The COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis it triggered have laid bare the priorities of the capitalist system. It is our lives vs. their profits. But workers have also been fighting back with protests, walkouts, and strikes, from teachers successfully battling school reopenings to Amazon workers fighting for health and safety measures. On August 30, 2020, six socialist organizers met online to discuss workplace organizing in the age of COVID-19 and the role of socialist strategy in rebuilding workers' ability to fight back. Speaking on the roundtable were José Ignacio, a Vermont farm worker and organizer with Migrant Justice; Natalia Tylim, a founder of the Restaurant Organizing Project and a member of DSA-NYC; Jonathan Bailey, a member of Amazonians United and DSA-NYC; Dave Zirin, The Nation columnist and host of the podcast The Edge of Sports; and Kirstin Roberts, a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and DSA-Chicago. The roundtable was moderated by Erica West, a social worker and member of East Bay DSA. The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. Watch the roundtable here.
José “Nacho” Ignacio: Migrant Justice is an organization created and led by immigrants defending the human rights of workers here in the state of Vermont. Here, the majority of the farms are small, with about five to seven workers per farm sustaining the dairy industry. Because most of the farms are isolated, it’s very difficult to go out and to stay connected.
We are one of the few states where you have the right to get a driver’s license regardless of your immigration status. We won the “no más polimigra” law that sets a fair and impartial policing policy where the police cannot collaborate with immigration enforcement. We are also leading the “Milk with Dignity” program, in which workplace standards are created by workers in the dairy farms. Among these standards are dignified wages, fair housing, paid sick days, and protections against discrimination and dismissals without just cause.
We want to expand this program by inviting the Hannaford Supermarkets chain to join. Today, a program like this is needed more than ever because we, the workers, have not stopped working during this pandemic of COVID-19.
We’re also asking the government for economic support. They are calling us “essential,” but they don’t recognize us as such. We are leading a legislative campaign in the state asking for equality, so government support can get to the immigrant community working in farms, hospitals, restaurants, hotels, and other fields where it is needed.
We’re still fighting. We’re still in the struggle. We also are collaborating with other organizations to end racism and discrimination, which throughout these months have only become even more visible.
The impact of the pandemic in our community is affecting us both now and in the long term. Even though we haven’t had higher numbers of compañeros and compañeras getting sick, farms closing and cuts in hours mean that members of our community can lose their jobs and, with that, their housing. That is why we want a deeper change.
So right now Migrant Justice has received donations to economically support workers in the dairy farms. But you all have to know that there are more migrant workers besides the dairy farm workers. So it’s impossible to fill out this demand for support. And that’s why we’re asking for a real change.
Natalia Tylim: I think as Nacho explains, the COVID crisis is hitting every industry and changing work conditions, but also interacting with the conditions that already existed, producing new necessary fight backs because of those connections.
I’m going to focus on the food service industry. I’ve been a restaurant worker for more than 15 years, but I’m currently unemployed, along with many millions of others. It’s one of the industries that’s been hardest hit by COVID-19 —we’re 10% of the workforce, but we make up 40% of the unemployed.
Those in the restaurant industry who are deemed essential workers have faced an immediate deterioration in their working conditions, having to go to work in the face of a pandemic. But also, there’s incredible shortages of staff—less people are being asked to take on additional work, such as cleaning, and not being given extra pay for that.
And it’s definitely the lowest paid rungs of the industry, concentrated in the fast food sector and coming from immigrant communities, that are more likely to be deemed “essential workers.” The current crisis is hitting the most precarious industries the hardest—unlike during the Great Recession of 2007-2008 when the bulk of job loss was actually in the higher-paid, more professional branches. Nowadays, it’s the lowest paid jobs that are being disproportionately impacted by unemployment. This isn’t a coincidence. It’s because almost all of the job creation that happened since the Great Recession of 2008 was in the service sector, in jobs that were part-time, or that did not offer security or benefits.
The restaurant industry specifically represented 84% of job growth between 2010 and 2018. It grew at a rate three times faster than the overall economy. What that means is that there are new large concentrations of workers in one of the most precarious industries. And it’s this that’s being disproportionately impacted by COVID and unemployment.
COVID hit restaurant workers hard because of the existing precarity. The restaurant industry is the least organized in the country. Only 1.3% of restaurant workers are organized in unions, as compared to 10% overall. The existing conditions at work have affected the shape of the crisis for us.
It’s an industry where people don’t have healthcare. Usually, it’s not offered by an employer, but, even when it is, they’ll keep you just below the number of hours needed for eligibility. In restaurants, you don’t get sick days, which means that if you are sick with COVID, you pretty much have to go to work anyway. And I know that seems really extreme and the law says otherwise, but we can see that this is happening.
There’s no set salary, which impacts what unemployment looks like for immigrant workers who, despite doing enormous amounts of work and paying taxes from their paychecks, aren’t eligible for any of the benefits. And people who work for tips have no salary, which means that you might not have a declared income, which is what unemployment is based on in most cities. You’re unlikely to have savings because for the most part you work shift to shift, and there’s no real ability to plan ahead because the restaurant industry moves in fits and starts of business.
So, what I think it feels like now for restaurant workers is that if you have a job, you don’t want to risk losing that job. So you’ll be more compelled to feel like you have to risk COVID in order to go to work. And if you don’t have a job, you’re wondering, “am I ever going to have a job again? Are these jobs ever going to come back?” For the more fortunate sections of the industry that were able to get unemployment benefits, and from the CARES Act, that dynamic, and the sense of hopelessness, were maybe tempered for a little while, delayed.But they’re definitely coming back in full force.
Despite the bleak picture that I just described, COVID-19 has also led to new and revitalized struggles in the restaurant industry, anda wave of workplace actions. When COVID hit, workers organized to make sure that their bosses closed, even though they had no intention of doing so. There have been union drives, some of which have been successful, some of which have won and resulted in the closures of businesses, which is a marking of trying to organize in the restaurant industry. Workers have also been carrying out actions for Black Lives Matter in many workplaces in the restaurant industry.
Looking at this concentration of workers in the restaurant industry, and at the new battles over conditions and norms that are immediately reshaping the conditions of life and work for them, some people in DSA started talking about launching a restaurant worker organizing project, and moved to organize it through its Democratic Socialist Labor Commission.
[Restaurant] workers and labor activists started seeing something new happening in the industry, which has always been very isolating, as people are scattered across lots of tiny workplaces—most people in it work in very, very small shops, with nine in ten restaurants having less than fifty employees. But this crisis threw every single one of the millions of restaurant workers into a shared condition, all at once, all together.
So, we felt like there were opportunities to actually have some of those discussions across our different small workplaces. In the Restaurant Organizing Project, what we try to do is try to use the infrastructure and resources of the Democratic Socialists of America to build an organization of restaurant workers.
It’s by no means the only restaurant worker organization that exists. There are actually lots of different ones that are popping off through workers centers, organizations, and unions. And our organization is not just for DSA members, but what we hope to do is to make resources that will make it as easy as possible for many workers in the industry as possible to act in coordination.
We have a compilation of “know your rights” documents that go through different forms of organizing: minority unions versus industry wide demands versus unemployment demands versus a traditional union drive. Our organization is built around biweekly trainings and discussions that take up the historic challenges that have prevented big successes in organizing the restaurant industry over time, to try and develop strategies that can work past those pitfalls.
Our goal is to break down the isolation that characterizes the industry—between immigrant and citizen, between front of house and back of house—and to try to build collectives and a sense of a base of operation to coordinate workers across all of our tiny workplaces, the individualized misery of our jobs, and to try to organize as workers together in our industry.
There are three main things that that activity has looked like recently. One is unemployed worker organizing—as I said, it’s the industry that has been impacted the hardest by unemployment. There’s a coalition called Restaurant Workers United that brings different groups together and has organized three days of action to demand the extension and the expansion of the federal benefits. Now that the CARES Act has expired, and there are so many people who have relied on those benefits who are now being left out to dry, and evictions are starting up again, there’s a desire to try to build organization around demands and struggles for unemployment relief.
The second thing is support for DSA chapters that are trying to build local organizations of restaurant workers—as of now, there are efforts from 19 chapters in some stage of development. We collaborate with the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee, which is another DSA labor initiative, to follow up with people who are trying to figure out how to organize in restaurants and how to tackle the particularities and barriers that exist.
And the third thing that we’ve been doing is emergency response. The most common thing that happens in the restaurant when you organize is that you get fired or your restaurant closes. And that has been happening. It will continue to happen. For example, in Boise, Idaho, workers were fired for trying to organize around safety and they launched a campaign to demand their jobs back. They have a pending NLRB ruling, and we were mobilizing to have people pressure the workplace from all across the country. One thing we did was write bad Yelp reviews about why we’re not going to order pizza from a union busting shop and everything we could to make the workers feel like there was a broader network of people that had their backs.
The hope is that we can use all of this activism to develop our arguments and work through challenges that are not easy to overcome, and brace ourselves for what we know are going to be very turbulent times ahead. But this is a moment we could actually use to get more organized.
I want to finish just with a couple of strategic things that I’ve been thinking about that I think may be generalizable to people organizing in other industries. The first is that even though we understand that the working class is the agent of social change, that doesn’t always mean that the immediate first step is always going to be directly targeting a shop floor. I think that in the restaurant industry, there are structural barriers to doing so and a lot of times at our workplaces we feel atomized and hopeless and like we’re up against the entire world.
We have to think about what are some of the actual industry-wide things that could be put in place so that you’re not just leaving one job to go to another that has exactly the same conditions. For example, one of the things that’s been coming up a lot in the restructuring that’s happening because of COVID is questions about the tipping system. The sub-minimum wage for tipped workers is still $2.13 an hour. It’s actually a relic of slavery. The tipping system is incredibly archaic and overturning it would change the structural relationship of workers in the industry. The other thing is just that actually things that happen in the world have a huge impact on whether people feel confident to organize the work.
COVID is the most important example where all of a sudden people are being asked to go to work for incredibly low wages and risk their health and their lives. And it’s raised all the questions of precarity and organization.Why are things structured that way?
The other large-scale factor to account for is the Black Lives Matter uprising. I just want to give two really quick examples. In Athens, Ohio, there were instances of workers, in one case refusing to fulfill a large to-go order for cops during the height of the uprising, and in another instance, refusing to honor a discount for cops and fighting to have that overturned as a store policy.
There was also a very successful union drive that just happened in Minneapolis at Tattersall brewery. They just won recognition, becoming the first unionized craft brewery in the country. And part of their impetus for developing their campaign was linking workplace demands with anti-racist demands, fighting around affirmative action at the height of the pandemic—which was partly why they were able to build community support.
I wanted to also mention the issue of unemployment because I think that it’s contradictory. People who were eligible for the CARES Act were making more money from unemployment than they were with their jobs. So you had this situation where on the one hand, everyone’s expectation had been raised by a living wage not offered at their jobs ($600 a week is $15 an hour full time). While on the other hand, that money is gone and we’re being told to go back to jobs that don’t exist and to settle for much less.
The question of where and how you would fight for unemployment benefits has to be developed because it’s not just going to be automatic. Even though the economy depends on the millions of unemployed workers, clearly there’s inaction on the part of the government to support them. The CARES Act shows that if they wanted to, they could carry through and provide such support So the CARES Act has raised expectations in a way that I think provides opportunities for continued organizing.
I think there are some questions about how to do unemployed organizing and the understanding that it’s going to be a factor in our period for the time to come. It’s not just going to go away. We’re not going back to how things were before. I have noticed that in our meetings. It feels like the meetings that we do around workplace training are more popular than the ones around unemployed organizing. I have been thinking a lot about this and believe that the reality is that unemployed organizing can’t be separated from workplace organizing. If you’re a restaurant worker, you’re like, “I’m scared to organize because I’m worried I’m going to get fired.”
So if there’s an unemployed workers’ movement that makes people feel like they’re not totally alone if they’re fired, that there are groups of people organizing to make sure that people are provided for, it makes it more likely for workplace organizing to be successful.
On the other hand, the main bludgeon that bosses have is to say “there’s a million people who want this job, take it or leave it.” Ultimately, I think some kind of demand around a hiring hall or something that allows workers to determine who gets hired and how at different shops is one vision for how to address that.
In general, unemployed workers organizing is an integral part of working class struggle, and we need to figure out how to develop demands and how to exert mass pressure along those lines. The full weight of the crisis has not yet hit, but the immigrant community in restaurants has been hit the hardest both because they can’t access unemployment benefits, jobs are closing, and they’re more likely to be essential workers at risk for COVID. But also because you’re more likely to be in precarious housing, without leases, and left out from the protections of the moratorium on evictions. For an example, I highly recommend this article from the NY Eater that goes through what the crisis looks like in Corona Queens.
The whole question of the divisions that exist in our industries—how immigrant workers and US born workers are pitted against each other, front of house against back of house—has to be at the center of any strategy for organizing in the restaurant industry. I think that what we’re trying to do is an experiment, and it’s a question of how we can develop worker-driven demands to fight around as our industry inevitably consolidates and restructures because of this crisis.
How can we integrate unemployed demands with workplace demands and start to think about the industry as a whole? What could it look like if workers themselves had an answer to that question? If we don’t get ourselves organized and figure out how to overcome the obstacles that we know exist, the bosses are gonna figure out an answer for that, and it’s not going to be pretty.
I think that people in every industry are starting to think through some of these questions. And I really hope that we can use this catastrophic, miserable, horrible moment to organize ourselves so that when this crisis continues, we can have stronger workers’ organizations to respond.
Jonathan Bailey: I’m going to go through a little bit of what we’ve done so far as the Amazonians United over this period, some of our responses to the crisis of the virus, and through some of what our thinking has been in terms of organizing the unorganized—as opposed to working within an already organized space—and how that is relevant to Black liberation in general, and can help us see where we can go from here.
First of all, we, as Amazonians United New York City, went live actually just right before the current crisis of the virus. We were fortunate to be in a position where we had already started to come together—particularly in the warehouse I’m here in Queens, New York—around demands that included sick pay and paid time off. Amazon denied us our right to a safe workplace and sick leave due to us under New York City law, and access to paid time off that is actually promised to Amazon workers.
We focused a lot of our efforts around that, helping people recognize both that our rights were being violated and that applying pressure as workers we could win not only our rights, but push for things that were promised but being denied.
As that was coming together, the real effects of the virus hit, and we made a push to create spaces for Amazon workers to come together from across the country and launch this large national campaign around demands specifically to address issues with the virus.
We were able to leverage our connections through the DSA to fund raise and were able to get Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to support our demands and to contribute to our fundraising efforts, so that we could more easily facilitate building shop floor power.
After an incident with the virus that Amazon tried to ignore, we shut down the Queens warehouse and staged a walkout shortly after, and were able to win our sick leave along with paid time off for our co-workers. It’s important not to minimize the fact that that is really something that came out of our efforts nationwide—of Amazonians United chapters all over the U.S. pushing for paid time off. For us, that was a really big deal because for a lot of workers that’s a couple of weeks of paid time where they don’t have to be at work, whether they are sick or, like anybody who works at Amazon, they just need a break.. So, that was a really, really powerful thing for us and helped us establish a lot of legitimacy as well.
It also exposed a lot of interesting things for us in terms of our relationship to the shop-floor. Because we’re not within a unionized workplace, it’s really just us and our co-workers fighting for a change of conditions—it really became essential that we’re building deep, one-on-one relationships, with as many of our co-workers as possible, so that we could have a deep amount of engagement in whatever kind of actions that we’re doing.
We really had to step away from the current popular method of engaging with Amazon through mobilizing. There are a lot of activities where there will be a route, especially with activist organizations, to really turn people out, create a very visual event, but without reaching that deep and full participation of workers that’s necessary to actually do something like shut down a warehouse. And so when we’re trying to think about the methodology that we’re taking, we’ve been focusing on how much actual engagement we have with this set amount of people. And focusing on that as the method for knowing whether we can actually do an action that will be meaningful or not. Moving away from just mobilizing and really focusing on organizing and developing participation within our set group of people.
For us in Amazon, and in warehouses that are close to cities, this is extremely important to our strategy as socialists overall. Because, as we know, right now, there’s not the type of engagement, especially within Black America, that is necessary for us to build a robust socialist movement that actually prioritizes anti-colonialism in its endeavors. We look at our warehouse and we know that this is where capitalism puts Black people. Though Black folks within New York are not 80% of New York City, our warehouse here has been as high as about 90% Black. When we look to see where capitalism puts Black people, Amazon is one of those places.
So one of the things that we can actually do to ensure that our socialist movement is able to be drawing its ranks from the working class and from colonized peoples is to focus on the workplaces in which capitalism puts colonized peoples. Working in those spaces and ensuring that we’re focusing on actually organizing and developing a deep participation within our movement, we can do a lot more to affect the class composition of our socialist spaces.
One of the ways where this merged for us was when we held a Juneteenth event that focused on our relationship to policing. Many folks know that Amazon has a lot of deep connections with policing. One of the Homeland Security officials actually said that they don’t think there’s been a tighter relationship between the private sector and government since World War II. As socialists, we should be deeply concerned about that because it means that Amazon is actually taking on more and more aspects of state power. For us as socialists, who need to not only be contesting the power of capitalism, but also the power of the state, Amazon is one of those places where it’s getting very blurry where the state begins and ends and where private ownership begins and ends.
You can see this in some concrete moves Amazon is taking, not just through partnerships with police departments through surveillance systems like Ring—in which police have complete access to video footage of neighborhoods—but also even in Amazon hiring ex-military officials and ex-FBI agents.
I was actually interrogated after one of our actions by somebody who started off an hour and a half interrogation by informing me that he had previously worked for the FBI for 25 years. It’s a very clear connection, right? When Black liberation activists can end up being interrogated in the workplace by police officers or their likes, not by the state but by private interests Again, the lines between private ownership and state power are becoming very blurry
So, during Juneteenth, we organized a vigil where we opened up the opportunity for all of our coworkers and folks from the community to discuss and connect the deep history in America of capitalist exploitation on plantations to the way that Amazon exploits our labor inside the warehouse—but also to how it benefits financially from the violence that is executed on us by police outside of the warehouse. That was a very powerful thing, especially when we’re talking about how we connect labor struggles to our struggles against the violence that’s executed on Black folks.
A lot of these pieces demonstrate that it’s necessary to make sure that we’re organizing the unorganized to capture the spaces where capitalism puts colonized peoples. If we want to create new links within workplaces to more effectively mobilize for fights outside of the workplace, it’s essential for us to build deep connections, to actually connect people to struggles that haven’t been before, to make sure that we are doing the work of organizing as opposed to just mobilizing. If we can do that, then we should be able to build a robust apparatus for us to build socialism and to fight both inside and outside our workplaces. Thanks very much.
Dave Zirin: Thanks so much for having me. I’m a late addition to this panel and I really appreciate the organizers of it at Tempest seeing what’s happening in sports as a part of what’s happening in the broader labor movement. If I could do this talk in one sentence, I would just say we’re a hell of a long way from freaking out over somebody taking a knee. The story of what’s happening in sports right now is a story both of inspiration and of efforts at co-optation. And it’s a story that’s being written in pencil, not pen. In other words, it’s a story that still does not have an ending, and we should be wary of anyone who thinks they have an ironclad analysis of what is happening right now because so much is up in the air.
But if we want to understand what’s happening in the world of sports, we want to understand what’s happening in what I would call a sports’ strike wave against racism. It starts by understanding the impact of the police murder of George Floyd, which led to the most important social uprising in decades and the largest series of marches in the history of the United States.
It’s of course, a social uprising that’s been met with terrible violence by both police and by extra-legal militias in league with the police.
Now, on the NBA and WWE. NBA players argued back in June about whether they should play in this COVID-free “bubble” in Orlando and finish out the season in that manner, or if they should just sit out the season.
So as not to distract from the demonstrations in the streets, that was a debate that played out very openly and very publicly. Do we go back and play, or do we stay out? And by going back in play, are we drawing away attention from the urgent questions of police violence and white supremacy? Well, they went back, but to get them to go back the league had to appease the players. They did so by incorporating Black Lives Matter into their business model. People who have seen the games know what I’m talking about. “Black Lives Matter” is written on the court. You have players kneeling during the Anthem. You have slogans on the backs of players that say things like, “say her name” and “equality.” And for some reason, “Education reform” is a popular one and I still haven’t heard anyone say what they are really talking about there.
Call this whatever we want to call it. We can call it “woke capitalism”, or “woke marketing” if you like. But it was corporate symbolism. And this was the model of so many corporations and businesses that put out statements against racism following the killing of George Floyd and after the police shooting of Jacob Blake.
That contradiction just became too intense, as players in the NBA and the WNBA—which it must be said, the WNBA has led on all of these political questions from the beginning— living in this bubble away from family and friends, in dorms, being in close political dialogue with one another, they felt like chumps. They felt like absolute chumps. What they were saying to each other was “here we are playing with ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the court, ‘Black Lives Matter’ on our uniforms, and nothing changes. We feel like fools acting like we’re actually doing something, when all we’re doing is living in both a figurative and the literal bubble.” It just became too much.
So the Milwaukee Bucks—of course, Milwaukee is only 45 minutes away from Kenosha where Jacob Blake was shot—didn’t play on Wednesday [August 26] in their playoff game. And I remember getting text messages from people saying, “Hey, the Bucks haven’t left the locker room. Do you think they’re not going to play?” And then before I could even process what was happening there, the news came that other NBA teams would not be playing that evening in their playoff games.
Then it went to WNBA teams, and this was all very stirring, but not surprising. Then it went to MLB, which was stunning because very few Black Americans play major league baseball. Then it went to the NHL, which has even fewer Black Americans playing hockey than even baseball. Then it went to major league soccer. And then Naomi Osaka, the tennis star of Japanese-Haitian descent, said she wasn’t going to play in her next tournament. And she said,
[B]efore I am an athlete, I am a black woman. And as a Black woman I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis. I don’t expect anything drastic to happen with me not playing, but if I can get a conversation started in a majority white sport I consider that a step in the right direction. Watching the continued genocide of Black people at the hand of the police is honestly making me sick to my stomach. I’m exhausted of having a new hashtag pop up every few days and I’m extremely tired of having this same conversation over and over again. When will it ever be enough?
That sense of daring, of her doing this in the lily white country club world of tennis, but also her sense of exhaustion about what’s happening in this country, I think speaks to so many of the sentiments that so many players have made.
Now the sports media, largely because of their basic ignorance, immediately branded what was taking place as boycotts. But they’re not boycotts. They are strikes. And we should be very clear about that. These athletes are not consumers. They are workers. They are withdrawing their labor from the multi-billion dollar global machine of professional sports to protest racism and police violence. Now some people on the Left have cynically rolled their eyes at this. After all, these are very wealthy people. This is what I hear. “They’re not real workers. What are they really sacrificing?” And I think raising those questions really misses something very important that the players have already accomplished.
Wherever this goes, whatever happens, whether it peters out or whether it explodes even more, I think we have to recognize that it immediately accomplished three important things. First and foremost, what the players did by going on strike was to recenter the conversation around Jacob Blake and not on anarchists burning cities or all the ways the Right has tried to reframe what has happened.
Second, they captured people’s imagination about labor striking for Black Lives— with the idea that that could be something real that happens.
And third, they gave a sense of hope during a period of profound sadness and helplessness after the Kenosha shootings—that feeling that we marched after George Floyd’s murder, we occupied, and nothing changed. That feeling of frustration, that after the largest marches in the history of the United States, we’re left with Joe Biden.
And here is the sense of “wait, no, there’s something else that can come out of these marches as well.” Now, this is all incredibly important, especially the second point that I said about this idea of labor intervening in the struggle for Black Lives.
I got half a dozen calls on Wednesday night from labor folks asking how to contact the players. And it was like an electric prod had been put to some of these labor people because it raised a challenge to labor officialdom, from their own members, particularly to people in the teaching sphere and hospital workers, about how can we, as workers, as labor, not be on the sidelines in the fight for Black Lives.
And as this incredible power was being flexed, the forces of co-optation—bosses and sports teams’ owners—were trying to get out and speak of their support for the players.
Entire teams started putting out statements and talking about action plans that came out of conversations between management and labor. So instead of players striking, it was teams announcing that they would not be playing in support of Black Lives. It was labor and management against racism. That’s the way they tried to turn it very quickly.
And sometimes really interesting stuff came out of it, like the statement from the Baltimore Ravens: “We understand that this country was built because of slavery. And the legacy of slavery is something we must confront every day.” And it’s like, “oh, this is on the Baltimore Ravens website, how interesting!” So it said something about how much heat they were feeling that these incredibly conservative entities were putting out these kinds of statements talking about systemic racism, white supremacy, and, as the Baltimore Ravens put on their letterhead, the need to arrest the killers of Breonna Taylor.
Just a remarkable development, but also an aspect of the cooptation that also has taken place. The players, in the absence of a lead from the broader labor movement, they’ve been operating in a vacuum. So the dominant strategy has been trying to wrest concessions from ownership to join the struggle for Black Lives, like the Baltimore Ravens example.
Now, as one could imagine, when dealing with billionaires, this has led to tamping down demands with much of the energy being channeled towards November electoral realism, and, most notably, towards an agreement by NBA owners to open up their stadiums as voting centers this November. And this was seen as a victory. And I have to say, in the context of COVID, this is not a small thing as a matter of a basic issue of public health to have voting centers that are wide open. But it’s also obviously trying to push this away from a labor direction, a strike direction, towards electoral realism.
Also, there’s been a great deal of publicity about the intervention of Barack Obama talking to LeBron James and Chris Paul, who’s the head of the NBA Players Association, and encouraging them to go back to work and use their platform through playing basketball as a way to raise awareness. This is certainly an imperfect echo, but I think historically of Bobby Kennedy telling the Freedom Riders to stop protesting and instead do voting drives and get tax-free status. I think this is Obama trying to neutralize struggle because Obama is a moderate and this is not a moment that calls for moderation.
But this also has some other folks on the Left saying that this is now no longer a story of striking for Black Lives, saying that this is a story of co-optation, of selling out, that Obama has ruined what the struggle was. And I would argue that that’s also way too wrong and way too quick a reading on this.
These athletes are not hardened revolutionaries. They’re not the Freedom Riders either. Frankly, they’re human beings responding to a country that is imploding into itself. And secondly, their social power, while significant symbolically, is not going to turn back Trumpism and remake America. It’s not an industry critical to the functioning of capitalism, unlike the industries we’ve heard discussed already on this call.
We need, instead, to be holding up their example to the rest of the labor movement, to act with similar urgency to this political moment. We need to understand that this situation in sports is on a knife’s edge.
The players now have incredible leverage to use their spotlight to extract concessions from management or to go back out on strike again, especially if police and their militia partners aren’t brought to heal. And, of course, they will not be. They’re being actively encouraged by this criminal president.
We don’t know where this is heading, and we don’t really have a compass in trying to figure out where it is because so much of this is historically unprecedented. But what we can have is encompassed in judging, what we are seeing in any action. I would argue that it lays down a gauntlet that challenges the labor movement to act, and should be seen as a step forward. Striking for Black Lives is now on the table, not as an abstraction, but as a goal worth fighting for.
Kirstin Roberts: This is a really tough act to follow. Thank you so much Nacho, Natalia, Jonathan, and David. Just taking incredible inspiration and many things to think about from your contributions.
Although it seems like a lifetime ago now, the Chicago Teachers Union began the last school year with a contract battle that culminated in an 11-day strike at the end of October. It was really a showdown with the new mayor, a Black lesbian woman from the Democratic Party, tough talking former prosecutor, pitted against educators and parents demanding things like smaller class sizes, increased staffing, having a nurse in every school, better wages —especially for our lowest paid workers— and common good demands like housing assistance for homeless students.
Now, Mayor Lightfoot claimed publicly to sympathize with our demands. Of course, she had to. She campaigned and won the mayoral election echoing our demands. But when it came down to it, she refused to bargain on almost any of them, stating that there just wasn’t any money. But after what turned into a very militant and bitter strike, that for the first time united the two biggest unions in the Chicago public schools on the picket line together, and a real outpouring of solidarity from all over the country and from across the city, Lightfoot was forced to flip over the proverbial mattress and find that money for many of our demands. We won! That successful militant strike was really the beginning of our school year and it helps to explain how our school year ended and where we’re headed.
In the second week of March, it became really clear that the only course to slowing the spread of COVID was shuttering the schools and the rest of nonessential public and private sector businesses and services.
Our first known case of COVID appeared in the Chicago public schools and Lightfoot immediately stood up and said, “no way we’re shutting the schools down. The schools will remain open. I’m shipping out cleaning supplies”. By the way, those cleaning supplies never arrived. A few days later, she was overruled by our Democratic governor, Pritzker, a billionaire with ties to labor and other traditional Democratic party constituencies. He shuttered all the schools in Illinois and instituted a statewide stay at home order within a couple of days. Lightfoot was livid at being overruled, and that the CTU had somehow triumphed over her again. And she really was powerless when the daily infection numbers and death count grew higher and higher.
Now it seemed like it would just be a few weeks at the beginning, sort of an extended spring break during that period. Our state board of education, under pressure from the Illinois Federation of Teachers, passed an emergency set of guidelines, which allowed the CTU to then bargain with the Chicago public schools, basically securing an agreement through the rest of the spring that guaranteed full pay for every one of our members in return for a reduced work day, which is pretty amazing when you think about the wipe-out that was happening in the rest of the economy. In that time, we organized a pretty impressive campaign demanding things like broadband access and computers, as well as emergency relief for the unemployed, PPE for hospital workers, and an eviction moratorium, all common good demands.
We were some of the first in the city, and I think, some of the first in the country, to begin a series of car caravans and socially distanced protests to push for those demands. The first demonstration I went to I was told about by the Chicago Teachers Union, and it was actually for Amazon workers —within days of having been sent home to shelter in place myself.
That period really showed us that a labor Left was growing in Chicago and was getting its head around organizing in a pandemic, as well as grappling with the absolutely failed state of Trump’s capitalist pandemic America.
Now, like everywhere in the world, things began to turn much, much more quickly for the Chicago Teachers Union and for the Left in Chicago after the murder of George Floyd. The protests and rebellion that followed his torture and execution by the police were immediately seen as something that our union needed to respond to. But how to do so was not clear. There was a good deal of debate. you’re going to see if you follow the Chicago Teachers Union closely that we are associated with and publicly supportive of the defund movement initiated by the Black Lives Matter movement.
But our union focus has been mostly around the issue of getting the cops out of Chicago public schools. We’re part of a united front in the city and have been very active in defending the Black- and youth-led protest movement. But that has not been easy for the Chicago Teachers Union and has been a heavy lift in some ways.
We’re not a political party, we’re a union. We have members of our union who are on the wrong side of this moment in history, to be upfront with you. How to stay united against the boss but also on the right side of history can sometimes feel like a big lift. I know sometimes, from the outside, it looks like we’re moving too slow, but we’re fighting the good fight internally as well as externally. I believe in all of these struggles, really.
I just want to say the rank and file involvement in these movements has been stunning. And I think that really set us up for a fight this summer around winning remote learning, because our numbers of COVID cases are not under control. The neighborhood I live in has over 12% positivity rate, for instance. There’s sort of a patchwork around Chicago, but COVID numbers are higher amongst Black, Brown and poor people, and the schools have not invested anything in reopening safely.
So we fought Lightfoot once again, who insisted the schools would open this fall. We are opening, but we are doing so fully remotely for the beginning of the school year. Moving forward, just to sum up, we’re moving into an extremely difficult time for both the formal labor movement, and for the workers’ movement and socialist movement more generally.
We are facing down a budget evisceration. Forty-eight states in the U.S.are reporting drops in revenues of 25% or more. We are going to see a tax on pensions. We are going to see a tax on public services. We are going to see furloughs of workers who thus far have not shown up in the U.S. unemployment polls.
We’re getting ready. Those attacks are already coming in many states, and they are going to sweep this country over the next year. There’s depression. There continues to be the threat of COVID. There’s a Black Lives Matter uprising. And, in the middle of all this, there is an election.
How our movement decides to organize in response to the questions that are being raised by this election, the kind of solidarity that we build, is going to be really crucial moving forward. I think it’s important not to underestimate the threat of the right, both electorally and in the streets.
But let’s prepare ourselves moving forward for how we are going to build resistance if we do end up having a Democratic administration in January of 2021. What are our demands going to look like? How are we going to hold the Democrats accountable to them in the middle of this economic crisis?
I think those are discussions the labor movement and the Left are going to have. And by the way, David, I just want to let you know, there are some very formal and exciting discussions about how to take the example of the WNBA and the rest of the professional athletes into the rest of the labor movement. So be looking out for news about potential general strikes for Black Lives Matter in the near future.
José “Nacho” Ignacio is a dairy farm worker, and part of the coordination committee of Migrant Justice. José’s interpreter was Marita Canedo.
Natalia Tylim is a member of the Tempest Collective and of DSA in New York City. She is an unemployed restaurant worker and one of the founders of DSA’s Restaurant Organizing Project.
Jonathan Bailey is a co-chair of Queens DSA and a cofounder of Amazonians United in New York City. He was recently derided as a socialist at the Republican National Convention, and he’s working to build community control of police.
Dave Zirin is the sports editor for The Nation magazine. He has written 10 books on the politics of sports, and he’s the co-host of the radio show The Collision with Eaton Thomas on Pacifica’s WP in Washington, DC. In addition, he hosts The Edge of Sports podcast.
Kirstin Roberts is a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and chair of its early childhood committee. This is her fifteenth year as a preschool teacher in the Chicago public schools. Kirstin has been an active socialist since 1984. When she’s not busy teaching and doing union work, she’s active with the United Working Families in the 50th ward of Chicago and is hoping to one day elect a socialist from her neighborhood to the Chicago City Council.
We want to hear what you think. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.