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 2015.1
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.2
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.3
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.”4
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.5 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.6
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.”7
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.8
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.9 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.”10
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.11 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.
Profile of a Modern Worker: Lidia Victoria: Organizing Under the Shadow of ICE
Lidia Victoria immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic, ultimately settling in North Carolina to work in meatpacking. She is an organizer who helped win the extended fight to gain legal recognition for a labor union at the Tar Heel, North Carolina, plant of Smithfield Packing, the world’s largest hog-killing factory. This victory, ratified in a December 2008, vote, required a strategy that centered on the fight against white supremacy, including its impact not only on immigrant workers and workers of color but also on the white workers in the plant.12
I remember that day in 2006 when ICE came. It was just a regular day, nothing out of the ordinary. I’d transitioned from the chitterling room at the Smithfield Processing Plant to washing bones and checking the intestines to ensure we were compliant with USDA standards. My husband also worked at the plant on a nearby line, near the hearts. I vaguely remembered seeing the supervisor walk by with a Mexican worker I recognized. I didn’t think much of it.
We got off work earlier than normal, around 2:45 p.m. On the way to our car I saw one of my friends who should have left before us but was still there. She was worried, and she asked me if I had seen her husband. And I remembered that I had seen him walking with the supervisor earlier that day. But I hadn’t seen him after that.
My husband and I went home, and our phone started ringing. People knew that we were in support of the union, and so they called us to see if we knew anything about ICE coming to the plant. We didn’t. My husband and I kept replaying the day in our heads. Had ICE been in the plant?
Then my friend called again and asked, “Ms. Lidia, do you know where Antonio is?” I told her again that I had seen him walking with the supervisor. But I didn’t know where they went, and they didn’t come back. And she said, “Okay, because his father is here, and the babysitter is calling me and telling me that he didn’t make it to pick up the kids.”
That’s when I realized that something was happening. For Antonio to not pick up his children was unusual.
So we waited by the phone. We tried to believe it was nothing serious. It was just one person, right? But we later realized it was not just Antonio. ICE took twenty-six people from the plant that day. I’m still haunted by it. It was terrible.
I hadn’t had this experience before. I came to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 1981. There were many people who left the Dominican Republic and came here during that time. My father came first, then he got visas for me and my siblings to follow. We were documented. We came through New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport and settled in Passaic, New Jersey, where we lived for a little over a decade.
I finished school and started working. My father was working in a metal factory, and they were union. He always told me, “When you fill out the application to get a job, make sure that you put union, yes!” He knew about the sindicatos in the Dominican Republic—that’s what we call unions there. He told me, “The union is like a lawyer who takes care of the employees. Even if you never need it, it’s good to have.” That made sense to me. You know the employers have all kinds of legal protection and insurance. We workers have to be our own insurance. So I joined the union at my job.
Actually, all of us, my brothers too, were in unions. It was common in New Jersey. In some places you couldn’t work there without belonging to the union. And that’s what I was used to. We had contracts that we had negotiated and the company respected them. Employers didn’t interfere in our activities. I never worried about the boss because we had an agreement and we all followed it.
But that changed when I moved to North Carolina.
I had gotten married and had my two kids in New Jersey. And it just became too crowded. Meanwhile, my sister was living in North Carolina. She had a yard and space to park. I felt like it would be easier to settle my family there.
My first job was in Fayetteville at Perdue, where we processed poultry. There was no union. And supervisors did not seem to respect workers. I kept thinking, what’s going to happen if a supervisor does something to one of us? I was there for just under three years before I left in 1995 to go work at Smithfield, processing pork.
When I got there, I was like, wait a minute! Perdue was fine. Everything was okay there. But Smithfield was a big problem. I was working in the chitterling room for over two years at first. Oh my God, I was piping and splashing all kinds of stuff. After a while, I got another position on the kill floor, doing a different job. I saw a lot of bad things. We were working in terrible conditions. It was hot and people fainted. Supervisors did whatever they wanted with employees. They called us names. They fired people for no reason at all, you know? They treated people so badly. I knew we needed a union.
I learned that workers in the plant had tried to unionize several times before. But they never won the vote of the majority of people in the plant. The company made everybody scared to vote yes even though they wanted to. It was easy for companies to cheat. In North Carolina, this was normal. And most of the workers who were from there were like, this is just how it is. We’re going to take what they give us. And they would, you know?
But the need for a union didn’t go away, and workers inside Smithfield were still talking about it. A lot of the Black workers would ask me what I thought about it. When they realized I was in favor of organizing a union, we started having meetings at my house. My husband and I were strong supporters, and the other workers knew they could count on us. Our house was a safe place to gather. We could educate others there. I would say, at least give us the opportunity to see how a union could work. They had no experience with a union, no confidence in it, unlike those of us from other places. So we had to build that up.
There were a lot of different kinds of people in the plant. It was diverse. Men and women, whole families. Black people, white people, Native Americans, and Spanish-speaking people from all over. We weren’t necessarily organized by race at work, but you could see the distinct groups of people in the cafeteria. The supervisors would try to create division around this. They would say things like, “The African Americans are like this, so we keep them here. And the Spanish people, you know they work really hard.”
At the same time, they told other people that the Spanish-speaking people were there to steal their jobs. White people were mostly in maintenance at that time. Maintenance was very important to the company because, you know, they keep the line running. Maintenance workers sometimes had an easier time getting what they wanted from the company back then. Most of the African Americans were already in favor of the union, and I was helping them win support among more of the Spanish speakers. But fewer white people were with us at first. We knew we eventually needed everyone on board to win.
Of course, the company knew our chances of winning decreased the more divided we were. And they played on this. They brought us department-by-department into a room to watch a video about things that they said happened in the past, like strikes. They made it look like people had lost their jobs because of a union. I didn’t understand why they were so worried about the union.
It’s also hard for me to believe Smithfield did not know that some of the workers in the plant were undocumented. I wouldn’t be surprised if they purposefully sought some of them out to work at the plant. If you can’t present proof of Social Security, you’re more vulnerable. And management knew it.
It wasn’t long after we started getting more people excited about the union that ICE raided our plant and took twenty-six people. We never saw most of them again. The next day, you really knew how many immigrants worked at the plant because it was almost empty. People were scared to go to work. Many of them left town and never came back because ICE had also been knocking on doors in the community and taking people from their homes.
I couldn’t eat for weeks after that. I was so sad. My husband and I would wake up in the night and just go over it again and again. What happened? People were always calling, looking for their family members. It created a lot of trauma.
In 2006, we were supposed to have another vote about whether to organize a union. But after the ICE raid it never happened. Smithfield took legal action to stop it. And people who had been ready to vote yes for a union were scared they would be next on ICE’s list. On top of that, the company tried to blame those of us organizing a union for the raid! There were so many rumors.
We tried to get back to the business of organizing our coworkers again, starting almost from scratch. It was hard. And I had to change my own mentality to keep going back and talking to coworkers who had told me no. I knew I just had to keep going.
By that time I think my supervisors realized that I was able to talk to a lot of people at the plant—in English and in Spanish. And they knew I was for a union. They tried to pull me away from the union by offering me a position to talk to new hires. But I would have had to discourage them from talking to people about the union. They offered me a better-paying job, saying that I would be all set and that my husband would be all set. But I was like, what about the rest of the people that work on the floor? God only knows what I said. But they kept pushing. They were like, “The union only wants your money.” And I started to smell a rat. Why are you so worried about someone else’s money? I knew I had to go with my own truth, with what I know I had the right to do.
I was proud of myself for resisting that offer. I could have easily made a different choice, just for me. But that wouldn’t have been fair. We had to stick together. So, yeah, I continued to fight for our union.
We were organizing with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1208 nonstop inside the plant. By that time it wasn’t only me. It was my husband. It was other people, Spanish-speaking people, Black people. We even got white people, you know? It was a lot of people. We knew we couldn’t do this by ourselves.
And outside, people pressured the company in different ways—at grocery stores and at corporate events. Different faith leaders and community groups supported us. Jesse Jackson came to the Yellow House, where we often held our meetings about the union. That was very exciting. They didn’t mind that we showed up in our work clothes, covered in pigs’ blood. People were coming from all over to support us.
And in the end we won the union. In December 2008, we won the vote by 2,041 to 1,879. Now we have a union. The company knows the rules. They have to respect us. I’m so proud of what we accomplished at Smithfield.
But I still tell people that it could be taken away at any point. They must still be active. Somebody fought hard for us to be here and have this union. It’s our turn, you know? We must do it for the future employees, for our children. We all deserve to work in a place that respects us, where we have dignity. Some people have had bad experiences with unions, and I have to remind them that I am not the union. We are the union. And we can change things we don’t like. Everyone has to do their part.
I still do my part. I walk the plant every day. It is so big! But I walk the length of it, trying to make sure Smithfield employees know they have a voice and that they can express themselves when they go to Human Resources with any issue. There are thousands of people in the plant. I can be there for hours walking sometimes. The people closest to the work really are the best to spot problems and propose solutions. So when I hear about something, I ask other workers if they’re experiencing the same thing. Then we come up with a solution together with the company.
People now have the experience of what it means to come together and form a union. And we’re all better for it.
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.”13
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.14
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.15 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.16 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.
Profile of a Modern Worker: Sanchioni Butler: This Is Our Women’s Movement
Unlike the workers at Smithfield Packing in Tar Heel, the workers at the Nissan auto plant in Canton, Mississippi, have not successfully gotten the company to recognize their union.17 UAW organizer Sanchioni Butler, a southern autoworker and one of the pioneering women in the industry, puts this and other struggles in the context of the battle against white supremacy and patriarchy.
My life changed in 1976.
I was in middle school when we moved from the city of Dallas to the suburbs. When I arrived, I found I was one of three Black children in the entire school. It was a tough time for me as a twelve-year-old girl. I was called the N-word. I was spat on. There were a group of kids who did not want me on the bus.
During those years I would spend summers in Louisiana with my grandmother and aunts who were all strong alpha women. We have a lot of strong women in our family, so I knew how to stand up and fight for what was right. Back at school, I tried to fight back against hate the best I knew how. I actually got into several physical altercations to prove I belonged at that school. But my parents got frustrated being called to the school all the time. They told me I needed to figure out how to get along with people that were different than me. They told me there were other ways.
My dad’s union went on strike that same year, and I joined the picket line with him. For the first time I witnessed people standing together to make change in their workplace without a real knowledge of the depth of what that meant. I know people of color went through a lot in the 1960s. But for me, it was 1976 when my life was forever changed.
I soon found my voice through athletics. That’s how I was able to fit in. My peers started cheering me on. They were still talking about me in ways that were uncomfortable, calling me “Black Magic,” “Black Chocolate,” and this and that. But the worst of the taunting went away when I started playing sports.
In fact, sports also got me out of high school. I went to college on a basketball scholarship. But after I got pregnant I had to look for work. My daughter was three in 1988 when I got hired at the Ford plant in Carrollton, Texas—the same plant where my dad had worked and gone on strike. The workers were predominantly men—mostly white men. I came in with a few other Black workers. We had all come through as kids in the summer program. That’s how we got the job.
The work was tough, and they did not make it easy for us. They were especially tough on me. They would say, “Oh, you think you can do a man’s job? Pick that up.” And on top of that, I was sexually harassed. I was harassed by white men and Black men. I did not get a lot of help. But I had to stay there. I needed the job. I had a child to feed, and the job paid well and provided good medical benefits. So I endured it.
An opportunity came up after I’d been there for three years, a shot at a maintenance position. Maintenance is a prime job in any manufacturing facility. They made a lot of money, up to $35 an hour. To qualify for a job of this magnitude, you were required to take a test to get it, and I signed up. But it was unpopular and unheard-of for a woman to do this type of work. I had men from management come up to me and tell me to take my name off the list to take this test. And I had men from the union—the United Auto, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, or UAW—come up to me and tell me to take my name off the list. They would say, “You can’t take that test. It’s not for you.” I was getting threatened because this was a premier job and they did not want me to have it. They didn’t give me the supplies or materials to study for the test. I had to go out and find the books on my own. The only person who encouraged me to take the test and get into the apprenticeship program was my dad. No one else. I had to fight just to take the test.
After years of discrimination the company started hiring more women. Needless to say, we stuck together—we were locked at the hip. I remember we had this crappy bathroom. By standing together and demanding it, we got them to put in a shower and a couch so we could have a place to sit down for a moment during our breaks and monthly cycles. We had all these little battles where we would take complaints to the union and the company. And when they would say no, we would rebel.
We got improvements by sticking together. When I fought to take that test and when we fought for a shower and couch in the women’s bathroom, that was our women’s movement.
Today, the UAW has women’s committees. You hear about the women’s liberation movement around the country. More than a hundred women serve in the US House of Representatives. But frankly, women’s liberation for us was happening right there on the shop floor.
Fourteen years later my life changed again. The Carrollton, Texas, plant downsized, and I had an opportunity to relocate and work in Houston, Texas, or Memphis, Tennessee. I didn’t want to relocate to Houston, so I made a bold decision to move to Memphis. It would be a huge culture shock, so different than Dallas. I had no family there—both of my parents were deceased by then. I had no friends there. I would have to start over.
For my first six months in Memphis, every Friday when I got off work at 2:30 p.m., I would drive six and a half hours back to Dallas. That got tiring fast. And at some point, I knew I had to embrace this new place that I now called home. I remember my first visit to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. I’d seen the pictures as a child, photos of men pointing in the direction of where the shots came from. But to see it in person was something else. I can recall Mahalia Jackson singing “Precious Lord” over the loudspeaker near the room where Dr. King had slept the night before his assassination, and I cried like a baby. It was like an out-of-body experience.
Dr. King had been in Memphis supporting sanitation workers who were simply asserting, “I am a man.” And suddenly, I recalled my own experience—one of six Black kids graduating from DeSoto High School, class of 1983. I realized then that I had a calling in my life and serious work to do that would involve fighting for people who were disenfranchised, poor, and of color. And I knew it would be dangerous work.
I started organizing in September 2004. I knocked on the doors of workers in Columbus, Georgia, who had no union so I could talk to them about how they thought they could make their workplace better. I thought of similar people knocking on these same doors decades before, asking them to register to vote to make their lives better. I had the same fears. I even had someone pull a gun on me once in a small town just outside of Montgomery, Alabama. But I had to keep going. All workers’ labor has value. All workers are worth listening to.
And so I would listen to people talk about how they wanted to improve their jobs and workplace. After all, the workers are the people best positioned to set rules for their workplace. We set rules almost everywhere else in our lives, why shouldn’t we set them at work? We negotiate with lenders when we buy a home or a car. If you’re about to make a major purchase or rent an apartment, you study the contract that you’re about to sign regarding what the rules and regulations are on the property. Even when we die, someone is sitting at the table negotiating the terms of your burial and how to distribute the remainder of your money. We spend most of our time at work. Why not negotiate together with our employers?
We are up against large corporations that have a lot of money. I saw that when I was supporting workers at Nissan in Canton, Mississippi. Labor unions do not have the kind of money that companies have to bring in antiunion firms and fight against workers. We were fighting for one Mississippi, and they were trying to maintain two Mississippis—one for them and one for the rest for us. Supporting workers at Nissan was tough. Nationally the campaign was about the corporation as a whole. But we needed more focus on the shop floor. So many workers had been injured. Everyone had a horror story about them or someone else. Most of them didn’t care how much some executive was spending on a yacht. They wanted to fix what was happening in their day-to-day lives.
I also saw how Nissan used their money to divide the workers. They would encourage white workers in the plant, who were in just as bad a shape as everyone else, to still feel privileged over Black workers. And some people made it sound like if they voted for the union, Black people were going to take over and overpower the authorities. There was this idea that Black people were about to take something from white workers. But many of them had their own “aha” moment after they experienced an injury and saw how the company treated them just as badly as they had treated Black workers who had been injured. It was then that white workers were able to come down from that pedestal to see they were no different than their coworkers. The lesson is that we may all come from different places but we share a lot of the same experiences.
Still, many people in the South have negative associations with anything called a union. They do not really know what it means and how it would work, and we don’t always do the best job at talking about it. They don’t understand that union workers have retirement protection, and I’m not just talking about 401(k)s—I’m talking about defined pensions. They don’t always understand how much better union wages are, or that we get leave time. And they also don’t always see what we’re doing in the community. Union workers collecting money and toys for kids during the holidays, serving food at shelters—that’s your local union. But people don’t always see that. They just see the word “union” and think that the communists or the Black people are taking over.
So we have a lot of work to do as unions. We have a beautiful template. We just need to bring that template into the twenty-first century.
I’ve learned that the messenger really matters. If you’re making $30 an hour, you’re not from the area, and you’re a man with a higher-than-mighty attitude, knocking on the doors of women making $7–10 an hour, people will see right through you. People know when you’re fake. So, in the South, if we can’t come correct, then we can’t come. Local people talking to other local people about organizing—that’s our best-kept secret. And that’s what was behind the March on Mississippi in the spring of 2017
The idea came up in a room of some of the Black pastors who were working with us on the Nissan campaign. They were saying, “We need to take it to the streets like we used to in the old days.” Behind us was this picture of the long march procession that happened after Medgar Evers was murdered in 1963. We were in the same building, the office of the Mississippi NAACP, where the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party returned from the Democratic National Convention in 1964 and planned their next actions. We planned the March on Mississippi in 2017 in that space, and it materialized a few months later.
I remember one of the Nissan workers’ eighty-seven-year-old father marching with him. He kept trying to get his dad to get on the school bus to ride alongside the march. But he refused, preferring to walk with everyone else just like he had done before. That moment was confirmation of everything that I felt during that time at the Lorraine Motel back in Memphis. It had come full circle for me.
We had not won everything then, and we did not win our effort to get a union at Nissan. And that’s why we have to keep marching, keep fighting. People don’t think that they’re worthy. Some people are numb. I think it is conditioning. There is opportunity, but they don’t think it’s for them. They’re encouraged not to rock the boat, not to say anything for fear of losing what little they currently have. And so we have to meet each other where we’re at, and with a clear heart. Just identify one person at work or at your church or at the daycare where you take your kids. Building that support into our daily lives—that’s the only way we can win.
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.18 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.19
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.20
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.21
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.”22
In similar fashion, Black Lives Matter Bay Area joined food service, homecare, and childcare workers in Oakland in their strike against the fast-food industry 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 everywhere, from the courtroom to the workplace.”23
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).24 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.25 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 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.26
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.27 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 meat-packing 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.28 The AFWA has also pressured a number of multinational companies into agreeing to a global convention to end gender-based violence at work.29
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.30 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.31 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.32
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.”33
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.