a job. 

But you have to actually go into the job. You have to actually say something to the employer, and they have to refuse. So it’s a complex web of ways in which workers have any rights. We really need that OSHA standard and we really need the Department of Labor to issue some guidance to states around forcing people back to work when it's dangerous.

JG: 36 million was the last number we saw for unemployment claims, which is off the charts. We’re seeing the stress in the system. But you had mentioned in your intro that this wasn't a perfect system to begin with — it was highly racialized. One thing that you always hear is: We need to get back to normal. What would normal look like if we got back to that? And is that suitable? And are there things that we need to do from there? 

RD: When we created unemployment insurance in the 1930s, 90 percent of black women were left out. Because they worked in either agriculture or as a domestic, and those occupations were excluded. We've had some changes to the program over time, but it's essentially still designed for a white male worker from the 1930s who works a full-time job and is the sole breadwinner.

If a person is working a job that doesn't have steady hours — we know some folks who work in retail don't have a set schedule  — if the person is working part time, if you make low wages, so you’re in an underpaid job, those are all things that can keep you locked out of the UI system as it currently is designed. So it actually needs to be modernized to include the workforce that we have today, which is much more diverse. If we're going to have a UI program, it should actually cover folks when they need it.

What we're finding now is that it’s actually not covering folks when they need it even with expansions because they can’t process the claims. If we have 36 million that got through, there's lots and lots of workers who haven't been able to get through on the phones to file benefits, who haven’t been able to get through online to file benefits. It really does mask what the true size of this crisis is. 

JG: To change gears a bit — one thing the Democratic primary did, there’s been a lot of large structural policy changes introduced. What bold structural changes have you been keeping an eye on from your perch that you think would have this effect of boosting the well-being of Black and brown workers?

RD: One of the biggest ones is improvements to the right to organize. There have been proposals introduced so that workers can organize on a sectoral basis. So instead of having to go employer by employer to set standards, you could actually set standards for the sector. With our folks being segregated into certain sectors, that would be a pretty effective strategy in terms of allowing folks to organize. It makes a difference. The grocery store workers who are organized and who are members of the United Food and Commercial Workers, they’re actually able to use their collective power to ask for — and receive — safety equipment in their stores. But the ones that don't have the power are the ones who can’t enforce it at all. It is crucial to have that. 

One of the issues that we work on is around mandatory arbitration. Basically what that is, is the inability to go to court. If you have a discrimination claim, if you have a harrassment claim … you are forced to sign a piece of paper when you take the job that says you will arbitrate any of these issues. So you don't ever get a day in court. Arbitration is the secret process. Often, you end up having to pay for it. So it advantages the employer. Those are two of the biggest [problems] that we need to fix. 

JG: One set of policies that have made the rounds are these guarantees, which is a reframining of certain things from being something that you earn in the economy to being a basic right. Things like health care to a job to income. Have you had an eye on any of these guarantee policies? Are there any of them that you think would be particularly helpful to Black and brown workers?

RD: I think as we see this recession — which is probably going to be a depression — deepen, having a jobs guarantee program, where there are jobs for folks to go to [is important]. We know some businesses are not going to survive this. We also know from prior recessions that the Black unemployment rate actually peaks after the recession is officially over. All of those folks are going to need jobs to go to. We also know that we need to support state and local governments, because that’s one of the biggest employers of workers of color because of anti-discrimination [policies]. Making sure that we actually do protect workers in that way is going to be super important. Having a guaranteed job to go to that has standards — that has a minimum wage of at least $15, that has safety standards built in. That would be a game changer. 

SR: Rebecca, you’ve shared several things that we need to do in our labor market to upend racial capitalism. This is obviously a monumental task. As you said, we're likely on the precipice of a depression, and we have to push ourselves to reimagine and build a new economic system that actually delivers liberation for people of color. The Forge is a publication that speaks directly to racial and economic justice advocates. From your perspective, what should activists be doing right now to upend racial capitalism? You mentioned OSHA standards, you mentioned improving the right to organize, being able to organize across sectors, mandatory arbitration. How do folks get involved in this type of work? And are there other things that we need to be keeping in mind as we’re in this long fight?

RD: Yes. I want to zoom out first and then zoom in. To zoom out, I think that we should all be looking at this as an enormous opportunity to make permanent structural change. An enormous opportunity to include workers who have been excluded. For instance, in the UI program, we saw that the federal government has included gig workers and independent contractors in the UI program. Let's not let that be rolled back. Why weren't they included all the time? We have this saying in our policymaking of, “Oh, that's too hard. It's too hard to include those folks.” This is the moment where we don't let anyone get away with, “That’s too hard.” 

And then on a micro level, we are the keepers of the narrative around these workers. We are the keepers of the narrative around what is possible. And we need to demand more and not be so willing to be traded off or traded out of different policies. We need to actually come together. We need to support groups that are organizing. We need to support groups that are doing policy. We need to support groups that are doing narrative. All of those groups, to the extent they can, should come together. I think that that would also be a game changer.

SR: Those sound like marching orders to me! I'm curious about what’s giving you hope, what’s giving you life right now?

RD: What’s giving me life is the worker organizing that is in our faces and we can’t turn away.  The fact that we can't turn away from Black and brown workers being essential and losing their lives. We have this moment where the spotlight is on us, and we need to seize that moment. 

It's giving me life that workers are willing to stand up. And by standing up, they are letting groups like ours —  national intermediaries — know [that] they want us to work shoulder to shoulder. They don't want a hand up. They don't need a hand up. They have agency and power. How can we connect to that power to amplify it?That's what's giving me life.

SR: That’s fantastic.

JG: That’s beautiful. Well, Rebecca. Thank you for your years of work on the front lines of these issues and thank you for taking the time to talk to us today.

RD: Oh, absolutely. Have me back again.

 

SR:  Thank you for listening. For more conversations like this one, visit forgeorganizing.org.  We’ll see you on Twitter @ForegOrganizing. For more about Liberation in a Generation, check out LiberationinaGeneration.org and hit us up on Twitter @LiberationIn. Thank you to Nino Moschella for audio post production and editing. Thank you to all our guests for breaking it down with us. Stay well, everyone.  



 

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