Labor Day, Anti-Racism, and the New Labor Movement

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By Cynthia S.

How should anti-racists celebrate Labor Day? Or rather, how is the labor movement related to the work we do in fighting for racial justice? Scholar and activist, Ruthie Wilson Gilmore (whose forthcoming book on racial capitalism is worth pre-ordering) reminds us that from the beginning “capitalism require[d] inequality, and racism enshrine[d] it.” How? By giving those who own the means of production (i.e., capitalists) a way of differentiating themselves, Gilmore explains, from those whose labor they exploit (i.e., through “racial practice” and racial hierachy). Capitalism has depended on racism since its very beginning, so “you can’t undo racism without undoing capitalism” (source). Mic drop.

From this point of view, it seems like all of the young, gender-fluid and multiracial workers from Amazon (shoutout to Chris Smalls), Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, and other retail corporations across the nation who are currently organizing to unionize their workplaces have an awful lot in common with a similar looking group that has been mobilized en masse against systemic racism and white supremacy since the police murder of George Floyd. And while each movement might have some criticisms of the other, one has to stop and wonder:  who benefits from keeping these groups from exploring their differences and joining forces? I would venture to say it’s the capitalists, and this, their classic “divide and conquer” strategy.

Of course, it’s important to name that the labor movement (in the U.S. alone) is far from being anti-racist. But this new class-struggle unionist movement that is worker- and not business-union-driven is militant, unapologetically intersectional, and about a lot more than contracts and benefits at a single workplace. Rather, its focus is on reclaiming human dignity for the entire working class by fighting the billionaires that keep us down. For class-struggle unionists, the goal is to reclaim the 99%’s right to the wealth we create by the only means left to us now that the post Roe v. Wade Supreme Court has proven that it — and relatedly, policy —  cannot be relied upon for any systems change that might challenge the right-wing’s hold on the global economy. Strikes — or shutting down production until workers’ demands are met — are one way of reminding the billionaire class of the simple truth: without us, they’re nothing.

But it’s no simple thing, this alliance between labor and anti-racism:  there are differences to be aired, heard, and reconciled. So why not begin this Labor Day? Why not spend at least part of your holiday weekend learning a bit more about how the interests of folks fighting racism and leading this new labor movement might actually dovetail? In other words, what might it take for anti-racists and class-struggle unionists to work together to start creating the world we’re all dreaming of? It can be as simple as checking out the resources linked above, or going down a Google rabbit hole around “racial capitalism.”  And happy Labor Day!

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