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United by Hard Times: Workers Organize Across Race Lines

A tough economy makes cross-race organizing more important than ever.

Signs of a New Identity, US Social Forum march, Jimenez

Carlos Jimenez marches with Jobs with Justice at the 2007 US Social Forum.

Photo by Carlos Fernandez

I’m feeling relieved. For a while it seemed like the historic election of our first African American president would give legitimacy to the idea that we live in a “post-racial” America. The idea that race is no longer a part of people’s daily experience is not merely false. It’s potentially dangerous when a majority of people are struggling to understand what’s happening to them economically.

What people are experiencing is exactly what’s supposed to happen to them under capitalism and its current variant, neoliberalism. That economic system is grounded on the idea that society must have winners and losers. It has convinced people that those categories are based on race: that people of color are, in the natural course of things, losers; and that white people, regardless of class, are supposed to win.

When hard times hit, as they have recently, people who are losing their grip on their middle-class status—or those who were already poor and are getting poorer—look for someone to blame. They fall back on the official story: White people’s troubles are caused by people of color; the troubles of people of color who were born in this country are caused by immigrants. It’s a divide-and-conquer strategy that keeps people who are natural allies on a class basis from looking at who’s really causing their trouble: the people who run the capitalist system.

This moment presents both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is to get people with shared economic interests working together—to get them past learned racial divides. As long as poor and working-class white people remain convinced that they win by keeping people of color on the margins, all workers will continue to lose economic ground. The opportunity is to use this economic crash as a way to find common ground among those who are the real losers—regardless of race—in the existing system.

The Current Jobs Reality

The United States is at the edge of a cliff—economically, financially, and ecologically. For many in this country—especially people of color—there’s never been anything but a cliff. After all, losing homes, not having enough food, and being unable to find work was a reality for millions across the country before the great crash of 2008. That reality has not changed, but many more people are now experiencing it.

When hard times hit, people who are losing their grip … look for someone to blame.

Over the last 30 years, the faces of those standing at the edge of the economic cliff have changed. No longer are they just people of color, immigrants, and people without an education. Today, educated and middle-class whites are joining the ranks of those on the brink, and many poorer whites are already off the cliff.

A group of progressive organizations, including my employer, Jobs with Justice, recently released a report entitled Battered by the Storm: How the Safety Net Is Failing Americans and How to Fix It, which illustrates that point. It finds that, in the current recession, unemployment has risen by 4.5 percent for whites, by 6.9 percent for Latinos, and by 6.8 percent for African Americans. As has always been the case, communities of color are disproportionately affected by job losses, especially since they started with higher levels of unemployment.

In spite of a common interest in challenging a system where the rich get richer and the poor stay poor, people continue to buy into the stories that divide them along racial and identity lines. Working people are all working harder and producing more than ever before, yet most have not seen gains in their wages or benefits.

Organizing on Common Ground

Progressives—those who promote social justice, defend self-determination, and share collective responsibility for creating a more just world—cannot miss the opportunity to use this time of economic hardship to break down racial barriers. The economic crisis puts progressives in a position where we can challenge structures, like racism, that cause natural allies to work against one another. Should we choose to sit it out, we will allow reactionary forces to continue to use economic problems to split us along race lines. Working-class people, searching for answers to their economic realities, will move to attack what is depicted as the face of the problem.

The union Unite Here has succeeded in bringing workers together in their “Hotel Workers Rising” campaign. Hotels are places where race, gender, and language play a divisive role in the workplace. Mike Hachey, a northern Virginia organizer with Unite Here, notes that race and gender do indeed come into play in hotels. Latina and immigrant women, for example, form the backbone of the housekeeping department, and as a groundbreaking study recently showed, are much more likely to get injured at work than workers who are either male or of another race. The same study showed that men disproportionately hold hotel jobs as banquet servers, cooks, and dishwashers.

Unfortunately, workers in different departments often don’t talk to one another on the job beyond a greeting and tend to self-divide during breaks. The challenge for the union was building a collective movement that could bring together housekeepers, front-desk workers, and servers to improve wages and working conditions, despite race and language barriers. Unite Here helped workers find common ground on which they could relate. The union identified workers from each department who wanted to improve working conditions and built strong, worker-led committees to be the face of Unite Here. Then they asked the workers to take a variety of actions to help grow the organization and put the power structures in clear view of everyone. Those actions included sitting with new people, reaching out to different departments, participating in meetings between management and workers and their supporters, and stating their pro-union views to their peers. This strategy ensured that workers had a chance to relate to one another and realize their shared interest in winning a union contract.

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