How Black & Brown Workers Are Redefining Strikes in the Digital COVID Age

Participants gather at The One Million Man March rally at Daley Plaza in Chicago on Juneteenth, June 19, 2020. (Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune)

During George Floyd’s funeral on June 9th, black dockworkers in Charleston, S.C., shut down the nation’s 4th busiest port and gathered to show their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

“All operations stopped, the terminals were shut down, no machines were working, trucks were backed up for miles along the interstate because we weren’t moving anything on the terminal,” said Ken Riley, a black dockworker and President of ILA Local 1422.

The actions were part of a nationwide effort in which the International Longshore Association, which is 65% black, shut down all the ports on the East and Gulf Shore Coasts.

“It was a moving event because we were able to show as workers our ability to stop global commerce,” said Riley. “Any responsible manager is gonna look at that and say ‘Look, we are gonna have to deal with these people, or we are gonna have a problem.’ ”

The shutdown on the docks in South Carolina was one of the hundreds seen across the nation.

This June, the U.S. saw more than 600 strikes or work stoppages by workers in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, bringing the total number of strikes or work stoppages since the outbreak of COVID in the U.S. to at least 900 since March 1.

According to the latest analysis prepared by Payday Report and its Strike Wave Tracker, Payday estimates that the strike and work stoppages total is likely a severe underestimation as many non-union black workers are now calling out en masse to attend Black Lives Matter protests without it ever being reported in the press or on social media.

On July 20, Black Lives Matters activists, in their largest strike action to date, intend to hold strikes and work stoppages in more than 25 cities as part of the “Strike for Black Lives.”

The movement is the largest wave of strikes and work stoppages that the U.S. has seen in decades.

“I am a product of the ’60s and ’70s on up, and I have never ever, ever seen a movement like this,” said Riley.

However, many black workers interviewed by Payday Report say that, once again, white labor leaders are failing to understand non-traditional organizing that has developed from viral social media movements. Social media now provides a platform for voices to be heard that wouldn’t have been heard before. Instagram automation and similar automation on Facebook and Twitter help to build a huge following for grassroots movements, so something that had no following a month ago can suddenly go viral and reach millions of people within hours or even minutes. A tweet can reach a large part of Twitter users even faster than other social media platforms. This is why many businesses carry out marketing campaigns via Twitter and also make use of growth services like Twesocial (read Twesocial review for more info).

Scores of black workers say that this failure is yet another indicator of how the overwhelming white leadership of organized labor struggles to understand the organizing of black workers.

“This could be a growth and power building moment for unions, and it’s not because there is a lack of vision [or] there is a lack of real understanding of the possibility of building power by actually centering people’s lives, and not a pre-described notion of what [lives] should look like,” says Neidi Dominguez, who previously served as a Deputy Director for Community Engagement at the AFL-CIO.

In the era of COVID and digital movements, these strikes look radically different from traditional labor strikes, leading many to worry that the labor movement will again dismiss something that the older generation of primarily white leaders of organized labor fail to understand.

Activists interviewed by Payday Report say the white-dominated union leadership has mostly ignored the strike wave. Worse, the AFL-CIO and some in the white-dominated labor press have even publicly downplayed the strikes, warning activists about celebrating the non-traditional strikes’ success in shuttering so many workplaces so quickly.

No longer are union leaders calling for strike votes with strict control of strike activity, often directed by union staff. Now workers, often in non-union workplaces, are coordinating online and simply walking out over concerns about COVID and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Workers are using WhatsApp, TikTok, Instagram, and viral calls of action to often produce spontaneous work stoppages across the country. And unlike traditional labor strikes, activists are often enlisting the support of black small business owners to close in solidarity with protesters’ calls. The closures put pressure on other business owners to close during these protests or to stop work to address issues of racial inequality.

“People, who wouldn’t call them strikes, aren’t looking at history,” says veteran labor organizer Bill Fletcher Jr., who served as the first Black Education Director at the AFL-CIO noting the role that similar strikes played in driving the Civil Rights movement.

And while employers are still ferociously fighting union drives in workplaces, some black workers have also found their employers fear being labeled as racist.

“Corporations know that if they don’t deal with these problems that they may have a bunch of workers striking at these companies now, and that’s gonna be the attention given to the company automatically through the media,” says Marq Lewis, a black filmmaker and community activist in Tulsa, Okla.

“There is such a collective right now online that you would get ‘canceled’ in less than 24 hours if you were doing something wrong to your employees,” says Lewis. “The movement is so strong right now that people will take their dollar elsewhere, and that’s what a lot of businesses are looking at.”

He says he personally knows of multiple examples of black workers in Tulsa approaching their bosses without the support of a union and winning changes in their workplace.

“A lot of people may say this is not a strike, well, you tell that to these workers now who are getting their grievances heard,” Lewis says.

Some employers are even closing their businesses pre-emptively when activists put out calls for strikes, giving even more fuel to the strike movement.

Still, many activists worry that the leaders of organized labor are failing to take advantage of the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement and build power.

AFL-CIO Publicly Downplaying the Non-Traditional Movement

When protesters shut down the White House in early June, the AFL-CIO canceled a worker caravan planned for June 3, which was designed to shut down the nation’s traffic grid to call for COVID relief.

The cancellation came only a few days after its D.C. headquarters was targeted, burned, and vandalized by Black Lives Matter & other protestors, who were angry with messages denouncing the union federation’s support of police unions.

AFL-CIO staffers told Payday Report that the event was canceled out of fear that protesters outside the White House might co-opt their message.

“If labor leadership is doing anything, they want to be in control, and there was no way that they could have been in control of that,” one top AFL-CIO staffer told Payday Report.

Later that month, the Brooklyn-based staff writer Chris Brooks of the influential labor education organization, Labor Notes, which receives its funding largely from unions, wrote: “There’s a significant difference in whose power is being deployed….With so many businesses joining in symbolic actions to proclaim their support for black lives, conflating this with striking runs the risk of letting exploitative employers off the hook by giving them good PR without examining how they actually treat their black workers.”

Cautioning the labor movement against celebrating the non-traditional work strike movement, he wrote: “What is most worrisome is that this kind of equivocating reinforces bad organizing.”

The AFL-CIO later shared on social media Brooks’ article downplaying the non-traditional strike movement. The article went viral throughout the labor movement, striking a chord among many white labor intellectuals upset over definitions of labor action. Meanwhile, it angered many black workers who saw the article as yet another racist belittling of the accomplishment of black workers in the labor movement.

Prominent white labor journalists like Sarah Jaffe, who has often worked with many unions to promote her book sales, including book events in the very AFL-CIO lobby that was burned by Black Lives Matter protestors, warned that celebrating the non-traditional strike wave could give workers a false sense of confidence.

“The people who did these fact-checks–and, indeed, i–would love nothing more than a massive wave of self-directed worker activity and strikes,” wrote Jaffe in a tweet to her 60,000 followers. “But just like hashtagging everything #GeneralStrike, we won’t get there by pretending or exaggerating.”

Fletcher says, however, that these non-traditional strikes-where mass movements forced businesses to close-play a key role, just how they did in the Civil Rights movement when they gave energy to the streets.

“These shutdowns inspire people to resist, and that’s what’s important,” says Fletcher, who is one of many hopeful activists, who thinks the growing Strike Wave could lead to membership gains for organized labor.

“It’s very powerful what we are seeing and could easily lead to collective bargaining and union organizing for workers,” says Neidi Dominguez.

Dominguez, who recently left the Bernie Sanders campaign where she served as Bernie’s Deputy Director of States, says the labor movement is failing to understand how to organize in communities of color in the digital age.

“I think the lessons for the traditional labor movement are that they are outdated and becoming more and more irrelevant…Workers are being more visionary at this moment than many other union leaders,” Dominguez says.

Black workers like 60-year-old labor movement veteran Mike Duff worry that labor leaders are downplaying the strike wave because it’s a wave they can’t control.

“Traditional unions tend to view the limits of ‘legitimate’ labor activity narrowly – it must be disciplined and coordinated top-down,” says Duff.

Before going to back school at night and eventually law school, Duff served as a Teamsters shop steward and as a baggage handler at the Philly airport for more than a decade. There Duff he participated in a major wildcat strike, which he says are often poorly misunderstood by labor leaders and intellectuals, who often see strikes as something that often needs to be controlled and coordinated.

Now, a labor law professor, at the University of Wyoming, Duff recently published an article in the St. Louis University Law Review entitled “New Labor Viscerality: Work Stoppages in the “New Work,” Non-Union Economy,” which argues that with the rise of the gig economy, digital organizing culture, and increasingly non-union workforce, the nature of workplace actions is changing.

Duff worries that attacks by the AFL-CIO and top labor intellectuals on the growing non-traditional strike wave inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement could dissuade workers from communities of color from getting more involved in the labor movement.

“It reinforces the idea that some white labor activists see issues solely in terms of class and underemphasize the impact of race in labor conflict,” Duff told Payday. Some people who feel the white labor establishment is overly focused on class to the exclusion of race and this-quibbling in an academic way over the definition of work stoppages when black, working-class people feel they are engaging in work stoppages-feed into their [class reductionist] narrative.”

At a time when the viral nature of the Black Lives Matter movement is inspiring strikes across the country, Duff says it’s time for labor leaders to finally listen to black workers and stop downplaying the significance of the Black Lives Matters inspired strike wave.

“It unnecessarily siphons enthusiasm out of the labor movement along racial lines,” exclaims a frustrated Duff.

Black Workers Rewriting Strike Playbook

Following the lead of the fast-food strike movements, which redefined how the labor movement saw strikes in the early 2010s, many workers today have stopped taking strike votes and have opted instead to simply walk out, often in non-union workplaces by coordinating their actions online via Facebook groups.

Taking cues from wildcat teachers’ strikes and “Days Without Immigrants” strikes, many activists have been engaging in “political strikes,” where they enlist the support of community partners to force businesses to close and consequently inspire large groups of workers citywide to call off from their job and take to the streets.

“I went to the protest because I heard it on the radio and heard how businesses and in the Latino community were closing down in support and how people were going to gather,” says one undocumented worker, who called off in solidarity to attend a “Day Without Immigrants” march in Nashville, Tenn. “I was managing a Pizza Hut, and I did not go to work even though my district manager tried to call me in.”

Along with missing out on the breakout moment, Dominguez says that the labor movement has yet to understand where in our digital culture that the protest movement is being organized.

Last month, Dominguez led the distributed organizing effort for Movement for Black Lives Matter for the Juneteenth Days of Actions, where she helped lead several hundred organizers in an unprecedented effort.

On Friday, “Juneteenth” 19th, the Movement for Black Lives asked thousands of workers to take off work to attend rallies and protests in honor of making Juneteenth a federal holiday. The tactic followed similar efforts by unions, who went on strike for years to force a discussion for the need to pass a Martin Luther King holiday.

Collectively, they got more than 65,000 people to sign a pledge, organized 4,000 people into a slack channel, trained 782 in peer-to-peer texting for community mobilization, and texted over 800,000 activists to inform them of actions and get more involved.

“I haven’t seen an effort to that scale in a labor movement, but it’s happening, and it’s not like we aren’t talking about class issues with folks for the Movement for Black Lives,” says Dominguez. “It would smell different, it would taste different if it was mobilizing others around a specific labor campaign, but we’re talking about all these issues.”

The viral energy of these protest movements is leading to an unprecedented number of workplaces closing in response to online calls of workers to walk off the job.

In early June, the Black Lives Matter movement in Seattle-King county put out a call for a Statewide General Strike.

“On Friday, June 12, we urge everyone to spend their time and energy on direct action for lasting structural change. Don’t go to work, and don’t work from home,” wrote the organization in its call to action.

In response, over 250 workplaces closed because many workers called out sick, and some business owners out of respect for their employees of color closed down shop. Trump is opposed to making the day a federal holiday, but Biden has shown support for it, meaning it would be added to the 2021/2022 US Holidays list and every federal holiday list after that, which would be a huge win for the Black Lives Matter movement.

For years, many black labor leaders, who have traditionally organized with local business support and who have faced discrimination as minority small business owners, have been dismayed at the need for the movement to invest in creating alternative businesses that could help sustain progressive movements.

“It’s a downfall of the movement,” Fletcher says. “We should be organizing with small businesses. This is part of a movement of organizing a movement of the majority.”

Even in Chattanooga, Tenn., where the UAW has lost two close nail-biting union elections at Volkswagen in the last decade, black workers working with I Can’t Breathe CHA were able to get more than 44 businesses closed as part of a call for a strike.

“Obviously they’re hurting financially, but they really believe in divesting funds from the police and investing it more in their community,” Ryan Rothermel, owner of the bar Exile Off Main Street, told the Chattanooga-Time Free Press.

For the first time ever, scientists, many employed by academic and research laboratories, went out on their first mass nationwide strike. Scientists stopped their normal work with some refusing to work altogether and others demanding that their employers meet to address issues of racial inequity in the workplace as a result of the non-traditional work stoppage.

Nationwide, more than 5,000 scientists at more than 109 facilities participated in the #Strike4BlackLives.

“Leadership in institutional academia has failed,” Brian Nord, a black astrophysicist at the University of Chicago, told the Chicago Tribune. “That is clear now. This is no longer a debate. This is no longer a question. And so, it is up to us as individuals to gather together our creative energy to take the helm of that leadership as a community and say, ‘No more.'”

A Failure of Union Leaders to Understand Digital Culture

While the labor movement could use its resources to support these calls for work stoppages, most unions have refrained so far refrained from doing so.

“Most of the institutions in the progressive movement don’t even realize what is happening because so much of the leadership are so much older that they aren’t even aware that those things exist,” says Dominguez, 33, noting that even mid-30 year-olds don’t understand ways that the more militant, younger generation communicate online.

“How many of these folks get what Tik Tok is and have been on it or Twitch or have been in a gaming platform where you watch hundreds of players battle each other, but they are having a whole debate about the environment and climate chaos?” Dominguez asks.

“If anyone is gonna strike or take more militant actions, it’s going to be younger people,” says Dominguez. They have these conversations on revolutionary platforms and gaming platforms, but we don’t even know that’s happening because we are much older…And we need to give them space.”

Lack of Support for Black Lives Matter Could Hurt Unions When They Strike Later

Black workers warn that the inability to organize and mobilize in communities of color could hurt labor when they try to engage in more traditional labor strikes.

In 2018-2019, teachers across Kentucky helped organize a series of bold wildcat strikes that helped kick Republican Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin out of office in 2019.

Tia Edison, who serves as chair of the Black Caucus of Louisville-based Jefferson County Teachers Assocation, worries that without standing up for racial justice issues, it could be tough to organize support for wildcat strikes in the future.

The wildcat strikes created major disruptions for parents, particularly low-income parents in communities of color who were often struggling at the last second to juggle childcare responsibilities with their need to go to their own jobs. Through community organizing, the union was able to build support, sometimes even organizing childcare programs set up by supporters of teachers’ unions.

Even with so much of Louisville mobilized behind the protests, Edison worries that without unions getting more involved in racial justice issues they may lose support for wildcat strikes.

“When you are striking and striking on wildcats, it puts parents through real hardship,” says Edison. “They gotta find child care…When they were doing it over retirement, retirement, retirement, I was hearing from parents that this is enough.”

In a school district that is 45% students of color, only 17% of teachers come from communities of color.

When Edison and others suggested that the teachers’ union lobby not just vote against the pension bill, but also against a so-called “Gang Bill” that would negatively impact black youth, she says the suggestion was quickly shot down by white teachers.

“We were told that we were being divisive at that point. It’s not about at all of that, it’s only about teachers’ issues,” says Edison.

Recently, her union stood silent when Democratic Kentucky Governor Andy Brashear signed a bill earlier this year, which would have allowed armed officers into Kentucky schools.

A survey of more than 2,500 employees in the Louisville-based Jefferson County Public School released last December showed that 82% of teachers and administrators in the school district supported having guns in school.

“It’s not an issue to them unless you are black, and then it’s a life or death issue.”

Edison’s union refused to endorse the occupation of Breonna Taylor Plaza in Louisville, renamed after the 26-year-old black paramedic who was killed by police in March.

“They don’t make their members, particularly people of color feel empowered,” says Edison.

With such a lack of public support for Black Lives Matter, Edison has serious doubts about support for another round of wildcat strikes among parents of color.

“They aren’t gonna be okay with another strike over a pension,” says Edison. “I won’t even be okay with another strike if it comes to pensions or retirement.”

Growing Non-Traditional Strike Movement Key to Beating Trump

If unions don’t adapt to the circumstances, the consequences could be dire. Activists say that without a growing movement in the streets, it could be tough to keep up the momentum needed to build mass public support against Trump.

“If you would have asked me in March if we could have beaten Trump, I would have said I don’t think so,” says Dominguez. “COVID happened, and we got our asses handed to us as a movement.

“Then there were workers in these little pockets fighting, all at the local level, people are fighting. The Progressive infrastructure just couldn’t get it together. People were fighting, and they were taking all these actions, but we weren’t connecting all those things.”

The key Dominguez says is to continue the strike wave, which has changed the national conversations. Even Biden is running TV ads featuring Black Lives Matter protestors with the message: “It’s not about him. It’s about us.”

“We need to grow that power and hold that power,” says Dominguez. “That’s the best shot for Biden. We need to make it about the movement and the issues, and we know that.”

She says that unions need to “lean in,” and instead of focusing most of their resources on fighting against concessions in industries hurt by the COVID recession that they should instead focus on going on the offensive by promoting the strike wave.

“We are living in a moment where if institutions like unions can just lend their resources and lend their infrastructure and just contribute to the mass movement and mobilization of young people, and new people that are taking action in the moment, we have a shot at getting Trump out.”

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About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter and alumni of the Guardian. In addition to filing nearly 2,000 stories from 46 states, Elk traveled with Lula from Sáo Bernando do Campos all the way to the Oval Office in the White House. Credited by the Washington Post for being the first reporter to track the strike wave systematically, Elk started Payday Report using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing in 2015. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and works frequently in Rio de Janeiro, where he attended college at PUC-Rio. He speaks both Portuguese and Pittsburghese fluently. His email is [email protected]

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