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Unions and civil rights groups find common ground on low-wage work

Analysis: Racial justice groups provide a boost to Walmart, fast-food campaigns

Three years in, labor protests against retail giant Walmart have become something of a Black Friday tradition. Since 2012, the group OUR Walmart — a union-backed organization of the company’s employees who are demanding higher wages and the right to criticize Walmart policies without fear of retaliation — has turned out workers and supporters each year to picket store locations during the biggest shopping day of the year.

But this year, the company was hit on two fronts: While OUR Walmart allies rallied in the parking lots, some civil rights groups urged supporters to avoid the store entirely.

Those groups, led by the young organization Blackout For Human Rights, organized a nationwide boycott on Black Friday shopping in response to recent events in Ferguson. The economic disruption caused by such a boycott, they reasoned, would send a powerful message against what they see as a widespread pattern of racialized police violence. But supporters of the boycott also singled out Walmart in particular, out of solidarity with the labor demonstrations against the company.

“Walmart became a specific target because of its tendency to pay very low wages and push back against workers that are actually trying to organize,” said Montague Simmons, head of the St. Louis-based group The Organization for Black Struggle (OBS).

That’s how a nationwide protest against racial profiling and police brutality also became an expression of labor solidarity.

While there were notable exceptions, white craft unions in the U.S. were often at odds with the non-union black underclass in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1913, W.E.B. Du Bois — the philosopher, writer and activist — wrote that black workers being kept out of unions had convinced “the American Negro that his greatest enemy is not the employer who robs him, but his fellow white workingman.”

But in recent years some of the most fertile union organizing now has the explicit backing of racial justice organizations.

Case in point: This summer the NAACP, the nation's oldest civil rights organization, unanimously approved a resolution endorsing the fast-food workers’ movement. That movement — made up various groups in roughly 150 cities demanding the right to form a union and an industry-wide base wage of $15 per hour — will launch the latest in a series of day-long strikes on Thursday, Dec. 4.

Members of the fast-food coalition voted to approve the strike date a week earlier, during a Nov. 29 conference call. Rev. William Barber, the head of the North Carolina NAACP, joined the call to draw an explicit connection between the civil rights movement and the modern labor movement.

“I want you to know without a shadow of a doubt that the fight for labor wages and the fight for civil rights are two movements headed in the same direction,” he told workers on the call.

Many fast-food workers have returned the favor. In addition to leading the state NAACP, Barber is the architect of what he’s dubbed the Moral Mondays movement: a series of demonstrations and sit-ins against North Carolina’s government and its policies on issues such as Medicaid expansion, voting rights, education cuts and reproductive health. Several fast-food workers have joined in the Moral Mondays protests.

Amber Matthews, a fast-food worker in North Carolina, said she joined Moral Mondays to protest the state’s refusal to expand Medicaid benefits. Under current state policy, she said she doesn’t qualify for Medicaid but can’t afford health care on the wages from her two part-time jobs.

“I work at Wendy’s, and I work at Arby’s as well, and I can’t afford health care,” she said. “It’s crazy. When I signed up for health care, it was out of my budget, and I made too much money to get Medicaid. But after I paid my bills, I didn’t have any money left over.”

If low-wage labor campaigns and civil rights groups share a sense of purpose, it’s largely because they are often organizing the same constituency. Much of the labor movement’s most intensive organizing is now taking place in the low-wage service and retail sectors, where black and Hispanic workers make up a disproportionate share of the labor force.

“The same people being constantly victimized by police brutality are also being consistently victimized by deprivation of resources and not having access to living wage jobs,” said Simmons of OBS.

Ebony Williams, a Jack in the Box employee in St. Louis, Missouri, said she joined both the fast-food strikes and the protests in Ferguson because she believes she faces racism both inside and outside the workplace.

“At work I get treated unfairly,” she said. “And I leave work just to be treated unfairly in the streets as well.”

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