Black workers embody the new low-wage economy

Amid recent Walmart and fast-food strikes, a chance arises to rethink African-American labor

Shomari Davis, of the IBEW union's Local 11, shakes hands with Lloyd Cooks, a painter and fellow member of the Black Labor Construction Council.
E. Tammy Kim for Al Jazeera America

LOS ANGELES — Grant Henry and his friend Vance hung back under desert trees, avoiding the sun-baked center of Leimert Park. It was Saturday morning, the day before the nation’s largest union gathering, the AFL-CIO convention, was to kick off a historic “inclusion conference” a few miles away.

A mostly African-American crowd assembled in the park for a “Ready to Work” rally and jobs fair hosted by the nonprofit Black Worker Center. Henry, 52, a trained bricklayer and dues-paying union member, was currently unemployed and came in search of construction work.

“The union don’t do anything for blacks,” he said. “The foremen are all Hispanic -- they like to hire their own.”

“White people (once) looked at the ‘Spaniards’ as the new kids on the block. They thought they could get them for cheaper. But now it’s the same wages,” said 47-year-old Harlan, another construction worker in attendance. “No one can survive on $8. They’re not bad jobs; they're bad wages.”

Many at the rally voiced similar frustrations as they filled out job applications and took in the promises of union officials and local politicians that blared from the amplified stage. Residents of this historically African-American neighborhood in South Los Angeles would be hired, they’d been told by unions and electeds, for a large public transportation project already under way.

At a nearby McDonald’s, $8 per hour was the going rate. Connie, a 20-year-old African-American college student, said she didn’t mind: “I just work here for a little extra money. If they give us more money, they’ll make us do more work.”

Her co-worker Edgar, a 21-year-old Latino immigrant, felt differently. “I work really hard, and I only get $8. I live with my wife; we barely make enough to pay rent.”

Neither Connie nor Edgar had participated in the recent strikes over working conditions at McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC and other fast-food restaurants. Edgar supported the cause but had been turned off by an aggressive organizer who asked too many questions and showed up at his home. Connie, too busy with work and school, had not heard about the strikes at all.

When you lower the standards in retail, you lower them for African-Americans.

While recent street actions by fast-food and Walmart workers have aimed to highlight industry conditions writ large, in many cities the faces of protest have been notably brown and black. Their presence reflects the disproportionate concentration of Latinos and African-Americans -- about 40 percent -- in entry-level retail and service jobs.

In places like St. Louis, Detroit, New York and Durham, N.C., African-Americans have come to symbolize low-wage labor, a role typically filled by immigrants. Yet in contrast to campaigns for domestic workers, janitors and car washeros that connect workers’ rights to immigrant rights, the fast-food and retail movements have shied away from a racial-justice framework. Beyond analogies to the March on Washington, speeches by civil rights leaders and Walmart worker caravans inspired by the Freedom Riders of yore, race has not been on the agenda.

Lola Smallwood Cuevas, director of the Los Angeles Black Worker Center, is concerned that these movements lack African-American leadership and have shallow community roots. “You have a campaign with mostly black workers where they’re not talking about this as a black issue,” she said.

The reticence could be strategic, with the movement avoiding black-identity politics in order to maintain a class-based approach and woo a broader public. “People find (race) complicating as opposed to explanatory,” said ReNika Moore, director of the economic justice group at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “From the media standpoint, there’s a weariness to talking about the struggles of African-Americans in particular.” 

Within the black community, non-union labor activism is underdeveloped. Social and economic factors have “dismantled” the “infrastructure of black organizing around work,” said Cuevas. “You’re fighting the prison industrial complex, homelessness, health outcomes.”

“With immigrants, the dominant pull was jobs -- that was essential -- but with African-Americans, it was about the elimination of rights, the suppression of humanity,” said Steven Pitts, a labor economist at the University of California, Berkeley. “The freedom struggle is around a lot of things.”

Aarin Foster, a father and striking Subway worker in downtown Chicago, is aware of the high rates of black underemployment and unemployment -- twice that of whites -- but sees food workers’ rights “as an all-color issue.”   

But Willietta Dukes, 39, a vocal fast-food veteran in North Carolina, thinks a lot about race on the job. “(Employers) treat you different. They put you in a category, a black category,” she said.

Dukes, who’d been hired by Burger King with the promise of full-time work, is now assigned a mere 25 to 27 hours per week. In the lead-up to Obamacare implementation on Oct. 1, many employers have eliminated 30-plus-hour positions to avoid having to insure employees.

Black workers and their supporters rally for quality jobs in L.A.'s Leimert Park.
E. Tammy Kim for Al Jazeera America

The ability to work a full 40 hours is why Hezron, 32, a black immigrant from Kenya, expresses satisfaction with his job at Walmart. “I don’t see any reason to participate [in the strikes],” he said from Federal Way, Wash. “They give me bonuses every quarter. They pay me much better than my second job.” In addition to his 40 hours at Walmart, at $9.60 per hour, Hezron works 40 more as a gas station attendant, for $9.19, the minimum wage in Washington.

Walmart, America’s largest private employer, reports that last year, people of color constituted 37 percent of its workforce. Around 20 percent of its service and sales workers were African-American.

Willie Baker Jr., retired director of field operations for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), sees the Walmart campaign as significant for black people. (The UFCW is the main backer of the “Our Walmart” organizing effort.)

“Back in the 1950s, GM set the standard. Today it’s Walmart, and they go in the opposite direction,” he said. “When you lower the standards in retail, you lower them for African-Americans. Walmart also spends a lot of money on things that hurt African-Americans: 'stand your ground' laws, voter suppression.”

In Washington, D.C., Walmart’s opposition to a living wage bill -- which would require big-box stores to pay a wage of $12.50 -- has been a political hot potato in the African-American community. Under Walmart's threat that it would eliminate three of its planned stores in the District of Columbia, Mayor Vincent Gray vetoed the bill today. Some black residents, and council members who voted no, had voiced concern about the loss of prospective jobs and grocery access in African-American “food deserts.” Supporters of the bill had accused Walmart of blackmailing underemployed workers.

At the AFL-CIO convention, which began Sunday, federation president Richard Trumka invited a racially diverse group of striking Walmart workers -- dressed in the campaign’s iconic fluorescent green T-shirts -- to join him onstage. He lauded their savvy, non-union organizing, signaling labor’s newfound embrace.

A few hours later, Trumka took the unusual step of endorsing a resolution against mass incarceration. On the floor of the convention hall, before hundreds of union delegates and thousands more invited allies, he spoke of a crisis among black workers and communities, and urged local unions to take action.

“The first time I toured a prison, the most striking thing I saw,” Trumka said, “was how absolutely packed our prisons are with young black men and young brown men. That right there is the result of bias.”

The men behind bars, he said, should be working and going to school, seizing opportunities to rise into the middle class. It was an unprecedented moment for the mainstream labor movement and the start, it seemed, of a broadened, racially informed view of American work.

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