Protests over police brutality rocked the country this past week and labor unions weren’t exempt. The killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the incident in Central Park have sparked righteous rage among protesters and pushback from law enforcement and Pres. Donald Trump. Combined with a global pandemic, it’s created a toxic mix of chaos in the United States.
Leaders from several unions commented on the state of the country and the reason for public demonstrations.
“Unbridled racism in this country means that a Black person cannot jog, drive, stand in front of a store, or even bird watch without facing death or the threat of death,” stated 32BJ SEIU President Kyle Bragg. “And recourse only comes when a video surfaces that creates enough anger to force the hand of justice into action. This endless cycle of violence against Black Americans, followed by outrage and no lasting systemic change, must end.
“COVID-19 only compounds the long-existing crisis of over-policing and every day racism that Black Americans face, creating a cascading effect that results in ceaseless suffering,” continued Bragg. “Just as over-policing exposes many Black Americans to increased risk, the resulting over-incarceration puts them at greater risk of exposure to deadly prison COVID-19 outbreaks.”
Lack of access to health care, safe working conditions and police brutality have been the story for many Black people in America. Combined with the coronavirus disproportionately killing Black people, protests put them in further danger. According to Bragg nearly 80% of Black people in the country work service gigs with many of those jobs deemed essential during the COVID-19 crisis.
“…[E]ven public sympathy comes with strings attached, as the blame is put cynically on obesity and personal health and not the virus itself,” said Bragg.
It’s also something that AFL-CIO Pres. Richard Trumka understood. Trumka said that his heart was “heavy” after watching the video of Floyd’s murder and said the union stood in solidarity with Black people and all marginalized people.
“No person of conscience can hear Floyd’s cries for help and not understand that something is deeply wrong in America,” said Trumka. “What happened to George Floyd, what happened to Ahmaud Arbery, what happened to far too many unarmed people of color has happened for centuries. The difference is now we have cell phones. It’s there for all of us to see. And we can’t turn our heads and look away because we feel uncomfortable.”
Many labor unions believe racism is also a labor issue because of how it affects the workplace and unions (and unions are a part of the community). From New York City to Chicago to Los Angeles to Richmond, VA, protests over police brutality have resulted in violence from the police.
AFSCME Pres. Lee Saunders agreed that it’s the job of unions to have their constituents back during the nation’s current crises. Saunders said that the anger of the community is justified and it’s manifested itself through protests.
“The raw outrage we see in the streets comes as a pandemic has needlessly killed more than 100,000 of our loved ones and more than 40 million Americans are out of work, afraid they won’t be able to provide at the dinner table let alone pay next month’s rent or mortgage,” stated Saunders. “We have tried to address the problem of systemic racism peacefully. But those attempts––including kneeling during the national anthem––were met with scorn, mockery and blacklisting. Now we are at the point where millions have nothing left to lose, and they are channeling their anger through violence.
Saunders also suggested other ways to fight for the cause.
“If we want to crush systemic racism, this is where we should begin: by registering to vote and bringing down every politician from the top down who has built a career out of stoking racial flames, failing to prepare our nation for this pandemic, and doing nothing as millions more file jobless claims each week,” Saunders stated. “We must educate ourselves on where they stand. We must register to vote. And we must destroy the rigged system that has enabled their rise to power.”