Some of us have always recognized the essential nature of frontline service industry and care workers—overwhelmingly women of color—who have held communities together while being denied decent wages, benefits and safety protections. It didn’t take the existential challenge of COVID-19 to inspire us to salute them and to demand that society meet their needs. I know their power because I was raised by one and have been privileged to march with thousands of others. On Monday, July 20, many of these workers are banding together in a Strike For Black Lives, and they’re counting on all of us to stand as witnesses.
As a child in New York, I watched my mother’s daily toil as a domestic worker, a home health aide and a nursing home worker. She carried an unswerving commitment to the needs of her patients, despite her subpar pay. I carried her values with me in my own work as an organizer and political advocate for SEIU, the healthcare workers union, pushing for better wages and benefits for home health aides and domestic workers and combating attempts to cut budgets for hospitals and nursing homes. I will never forget the feeling of marching to Capitol Hill with these courageous workers to protest political assaults on their worth and pride. Their spirit and determination drive me forward in the quest for justice every day.
The energy, vitality and importance of these workers has never been more clear than during the pandemic. For months, tens of millions of health care workers have been on the frontlines without sufficient personal protective equipment or paid sick time, even as the coronavirus has ravaged our country, especially in communities of color. In the ensuing economic depression, tens of millions of people have lost their jobs, and with them, their health care.
These are workers who, in the best of times, lack a secure income, affordable health care, and benefits that would give them a bare modicum of stability. They are disproportionately people of color who must battle the effects of systemic racism. And for too long, society has ignored the needs of these workers and their families. The result is a rigged economy that only works for the few at the top and systematically hollows out the prospects of everybody else.
As COVID-19 has revealed the deep cracks and divides that have long existed at every level of our society, the recent killings of unarmed Black Americans have also forced the world to awaken to the movement for Black lives. And it is with both of these interconnected injustices in mind that on July 20, workers across the country will Strike for Black Lives—a national day of strikes, walkouts, and worker actions to demand racial and economic justice in the workplace and in every aspect of society.
These workers will be standing up against the cycle of intergenerational poverty that traps families in low-wage jobs, segregated neighborhoods, substandard schools, and the daily trauma of being poor—a cycle that robs them of the quintessential American promise to give their children a better life.
It’s caused by redlining policies that denied Black families access to better homes. It’s caused by anti-union policies that make it impossible for people working multiple jobs to earn a living wage. It’s caused by immigration policies that leave millions of undocumented workers vulnerable to exploitation.
Consider Deathea Edie. For six years, she has worked at a McDonald’s in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. The $9.16 per hour she makes isn’t nearly enough to support her family, so she holds two other fast-food jobs. And still, three jobs aren’t enough. There have been times when she found herself homeless and sleeping in her car. When Deathea’s grandson was recently hospitalized, McDonald’s wouldn’t even let her take time off to visit him, and she knew all too well the consequences of ignoring the rule—her two daughters were both fired from McDonald’s for taking time off.
As the movement for Black lives took hold of the country’s consciousness, many self-serving corporations were quick with a hashtag, tweeting their alleged support. And yet their anti-worker policies have disproportionately harmed Black lives. When the CEO of McDonald’s is making more than $18 million dollars a year—2,000 times what the average worker makes—and an employee is sleeping in her car, something is fundamentally broken.
At the Open Society Foundations, we believe in investing not only in the ability of workers to organize but also in building political power in communities of color so that they can have a seat at the decision-making table. We can no longer turn a blind eye to the deadly impacts of structural racism in America’s economy and democracy. On July 20, we will stand in solidarity with Deathea and the countless service and care workers who will stand up and walk out together to demand justice.
And we’ll do it in honor of the late Rep. John Lewis, whose magnificent life’s work reminds us both how far we have come, and how far we have left to travel. He was awestruck at the surge of social conscience we’ve seen this spring and summer—a surge with a direct throughline to the “good trouble” he and his fellow freedom riders started a half-century ago. We’re still fighting the good fight, Congressman, and we won’t rest until the rules work for everyone, and our country finally lives up to the ideals it claims to cherish.
Patrick Gaspard is president of the Open Society Foundations.