Labor Day 2020 comes at a time of unprecedented racial, political, and economic upheaval in the United States. Earlier this summer, tens of thousands of workers nationwide walked off their jobs and took to the streets to strike in support of the growing Black Lives Matter movement. In August, hundreds of NBA and WNBA players went on strike in protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake; about 70 percent of each league’s players are Black.
These actions and acts of radical defiance by workers have made it clear that systemic racism cannot be separated from the growing and perverse economic inequalities that have devastated Black workers and Black America for generations, and made them much more vulnerable to the current global pandemic. To win the corporate accountability required to rectify this inequality, our labor and worker movement must embrace this racial awakening and elevate and adequately resource Black people in roles of leadership and strategy.
Black workers have long strived to be heard, respected, and paid their worth in the United States. While they are 12 percent of the overall workforce, Black workers represent 17 percent of all frontline-industry workers. With poor access to health care, this places Black workers and their families at higher risk in this pandemic. And with Black and brown workers on track to become the majority of the working class in less than 15 years, the time is now to make sure that this moment solidifies into a movement powerful enough to win transformative victories for Black workers and other workers of color.
In the fall of 2019, a coalition of Black activists and leaders from the labor movement, the economic justice movement, and academia gathered in New York for a three-day intensive conversation on the state of Black workers, our power and our unmet concerns. We gathered specifically to envision a new method, a new project that would elevate both Black voices and Black strategists in our progressive movement as well as promote intentionally a Black, Southern-focused school of thought.
The Advancing Black Strategists Initiative was born from those discussions, and is now a joint project of the Jobs With Justice Education Fund, the Black Worker Initiative at the Institute for Policy Studies, and Morehouse College International Comparative Labor Studies. Our overarching vision is to create at all levels, from students to seasoned veterans, a cohort of Black economic-justice- and labor-focused strategists committed to leading, developing, and advancing policies and campaigns that support the collective power-building of working people, particularly in the South.
Currently, there are far too few campaigns that truly meet these criteria. And this holds everyone back. “Our national labor movement is strengthened and emboldened by every Black strategist that enters the struggle for fair working conditions,” says Tanya Wallace-Gobern, executive director of the Raleigh-based National Black Worker Center. “Strong Black leader-full activism destroys the systems that keep all workers in chains. Black workers are more than ready to lead, and everyone benefits when they follow the sound of our call.”
In short, we don’t just want to be “in the room where it happens.” We want to be architects of the whole damn house.
We know that social and economic justice movements, which should be expanding opportunities for Black thought leaders and strategists, have often collectively fallen short. Bias limits our collective growth. We have seen these glass ceilings before. Reminiscent of the NFL’s welcoming Black running backs and receivers but shunning Black quarterbacks and coaches, many Black organizers have gotten the message that they are great at mobilizing people and building relationships, but they are not ready to run a campaign or lead a program (unless it is solely about Black communities). We are officially taking a knee on all of this!
Research done in the early 2000s on union organizing showed us that when women of color make up the majority of the workplace and they are being organized by women of color, the union election win rate is 90 percent—the highest for any group. Nonetheless, Black women strategists are a rare find in many labor and community organizations.
The Advancing Black Strategists Initiative aims to create an ecosystem and pipeline to develop, nurture, train, and support Black organizers and strategists who will command leadership roles in the movement. We will work with Black strategists who are devising major worker organizing campaigns, who are elevating our school of thought in their academic research and discourse work, and who are crafting the next generation of labor policies. ABSI will help provide an all-Black space for people to develop their skills as strategists and support each other in gaining access to power.
To meet this moment, we have already begun to elevate Black voices from our movement to shape the public discourse on race and labor issues. ABSI leader Dr. Sheri Davis of Rutgers University just launched Black Womxn Demands, a video series where Black womxn activists, trade unionists, feminists, leaders, and scholars discuss current demands for economic, racial, gender, and LGBTQ+ justice for Black people and others.
The South is our primary region of focus. The majority of Black Americans still live in this region, where many of their ancestors were once enslaved workers on plantations. Today, they are building campaigns in a context where they have lost (or never had) access to existing 20th century protections. We Dream in Black, a project of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, is a perfect example of this. Domestic work is rooted in the legacy of slavery. Black women historically have done the vast majority of care work in this country. The New Deal labor protections left these workers out. We Dream in Black takes all of this reality into account in their present-day strategy of organizing and empowering Black women in places like Georgia and North Carolina. Key to their strategy is that their staff reflects their membership, they are grounded in an intersectional approach to their work, and their campaigns are resourced adequately to win.
ABSI will help to support the development of a new school of thought anchored in the principle that working people’s ability to organize and collectively bargain, alongside voting and other forms of civic participation, is a prerequisite for a healthy society and economy. Important to this approach is the inclusion of Black Southern perspectives that center race and gender equity.
Long-term investment is also important. We are investing in a relationship with Morehouse College, a historically Black college of over 150 years, anchored in the South and producing some of the country’s top leaders. The initiative will strengthen Morehouse’s International Comparative Labor Studies program to train generations of Black students to become economic justice leaders.
In addition, the project seeks in the long term to demonstrate why combating systemic white supremacy is critical to the success of all these strategies. A project such as this will take some time to mature, but in this season of great upheaval, we hope to plant the seeds of a new and more diverse labor movement leadership that strengthens the collective power of all working people.