Workers Flex for Social Justice
Never underestimate the power of direct action.
Never underestimate the power of direct action. Starting in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the lack of safety and health protections for a vast number of workers. Then, in May, when George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by a White Minneapolis police officer, demonstrations broke out in major cities and smaller towns, and have now occurred in all 50 states and more than 60 countries worldwide. Some of those actions have included strikes, which sometimes were grassroots-led, instead of being called by labor unions.
Fast Food Workers
Target: McDonald’s, Burger King, and other service industry businesses
Backstory: During the COVID-19 pandemic, labor organizers surveyed 800 McDonald’s workers and reported that 42% were told not to wear masks and gloves by managers, which the company disputed. Workers started becoming ill.
Actions: In April, Los Angeles-area McDonald’s workers staged a drive-thru strike against unsafe work conditions as the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading and employees were falling ill. In May, the strikes were joined by workers in 20 cities in 17 states, with the support of the Service Employees International Union and organized by the Fight for $15 campaign.
Also: Strikes spread across the country in July, when Angela Martinez Gómez, a trans woman who worked at a Burger King in Santa Monica, California, died from COVID-19 after a manager dismissed her symptoms as side effects of hormone therapy. A similar strike of Burger King workers took place in Chicago.
8 Minutes 46 Seconds
Target: Service sector businesses nationwide
Backstory: On May 25, George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin after Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, an act that was caught on video and triggered a new wave of nationwide protests seeking an end to police violence against Black people.
Actions: On July 20, tens of thousands of fast food, ride-share, nursing home, and airport workers in more than 25 cities walked off the job for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in remembrance of Black men and women killed by police. Dubbed the “Strike for Black Lives,” organizers were demanding action by corporations and governments to confront systemic racism in an economy that chokes off economic mobility and career opportunities for many Black and Latinx workers. Organizers also stressed the need for guaranteed sick pay, affordable health care coverage, and better safety measures for low-wage workers who can’t work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Also: The event was organized by a coalition of labor unions, including SEIU, the Teamsters, and American Federation of Teachers; civil rights groups such as the Movement for Black Lives and the Poor People’s Campaign; and the Fight for $15, among many more.
Target: The NBA and WNBA, and other professional sports leagues
Backstory: It started on Aug. 26, with the players of the Milwaukee Bucks refusing to take the court during one of their playoff games to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man shot seven times in the back by White Kenosha police officer Rusten Sheskey. Blake survived the encounter, but was paralyzed from the waist down.
Actions: The protests spread across the country, as games were called off for the NBA, WNBA, and Major League Baseball (the Brewers refused to play one of their home games, and 10 games were postponed league-wide). Even Major League Soccer postponed five matches in solidarity, and nine NFL teams canceled practices. The Kenosha shooting led to three nights of protests in Wisconsin, which culminated with the shooting of three protesters, two of whom died, by Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old Trump supporter from Illinois.
Also: The Bucks’ action led directly to a conference call—from the Bucks’ locker room—with Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul and Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, according to ESPN. Sheskey and other officers were placed on administrative leave. The preliminary investigation into the shooting of Blake concluded Oct. 9, but as of Oct. 19, no charges had been filed.
New York City
Service Workers Walk
Target: Amazon, Whole Foods, Instacart
Backstory: In April, Amazon, its subsidiary Whole Foods, and grocery delivery service Instacart announced they would hire thousands of workers to meet the exploding demand set by people staying home to avoid the coronavirus pandemic. As of Oct. 1, nearly 20,000 Amazon and Whole Foods workers had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, and one warehouse in Kentucky was forced to close for several days after an outbreak.
Actions: On March 30, Amazon and Instacart employees walked off the job. Amazon workers demanded more personal protective equipment against the virus, more paid sick time, and more time for warehouse cleaning. Instacart workers also asked for paid sick time, hazard pay of $5 per order, higher default tip rates, and hand sanitizer for delivery drivers. Amazon’s Staten Island, New York, facility was targeted. Instacart is largely a virtual company.
Also: In mid-March, Amazon bumped up its warehouse worker pay by $2 per hour, but reversed itself at the end of May. The company also ended its longstanding unlimited time-off policy on April 30. Instacart distributed hand sanitizer, but it classifies its drivers as contractors, and has threatened to pull out of markets that mandate hazard pay (as of Oct. 1, Instacart still offered service in New York City). Seattle was the first city to require hazard pay for delivery or ride-sharing workers, and at least $350,000 had been paid out to employees of various other delivery companies by Sept. 17.