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July 20 labor actions for Black lives an important step for the movement

Sean Cumming reports on the nationwide labor actions for Black lives on July 20, arguing that they are a crucial first step towards deeper labor solidarity with the anti-racist rebellion


By Sean Cumming

On July 20 thousands of workers across the United States went on strike in what was one of the largest cross sectional, or national strikes, in the last 10 years. The ‘Strike for Black Lives’ was led by the 'Service Worker’s Union (SEIU) through the 'Fight for 15' campaign. They were joined by over 300 community and civil society groups, as well as other unions such as the UFW (United Farm Workers Union), the Teamsters, Communication Workers Union (CWU) and teachers’ unions. It is notable that the unions leading the push for a national strike were those which have been engaged in recent regional or national strike actions. Teachers’ unions led the most recent wave of industrial action in the US prior to the current triple crisis of police violence, Covid-19, and economic collapse. The rank and file of the CWU led a successful strike campaign against Verizon in 2016, and the United Farm Workers have been at the center of trying to organise farm workers in the midst of the current pandemic.


Strikers in Florida surrounded a McDonald’s in a car caravan. McDonald’s workers also struck in Chicago, New York and Durham, North Carolina. The fast food behemoth has been the site of numerous Covid-19 outbreaks. Worker’s have faced racial descrimintation in the workplace alongside starvation wages.  In Detroit five carers from five nursing homes went on strike. Nursing homes have seen some of the most horrifying outbreaks in the midst of the pandemic. Workers and residents have been infected and died at one of the highest rates. 


The strike is an important step in building the fight against a regime in the US that can only offer death and violence. The failure of both local, statewide and federal governments to address the pandemic, the economic crisis exacerbated by the pandemic, and the racist violence of the police has combined to undermine the legitimacy of both major capitalist parties in the US. 


Trump has in recent weeks sent the National Guard, federal police, Department of Homeland Security, and Border Patrol into Portland, Oregon - in order to ‘restore order’. The Democratic Mayor, and Oregon Governor Kate Brown, both offered mealy mouthed criticism and demanded that federal police be removed. At the same time both are giving free reign to local police to tear gas and pepper spray whole neighbourhoods.


In California, Governor Gavin Newsoms was forced to roll back ‘opening’ after a huge spike in Covid infections and deaths. In Georgia, the state legislature is voting on a law to ban public places from demanding people wear masks. The federal Government just handed out millions in payroll protection to large corporations while small businesses go to the wall. Unemployment sits at around 12% in the US (with real unemployment much higher). Many people are still awaiting payment or are unable to claim. The government’s emergency payment program, which many self employed or unemployment insurance ineligible people were relying on,  runs out in August. People are being forced back to work in a situation of spiralling Covid-19 deaths, mass evictions, and state terror. The callous disregard of US capitalism for the life of ordinary Americans is in stark relief.


The 'Black Lives Matter' uprising has been a beacon of hope. The movement is inspiring workers across the country to stand up and fight. Trace Andrews, a nursing home worker from Detroit explained to the Associated Press why she was joining the strike.

“I’ve got 20 years in the game and I’m only at $15.81 (per hour),” she said in a phone interview.


As the single mother of a 13-year-old daughter and caregiver to her father, a cancer survivor, Andrews said inadequate personal protective gear makes her afraid of bringing the coronavirus home from her job.


“We’ve got the coronavirus going on, plus we’ve got this thing with racism going on,” Andrews said. “They’re tied together, like some type of segregation - like we didn’t have our ancestors and Martin Luther King fighting against these types of things. It’s still alive out here, and it’s time for somebody to be held accountable. It’s time to take action.”


The official trade union demands for July 20th were split between vague appeals to  ‘elected officials to begin to rewrite the rules and reimagine our economy and democracy so that Black communities can thrive’; and, concrete ideas about the need to an increased minimum wage and healthcare coverage. This reflects the role of the trade union leadership and their approach to organizing in the short to long term, and the role of union leadership in directing struggle. The leadership is deeply tied to the Democratic Party. Indeed the role of trade union leaders historically has been to act as a bourgeois weight on the working class movement. They are the most removed from the actual exploitation of labor by capital. As such they have by their position more in common with the upper layers of the bourgeoisie than the worker.


This does not mean they cannot be forced to act in the favor of workers, but it does mean that workers need to act independently of the trade union leadership. This is reflected in the demands of the strike. One the one hand the 'Black Lives Matter' uprising is forcing the unions to adopt policies to the left of the leadership of the Democratic party, but at the same time the weakness of the rank and file allows the unions to push people towards an electoral strategy.


The hope is that workers can build more strike actions and begin to raise demands that go beyond asking for the right to vote for this Democrat or that one. We have to put pressure on the trade union leaders and force them to go further. We need real justice, which means economic justice, protection for workers, rent moratoriums, healthcare, social services, defunding of the police and an end to police unions. We need to build confidence in the rank and file of the trade union movement that they can win more than just the bare minimum that the Democrats or the ruling class are willing to give.