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United by Hard Times: Workers Organize Across Race Lines

A tough economy makes cross-race organizing more important than ever.
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Similarly, SEIU’s “Stand for Security” national campaign did a phenomenal job moving workers to connect along class lines, particularly in Los Angeles, where it re-engaged the African American community (once a large segment of the city’s labor). SEIU acknowledged rocky experiences in the ’80s and ’90s, when the black community was bleeding jobs in the union’s janitorial division. But the campaign guarded against racial divisions by showing that the real culprits behind low wages and benefits were not other ethnic groups, but building owners and property managers. Union organizers—black, Latino, and white—educated and mobilized security officers to join them as they knocked on potential members’ doors. They reminded workers that Fortune 500 companies paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in leasing agreements, yet the security workforce protecting the building did not earn enough to provide for themselves or their families. They asked workers if they found it acceptable that property managers spent more money on the flower arrangements in the lobby than on raises for the security officers. The message became more powerful as workers learned that many of the same security companies, property managers, and building owners that operated a non-union workforce in Los Angeles were also operating union workforces in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco.

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In Washington, D.C., a new Jobs with Justice campaign called “Take Back DC” is working to bring together public-sector workers, teachers, and low- to moderate-income residents to take back economic ground they’ve lost in the last decade. These are people who are at times divided by education, class, and race. But they share the burden that privatization places on working-class people. Teachers are dealing with a local administration that invests in charter schools, even as it claims lack of resources and fires public-school teachers. Low-income parents are dealing with the loss of low-cost city day cares, which are being replaced with private ones that are less concerned with the neighborhoods than with making a profit. The day-care workers who once held those publicly funded, union jobs have not been permitted to reapply for their former positions.

Take Back DC is using the same organizing principles that worked for Unite Here and SEIU. Rather than point fingers at one another, members of these disparate groups are seeing the cuts in education and social services, increased privatization, and the attacks on unions as a threat to all of them—the people who make the District work. Their work together is building understanding that issues that traditionally affect working-class communities and communities of color also present a challenge for all of D.C.’s residents. Take Back DC is educating members about the impacts of privatization on the city, and putting people into action confronting the powerful interests, like developers and unscrupulous politicians, who profit from the privatization agenda. As Take Back DC builds the campaign, there is growing recognition that only by working together can these groups hope to win back valuable public services and jobs that make the city work for everyone.

In all three organizing drives, the key was bridging racial divides by highlighting workers’ class interests. In order to do so, the unions had to directly involve workers and put them into action to build a sense of solidarity that could move them beyond artificial divides.

Moving Forward, Together

Despite the constant use of race as a wedge, and perhaps as a result of it, young people today are turning away from old racial divides and leading the way in creating a multicultural America. Data from a 2003 Gallup Poll showed that 82 percent of white 18- to 25-year-olds disagreed with the idea that they “don’t have much in common with people of other races.”

… only by working together can these groups hope to win back valuable public services and jobs that make the city work for everyone.

Spaces like the US Social Forum (USSF) in Detroit serve as opportunities to advance the discussion of building alliances based on class rather than race. The USSF expects more than 25,000 progressive activists and organizers to come together to share their work in areas as diverse as education, stopping the criminalization and incarceration of youth, bringing an end to unjust wars, bargaining collectively for better wages and benefits, attaining reproductive justice, and protecting the environment and Earth’s well-being.

But the overarching theme of the USSF is how we can build a larger movement that addresses not just racism, but the many structures that are impeding people from pursuing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Working people of all races are looking for movements or vehicles through which they can express their self-interest. We cannot allow the right wing and corporate elite to co-opt the anger that is out there, as they have with the “Tea Party” movement and the growing resentment against immigrant workers. Progressives can change the direction of our country for the better by helping working people join together, regardless of race, to be their own champions.

Carlos JimenezCarlos Jimenez wrote this article as part of America: The Remix, the 2010 Spring issue of YES! Magazine. Carlos was raised in a working-class immigrant family in Los Angeles and currently lives in Washington, D.C. He organizes at Jobs with Justice, is a proud union member, and is working to educate and mobilize young workers to win social and economic justice.


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