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Labor Day 2020: Leverage our solidarity to fight for Black lives

Guest column in today’s (Tacoma) News Tribune

(Sept. 7, 2020) — Labor Day traditionally commemorates the labor victories we benefit from today, such as the right to organize unions, a minimum wage, time off, safety on the job and the opportunity for our children to get an education.

All were won by mass movements of working people in solidarity with one another.

Labor Day feels a little different this year, as amid a global pandemic we witness the power of a historic mass movement for racial justice.

We need to leverage the worker solidarity we celebrate now in the fight against racism in policing, and the fight for racial justice more broadly.

I am a proud, life-long resident of Tacoma, raising Black children in this city I love — a city whose police suffocated Manuel Ellis on a city street.

Black Americans are tired, fatigued by years of living in a country that doesn’t love us back or believe in our pain, let alone prevent it. A country that wants to profit off our labor but won’t defend our humanity.

It is a soul weariness that any who have faced enduring hardship can empathize with.

The racist violence that characterizes policing in America has been thoroughly exposed through months of protest, yet police are still shooting unarmed Black folks in the street.

The unchecked police violence we see daily across America is not the work of a few “bad apples.” The murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and the shooting of Jacob Blake, aren’t isolated incidents.

Our modern system of policing was designed to maintain social control and protect property, developed after the Civil War in response to Black Americans’ newly won freedom and society’s imagined resulting dangers.

Along with our prison system, policing has terrorized and curtailed the freedoms of Black Americans, as well as other people of color, indigenous people groups and poor folks. Unaccountable and increasingly militarized policing is the norm in most communities.

Often, the conversation centers on demanding consequences for individual officers, obscuring that the system allows for, even encourages, officers to act with impunity.

Our calls for justice for every victim of police brutality are about confronting this system that allows Black folks to be gunned down in their homes and shot in the back on our streets. We cannot root out racism in policing by removing leadership or a few bad actors. The entire system must be remade.

At its core, the labor movement is a mass movement for change powered by working people whose labor upholds our economy, puts food on our tables and provides the infrastructure and services our society relies upon.

On Labor Day, we recognize the history of organizing against unjust systems in this country that privilege wealthy property owners and corporate CEOs to the detriment of working people and local communities.

Historically racism has been used to break working people’s solidarity, weakening our ability to advocate for ourselves. The struggle for racial justice is inherently an economic struggle that benefits us all.

Black Americans and our allies are the core of the working class, and united, we have tremendous power.

As the first Black elected officer of the Washington State Labor Council, I know that organized labor has not always backed our communities in the fight for racial justice. But it is clear that racism serves to divide working people for the benefit of billionaire bosses and corporate CEOs.

The strength of the labor movement is in our ability to leverage the power of working people to fight our often more powerful opponents. United, we are a force whose achievements we commemorate this weekend.

We have more work to do. When sustained protest, global media focus and national attention aren’t enough to change a violently racist system of policing, it is time for all working people to claim our power, recognize the threat we pose to white supremacy and be an unstoppable force in the fight for Black lives.

April Sims of Tacoma is Secretary Treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO.

CHECK OUT THE UNION DIFFERENCE in Washington: higher wages, affordable health and dental care, job and retirement security.

FIND OUT HOW TO JOIN TOGETHER with your co-workers to negotiate for better wages, benefits, and a voice at work. Or go ahead and contact a union organizer today!