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.


page 2

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.

Signs of a New American Identity
Signs of a New Identity, Colors Restaurant, Fekkak
Colors in New York: A Restaurant Cooperative

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.