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Reversing Labor Laws Rooted in Slavery

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Rebecca Dixon

As we celebrate Juneteenth this year, it is important to acknowledge the lasting impacts of slavery on the workplace and the labor market. The at-will employment doctrine, which allows employers in most states to discharge workers for any reason, and the subminimum wage for tipped workers are both rooted in the employer backlash to Emancipation. These laws continue to disadvantage workers—Black and Latinx workers in particular.

The at-will doctrine stems from the period after the Civil War when employers, largely in the railroad industry, sought to limit the growing power of organized workers—including formerly enslaved Black workers—by reserving the right to fire them for any reason. Proponents argued that if workers now had the “right to quit” without restrictions, employers should have a “right to fire” without reason or explanation. Though never turned into legislation, this practice became entrenched in US law through judicial decisions over the course of several decades.

Today, most employers can legally fire anyone without warning or explanation, a power imbalance that forces many workers to accept exploitative working conditions out of fear of losing their jobs.

Under the at-will doctrine, it is exceedingly difficult for workers to prove when they have been illegally fired for discriminatory or retaliatory reasons or for government agencies to enforce laws protecting workers against discrimination or retaliation. These circumstances disproportionately affect Black and Latinx workers, who are more likely than white workers to have low-paying jobs and express concern about retaliation for speaking out about unsafe or unfair working conditions.

As a step toward addressing this power imbalance, state, local, and federal legislators must enact just-cause laws that protect workers against sudden and unjust firings. Just-cause job protections would require employers to provide and prove a justifiable reason for discharging a worker and to give fair notice. In turn, workers could more safely insist on better working conditions with less risk of losing their livelihoods.

Tipping in lieu of wages is another practice that became widespread following Emancipation, when hospitality-sector employers hired many formerly enslaved Black workers. Even after the Reconstruction era, the labor hierarchy that expected servitude from Black workers remained intact, and compensation for their labor was left to customer discretion. Despite the organizing efforts of tipped workers, most service industries were excluded from the first federal minimum wage law in 1938.

While employers are now required to pay tipped workers at least a subminimum wage, it has been frozen at a paltry $2.13 per hour at the federal level for more than 30 years. State law protections are little better in the 43 states with a subminimum wage. As a result, these workers’ livelihoods are still dependent on the good will of patrons. These laws technically require employers to cover differences between total tips and the minimum wage, but that requirement is hard to enforce and often ignored. As a result, tipped workers still earn fluctuating wages for their labor and may have to endure harassment from the customers they rely on. Black tipped workers—and Black women in particular—are at an even greater disadvantage because they earn less in tips than their white counterparts on average, with Black women making nearly $5 less per hour than white men.

The Raise the Wage Act of 2021, currently stalled in Congress, would phase out this unfair subminimum wage for tipped workers and raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 per hour by 2025. According to the Economic Policy Institute, this shift would help eliminate poverty wages and raise the earnings of nearly a quarter of the US workforce—about 32 million workers. Nearly one in three Black workers, one in four Latinx workers, and one in five white workers would benefit from a raised minimum wage. Black and Latinx women in particular are overrepresented among workers who stand to benefit. According to the One Fair Wage campaign, which advocates for eliminating the subminimum wage, paying tipped workers the minimum wage, with tips on top, could reduce the race-gender wage gap in the restaurant industry by 35 percent.

Members of Congress must act now to pass the bill to make a living wage mandatory across the country.

This Juneteenth, we are in solidarity with workers taking to the streets as part of the Mass Poor People’s & Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly & Moral March on Washington and to the Polls to demand the right to an adequate standard of living and to work with dignity. Protecting workers from at-will firings, eliminating the subminimum wage, and raising wages overall are some of the minimum requirements for an equitable society, one in which all jobs pay a living wage and all workers can advocate for their rights without fear of retaliation or discrimination. Reversing unjust labor laws rooted in slavery is one step toward this vision—and it is long overdue.

This is a blog that originally appeared in full at Nelp on June 17, 2022. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Rebecca Dixon is the executive director of Nelp and an advocate for workers’ rights interested in the intersection of labor and racial equity.


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Juneteenth Jumble

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Politics, Policy, Political News - POLITICO

Juneteenth officially became a federal holiday last Thursday after Biden signed the legislation recognizing it — but what that actually meant for workers in the immediate aftermath has varied greatly.

Some nonessential government offices, federal courts and school districts shut down on Friday, NPR’s Camila Domonoske reports. And “a small number of businesses acted swiftly to observe the holiday — even with just a few hours’ notice.”Some employers had already voluntarily decided to recognize the holiday.

“Other companies say they’re recognizing Juneteenth without actually observing it,” she writes. “Google is not giving people the day off but is encouraging them to cancel meetings. AT&T held internal events recognizing the holiday but also encouraged people to use their existing leave to take Juneteenth off. … Many big banks say they’ll start observing the holiday next year, and in the meantime, they’re are offering employees a floating day off to use sometime this year. The stock exchanges remain[ed] open for this year, although they may reevaluate in the future.”

RELATED: Juneteenth Was Supposed to Be a Holiday for N.Y.C. Workers. Not Anymore,” from The New York Times

This blog originally appeared at Politico on June 21, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Politico is a political journalism company based in Arlington, Virginia that covers politics and policy in the United States and internationally. It distributes content primarily through its website but also printed newspapers, radio, and podcasts. Its coverage in Washington, DC includes the U.S. Congress, lobbying, the media, and the presidency.


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Celebrating Juneteenth, Labor Finds Its Voice for Racial Justice

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In work stoppages, rallies, motorcades and a spectacular West Coast port shutdown, labor tied itself to the movement in the streets.

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—The enormous white stone arch in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza is a memorial to the Union’s victory in the Civil War. Confederate monuments are toppling across the country, but the arch is only getting more popular. At 11:30 on a hot Juneteenth morning, Kyle Bragg stands in its shade, wearing a red T-shirt, a New York Knicks-branded face mask, and a purple hat with the logo of 32BJ SEIU, the 175,000-member union that he leads.

“My son is 25, and my daughter is 29. I worry every single time they’re out of the house,” says Bragg, a Black man who has spent decades as a labor leader. “The most important conversation I had with them when they were young was not about sex or drugs. It was about how to deal with the police.” 

The uprisings that have swept America this month are spontaneous, massive and often leaderless, and the structured world of unions initially seemed puzzled as to how to react. The burning of the AFL-CIO’s headquarters in the early days of the protests was symbolic of the disconnect between organized labor and the streets. But as the days went by, labor rallied to the cause. In the week leading up to Juneteeth, the June 19 holiday commemorating the end of slavery, it seemed unions found their voice.

The ILWU, the longshoremen’s union, spectacularly shut down West Coast ports on Juneteenth. United Auto Workers nationwide stopped work for eight minutes and 46 seconds in honor of George Floyd. The AFL-CIO’s headquarters, boarded up but newly festooned with “Black Lives Matter” banners, became a staging ground for marches and rallies. The labor federation organized a set of coordinated “Workers First Caravan” events across the country on Wednesday, June 17, with union members driving around in cars covered in signs demanding racial and economic justice.

It was not quite the socialist dream of melding labor’s class war with the movement for racial justice into one big, huge, perfect revolution, but it was something. It was an effort by organized labor to publicly tie its fate to that of the people marching in the streets, many of whom have no connection to unions. It was a start. 

And in New York City, 32BJ—a union whose purple shirts and hats and banners are familiar to anyone who has been to any protest for economic justice in the city in the past decade—held protests for the entire week. On Tuesday, union members took a collective knee near Rockefeller Center, in honor of the 30th anniversary of SEIU’s “Justice for Janitors” strike in which Los Angeles police infamously beat and injured workers. And on Friday, Juneteenth itself, 32BJ gathered in Brooklyn for a motorcade that would wind through the city, all the way up to the Bronx, a purple river flowing through a landscape of anti-racism rallies citywide. 

The pre-motorcade rally began just before noon at the Grand Army Plaza arch. Three children were assigned to hold up a green banner reading “JUNETEENTH DRIVE TO JUSTICE,” which kept drooping in the middle as the kids’ attention strayed. Assorted local officials had shown up to pay homage to the day, and to the union, and to the assembled media. The twist-the-knife ethos of New York City politics has been heightened by the weeks of uprisings, and the politicians who consider themselves the philosophical brethren of the protesters are enjoying their sudden moment of advantage against the entrenched powers. Jumaane Williams, the public advocate, gave an obligatory nod to the city’s new ban on police chokeholds, but made a point of not crediting city leaders.

“The only reason that’s happening is because the streets have been hot,” he said. “I know the governor said you won and you don’t have to protest any more. Nothing could be further from the truth!”

When 32BJ president Kyle Bragg’s turn came at the podium, he pulled his Knicks mask down to his chin. “It’s our mission to provide economic justice—but there is no economic justice without social justice,” he said. “There’s a triple threat. There’s an economic crisis. There’s a pandemic. And now there’s a racial crisis.” 

As he was speaking, the microphone abruptly cut off; despite frantic effort, it could not be revived. All fell silent. But after a moment, someone handed Bragg a megaphone. He held it up to his mouth, and carried on.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 20, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.


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The Most Radical Union in the U.S. Is Shutting Down the Ports on Juneteenth

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Outrage over the police murder of George Floyd launched Black Lives Matter protests across the country and world. Most actions are being organized by young black people. While many are working-class and at least some are anti-capitalist, few protests are formally part of the labor movement.

That may change this Friday when the most radical union in the United States shuts down the country’s gateway to the world, West Coast ports, in solidarity with Black Lives Matter on the day commemorating the end of slavery. As Clarence Thomas, a long-time dockworker activist for black equality and socialism, noted recently, “It will be the first time that an international union has ever taken off from work for the purpose of commemorating Juneteenth.”

Thomas, an African American from Oakland, is a proud, third-generation member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). Arguably, no union has fought longer and harder for black equality. As Willie Adams, the union’s first black International President, recently declared: “Our union has a long history of confronting racism on the job, in our communities and around the world.”

By contrast, most unions—hypothetically, the collective voice of working people—seem hesitant to take action. While perhaps by mistake, the trashing of the AFL-CIO headquarters, located near the White House, exemplified the yawning divide separating black and youth protesters and “organized labor.” Yet, consider that the AFL-CIO, however weak it may seem, still represents 12,500,000 workers. There is no larger movement of ordinary people than unions. Despite their potential, unions are issuing nicely worded statements but providing little tangible support to the current protests, the largest working-class uprising in two generations.

Some unions, such as the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) are actively challenging racism, police brutality, and other reactionary policies with progressive, forward-thinking actions. Such militancy and radicalism, not coincidentally, have emerged in unions with larger numbers of black and brown, immigrant, and female members. Still, the ILWU’s Juneteenth action raises the bar for what worker solidarity with Black Lives Matter looks like.

The breadth and depth of this union’s radical commitment to equality may shock those who stereotype unions as liberal or even conservative. Harry Bridges, the ILWU’s first and long-time president, once declared in the 1940s, “If things reached a point where only two men were left on the waterfront, if he had anything to say about it, one would be a black man.” Himself an Australian immigrant and anti-capitalist, Bridges made this claim when this union was more than 90% white.

Zack Pattin, a white, rank-and-file activist in ILWU Local 23 (Tacoma), proudly recounted to this writer some of his union’s history: “We pass down stories about integrating the waterfront and our union in the 30s and 40s, opposition to Japanese internment, Harry’s deportation trials and the fight for immigrant rights, support for Dr. King and the civil rights movement, support for Cesar Chavez and the Delano Grape Strike, refusing to handle South African cargo to protest Apartheid, and resistance to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

ILWU members also understand the role of police in undermining social movements. Pattin made this connection by highlighting the Big Strike of 1934, out of which his union was born. “It’s not lost to us that the formative moment in our history—Bloody Thursday—was a police murder [of two strikers] right outside the San Francisco union hall on July 5, 1934,” he said.

That’s why Jack Heyman, a veteran Local 10 activist and white anti-racist, recently told The Nation, “if you look at ILWU locals’ bylaws, many of them explicitly ban police from membership. That’s because the police have been always been used as tools in the fight against the working people.”

Local 10, the only black-majority longshore branch, and its companion Local 34, have led the way in condemning racist, police brutality. In 2010, the unions shut down the Port of Oakland after local law enforcement killed Oscar Grant. They did so again on May Day, in 2015, to protest the police murder of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man in South Carolina.

After George Floyd’s murder, the country’s leading social justice union once more is playing a major role. Last Tuesday, the ILWU downed tools for nine minutes during Floyd’s funeral. This Friday, Juneteenth, the ILWU will shut down all twenty-nine ports it controls—from San Diego to Bellingham, Washington—for the entire, eight-hour day shift.

Dockworkers intend to use their labor power to send a message. As Local 10 President Trent Willis, an African American, declared at an SEIU-led protest in Berkeley on June 13, “We’re sending a clear statement to the powers that be, our government. We’re sending a clear statement to these corporate bosses that we intend to use our labor, put our labor where our mouth is. We intend to take economic action if our demands are not met.” Willis was referring to the demand to end racist policing.

When taking this political stand, dockworkers appreciate that their strategic locations at hubs of global transport give them tremendous power. The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping corporations, explained in a June 8 statement why that matters: “West Coast ports handle a majority of the maritime cargo that helps fuel the U.S. economy, brings vital goods and medical supplies to local communities, and supports millions of American jobs.” Clarence Thomas put itsuccinctly: “Longshore workers probably understand capitalism better than anyone else…If the cargo doesn’t come off the ship, that’s merchandise not sold. Stopping work…is not a symbol; it’s an act that demonstrates the leverage of the working class.”

Willis, Thomas, Gabriel Prawl (of Local 52, Seattle), Keith Shanklin (Local 34 president) and others organized this Juneteenth stop-work prior to Trump’s provocation to speak that day, in Tulsa of all places. An ILWU press release explainsthis day’s significance, past and present: “Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. On this date in 1865, Black Slaves in Texas were told of their emancipation from slavery two years after the Emancipation Proclamation became effective…our nation has made progress but the changes necessary to end systemic racism have come slowly or not at all, as the murder of Mr. Floyd on May 25, 2020 demonstrated.”

Shanklin, the first black person elected to head Local 34, summed up at the June 13 protest in Berkeley why the ILWU will conduct this Juneteenth stop-work: “to stand up against systemic police oppression and systemic police brutality. We need to understand one thing. We cannot survive in this world no more with police brutality. It’s time for it to end.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on June 16, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Peter Cole is a Professor of History at Western Illinois University and Research Associate in the Society, Work and Development Program at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is the author of Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia and the award-winning Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. He also is the founder and co-director of the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project (CRR19). He tweets from @ProfPeterCole.


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