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The fight for lives and labour

Black Feminism
Read my facemask: a woman at a  rally of essential workers in Detroit, Michigan,  US, October 2020.  EMILY ELCONIN/REUTERS/ALAMY
Read my facemask: a woman at a rally of essential workers in Detroit, Michigan, US, October 2020. EMILY ELCONIN/REUTERS/ALAMY

The uprising in response to the police murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 in Minneapolis lifted the veil of racism, intertwined with class and gender, in the United States. The killing generated massive protests in the country and around the world, including South Africa, UK and France. The fight is for black lives; the challenge to anti-black racism in the US has gone global. The lesser-known part of this story is the key role played by black women in organizing for racial justice and against precarity.

It should come as no surprise that black women have been at the forefront. They are among the poorest people in a deeply stratified society. They do a disproportionate share of poorly paid labour, care and essential work. Low wages, harsh working conditions and the precarity of essentials such as housing, food and healthcare fuel black women’s organizing for social justice. According to Nina Banks of the Economic Policy Institute: ‘In 2017, the median annual earnings for full-time year-round black women workers were 21-per-cent lower than that of white women, reflecting black women’s disproportionate employment in low-wage service and minimum and sub-minimum wage jobs.’ It’s a yawning wage gap, with full-time black women workers earning ‘48 to 68 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men in 25 states’.

These facts are the historical and current contexts for the labour uprisings of 2020 and 2021, during the Covid-19 catastrophe in the US, and the fight for Black Lives Matter.

Black women have been at the centre of these movements for social change.

The Amazon Bessemer unionization bid

In 2021, one of the most visible US labour struggles – which received worldwide attention – occurred in Bessemer, Alabama, at an Amazon warehouse staffed by an 80-per-cent black workforce, the majority women. The facility opened in March 2020 and the organizing effort to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union began that summer.

Jennifer Bates, one of the black women supporting unionization, gave an insight – in a first-person testimony in Elle magazine – into the terrible working conditions at the Bessemer warehouse that led to the first-ever unionization attempt against the online retail giant in the US. She talked about the relentless wear and tear on the body caused by the machine-like labour and pace of work expected from workers. Elevators used for transporting products up and down the four-story building were off-limits to workers, who could take two 30-minute breaks on 10-hour shifts. Across Amazon warehouses nationally, workers spoke of having to urinate in bottles, a lack of water and proper PPE as Covid-19 infections rippled through their ranks; to stand up to the situation was to be fired.

At the centre of black life in the US today is a 21st century transnational economy that underpins dispossession and economic exploitation

Amazon fought the unionization campaign using well-documented union-busting tactics, including an aggressive PR campaign and captive-audience meetings with workers, featuring slick power-point presentations. On 9 April 2021, the unionization vote was lost with under 30 per cent tallied in favour.

But this was not the end of the story. The union-busting tactics are being legally challenged and the organizing work continues. The Bessemer struggle shines a light on the fact that work considered essential is carried out under untenable conditions – and it is black, brown and immigrant populations, heavily women, who bear the brunt of this work. Their low-wage labour is often also threatened by automation. The business consultancy firm McKinsey Global Institute estimates that ‘about 6.7 million black workers (or 42 per cent of the black labour force) now hold jobs that could be subject to disruption by 2030’.

This deep economic and social dispossession fuels resistance to precarity. Importantly, black women organizers have been the leading voices for social change in a society where wealth is concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite. They are mobilizing and pressing for systemic and radical policy shifts.

The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL)

In 2016 the Movement for Black Lives gained attention for its policy platform crafted in the aftermath of the 2014 police murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. From its inception, M4BL articulated the intention ‘to intervene in the current political climate and assert a clear vision, particularly for those who claim to be our allies, of the world we want them to help us create’. M4BL’s wide-ranging policy push comes in the form of the Breathe Act.

M4BL understands that at the centre of black life in the US today is a 21st century transnational economy that underpins dispossession and economic exploitation. Given this, Section 4 of the Act encompasses a universal childcare allowance and job programmes ‘targeting the most economically disadvantaged’. Laid out in four detailed policy sections, the Act aims to catalyse public policy across a comprehensive set of issues at the national level in order to pull multiple levers for social change. The fight is on to popularize it and put pressure on progressive politicians to advance it.

Family Friendly Action, Care in Action

Two other black- and brown-led organizations fuelled by the activism of the current period are Family Friendly Action and Care in Action. Cutting their teeth by door-knocking and organizing in Georgia in 2018 during the gubernatorial race of Stacey Abrams (the first black female major-party gubernatorial nominee in the US), Family Friendly Action focused on electing those who would support the care economy in the 2020 Georgia election for the US senate. The care economy demand is organized around childcare, eldercare, healthcare and paid family leave. Care in Action, also based in Georgia and with a nationwide reach of over 900,000, organizes on caregiving by focusing on home health aides, house cleaners and childcare providers, who are predominately black, women of colour and immigrant women. Executive Director Jessica Morales Rocketto asserts that ‘they want to remake the political system all together’.

The Amazon Bessemer Alabama unionization fight might be considered the spearhead of the ongoing struggle of workers in the US. The eviction moratorium in the country has ended and housing precarity is pervasive. Federal supplemental unemployment benefits stopped on 6 September 2021. Covid-19 has resurged and continues to hit black and brown communities disproportionately. It’s a potent moment as black women see themselves as an organized force opposed to exploitation. And in Bessemer the effort continues, as workers stand in readiness to withhold their labour, embarking on a new unionization campaign.

Rose M Brewer, PhD, is an activist, writer and scholar who teaches at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Her writings have appeared in Monthly Review online, Socialism and Democracy and numerous other publications.

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