Unions Helped Build the Black Middle Class. The Wealthy’s Political Lackeys Are Out to Gut It. [OP-ED]

By Rashad Robinson Mar 02, 2018

We now know that unresolved and unhealed issues of race sound out so loudly in America that a hostile foreign government can not only hear them oceans away, but exploit them to turn us against one another and alter the outcome of our elections.

The right wing, of course, had already pioneered the use of racism to change policy, as much to get a big pay-out for the rich in the form of massive inequality as to keep racial privilege in place. Their steady campaign reliably attacks Black working people as a means of dismantling protections against the most ruinous consequences of inequality for all working families—health care, the tax plan, housing and, always, unions.

Now the corporate special interests who have been rigging the system against our families for years want to advance their agenda through the Supreme Court in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31. The case is just one tactic in a larger strategy to undermine public service workers and make it harder for working people in general to stick together in strong unions. The case began with a political attack from billionaire Governor Bruce Rauner of Illinois and the people he actually works for: his fellow billionaires, CEOs and the Chamber of Commerce. Their goal is to further rig the system to prevent working people of all colors from building power together, and to preserve the stranglehold the wealthy and powerful want to maintain over our economy and our democracy.

Black leaders and advocates have long recognized the critical importance of unions, especially public service unions, to accelerate progress for Black people. On his last night alive, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood before an audience of Memphis sanitation workers who were risking their lives in a struggle for union rights and urged them to persist. Former president Barack Obama continued the fight by bringing millions of workers, mostly people of color and women, under the protection of labor laws from which they had been quite intentionally excluded for generations, providing stronger ground on which domestic workers and so many others could continue organizing collectively.

It is why the Working People’s Day of Action this past weekend, days before the Janus case was argued, served as an important vehicle for tens of thousands of people to loudly and forcefully defend the constitutional freedoms that this country depends on for making any real progress or generating any real prosperity for its people. Only collectively can Black workers and all workers trapped in a rigged system summon the power to demand real salaries, fair conditions, shared prosperity and investment in our communities. We must fight for that power.

The Day of Action also forced a bit of uncomfortable but necessary truth-telling: while proudly right-wing billionaires cheer on the case, most other billionaires and corporate leaders remain silent. Though they advertise values of inclusion, fairness and progress—even, quite desperately, trying to ride the anti-Trump wave trending among their consumers—they seem to have nothing to say in such an obvious moment of need for working people and in such a telling moment of truth for the fundamental direction of our country.

They have also been silent while White state legislators nullify hard-fought local minimum wage increases in predominantly Black cities, including St. Louis, Birmingham and Kansas City, Missouri, depressing their rightful earnings, even as they court people of color as customers in those very places.

On all counts, we must make corporate leaders own up to their silence and its grave consequences for our lives. Compared to the America of Martin Luther King, we have 60 percent more people living in poverty today, with roughly half of Black workers earning less than $15 an hour. The country has eight-fold more imprisoned people overall, and unchecked systemic racism sends five times as many Black people as White people into the criminal justice system. More than 50 years after the Voting Rights Act, 23 states have adopted voter suppression laws to deny the freedom of democracy to people of color, often explicitly so. These is not just a right-wing agenda. It has become the corporate agenda—just look at who is funding it.

If all the advertisers and politicians who have quoted the inspiring Dr. King to sell their products and political campaigns were themselves inspired to speak out about these injustices, maybe we could then say that corporations were part of the solution.

Janus is both a material and symbolic line in the sand, even in the sandstorm of the corporate-funded right-wing attack on our economy and the many millions of people who keep it going.

When working people are powerful, our country is powerful. And only when the workplace is a fair place can we start to overcome the racism and sexism that keep millions of people from realizing both their potential and their rightful future. That’s why protecting the freedom of women, people of color and all working people to join together in strong unions and build power is the only way our nation will achieve its beautiful potential for all of us.

Rashad Robinson is the executive director of Color Of Change, the nation’s largest online racial justice organization.