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Across the country, essential workers are on strike for Black lives

Racial injustice and Covid-19 have collided for many essential workers. Today they’re on strike.

A McDonald’s worker behind the counter using a cash register.
Workers in a Miami McDonald’s before the Covid-19 pandemic.
Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Before she got sick with Covid-19, Deatric Edie typically left her house at 5:30 in the morning every day and wouldn’t get home until 1:30 or 2 in the morning, long after her family was asleep. She has worked in fast food her whole life to support her four children and now a grandchild, and even after the pandemic hit she worked several jobs: one at McDonald’s, another at Papa John’s, and a third at Wendy’s.

She’s a shift leader at McDonald’s but still makes just $9 an hour, even though she says some of her peers make $11. “Working three jobs, it’s not enough to cover rent, water, and food,” she said. “I still have to find another way to make those ends meet.” Sometimes that means there’s no food in the house. “I would go without eating to make sure my kids eat,” she said.

That was before the pandemic. Now things are even more difficult. She said McDonald’s didn’t provide her with protective equipment or force customers to wear masks. Edie has diabetes and high blood pressure, putting her at higher risk of complications from the coronavirus, but she had to keep working to make sure her family had enough money to pay the rent and buy food. Then one of her coworkers recently got sick. A few days ago she felt very ill herself, struggling to breathe. She tested positive for Covid-19.

That means she’s now out of work, at home isolating from her family. She’s not getting paid leave from any of her jobs. “I’m very scared right now,” she said. “My lights can go off, I can’t pay rent.”

In response to a request for comment, a McDonald’s representative said in a statement, “McDonald’s enhanced over 50 processes in restaurants. McDonald’s and our franchisees distributed an ample supply of PPE [personal protective equipment] with no supply breaks, including gloves and over 100 million masks, in addition to installing protective barriers in restaurants. We are confident the vast majority of employees are covered with sick pay if they are impacted by COVID-19.”

Being home sick with Covid-19 won’t keep Edie from participating in the Strike for Black Lives, though, which she plans to do over FaceTime. On Monday, July 20, tens of thousands of workers from a variety of lines of work in more than 25 cities will go on strike to demand that the corporations they work for and the government that’s supposed to work for them confront systemic racism.

Fast food workers like Edie will be joined by an enormous swath of the workforce: other low-wage workers like airport employees, ride-hail drivers, nursing home caregivers, and domestic workers alongside middle-class teachers and nurses and even high-paid Google engineers. Those who can’t strike the whole day will walk off the job for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time a white police officer kept his knee on Black Minneapolis resident George Floyd’s neck before he died.

It’s a massive action that will bring together major unions as well as grassroots organizers. The Service Employees International Union, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and American Federation of Teachers will join forces with the Fight for 15, United Farm Workers, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Social justice organizations, such as the Movement for Black Lives, Poor People’s Campaign, and youth climate organizers will also participate. It represents a unique partnership: Labor unions don’t always act in concert, let alone partner with grassroots and social justice groups.

But demand for putting together such an action came from the bottom: workers who have been activated by the toll of the pandemic and the massive uprisings against racial injustice and police violence across the country. They see these things as inextricable.

“Across the country, people are gaining a new understanding that it is impossible to win economic justice without racial justice. That health care for all, fair immigration policies, and bold action on climate change all require racial justice,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of SEIU. “This is a unique and hopeful moment in our movement’s history, because in organizing this strike with our partners, we found broad acceptance and acclamation that now is the time to take large-scale action to demand that corporations and government do more to dismantle structural racism and protect Black lives. We are all clear that until Black communities can thrive, none of us can.”

Edie says on top of low pay, as a Black woman she’s also had to deal with racism. She sees her ordeal reflected in the struggles of the other workers who will go on strike. “We … are in the same boat,” Edie said. “Because we all are essential workers and we all are fighting for the same things.”

Trece Andrews works on the front lines caring for elderly nursing home residents in Detroit, Michigan. Despite her tenure spanning two decades at the same facility, Andrews makes just over $15 an hour. She notes she’s among the luckier ones at her facility; those who work in housekeeping, dietary services, or laundry make more like $10 an hour. “It’s poverty wages we make here,” she said. She makes so little, in fact, that the nursing home isn’t her only job. She’s also started a caregiving business on the side with three clients. As a single mother, she has to forgo health care for her daughter because it would cost so much to add her. She pays out of pocket for her shots and annual physicals.

Andrews is now caring for the elderly in the middle of a pandemic that preys on the vulnerable. Nursing homes have been linked to a third of Michigan’s Covid-19 deaths. At first, she said, her facility didn’t give out the proper personal protective equipment, but only distributed it when workers specifically asked for it. Only recently did the facility hand out everything they needed, like masks, gowns, and gloves. And yet there’s a Covid-19 unit at her facility, and some of her coworkers have gotten sick.

“Anxiety been high for a lot of us,” she said. “People just scared to come to work.”

Her family is also vulnerable. She cares for her father, who has cancer. Her doctor advised her not to go to work, so she took about a month off. But she doesn’t get paid leave, so she eventually went back. “I came on back because you got to have something, money, to survive,” she said. “I just try to distance myself and wear my mask … and protect myself the best I can. But it’s still scary.”

Andrews and her coworkers will be walking off the job on Monday to push for change. “We just want to let people know that we are essential workers, too,” she said. “We been put on the back burner.” They’re demanding better pay, benefits, staffing levels, and safety guidelines.

She sees their fight connected to the larger movement for racial justice. “A lot of my co-workers are Black and brown people,” she said. She herself is Black. “That’s why to us, we relate it to racism. Because we are the ones doing this hard work, but we’re not getting recognized properly.”

Jerome Gage is also a Black worker on the front lines. He’s been a full-time driver for Lyft in Los Angeles for two years. At first he thought he would be able to earn a basic, steady income while fitting in work as he went back to school. And in the beginning he was paid a proportion of his fares. But then the ride-hailing companies changed their systems, and he now gets paid a flat rate per mile. He found himself having to work at specific times to take advantage of peak hours; if he didn’t, there would be times when he made less than minimum wage. “It’s an incredibly depressing experience sitting at 3, 4 am because I have a bill due Monday I have to pay, hoping to make a couple more bucks in the middle of the night,” he said.

That’s why he got involved in the fight in his state of California not just to pass AB5, a law passed in September that classifies many gig workers as employees, but to continue fighting to protect it as tech companies have lobbied against it. Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash have bankrolled a November ballot measure that would exempt them from the law.

The pandemic has made things more urgent. Demand for rides all but halted as the pandemic hit, which meant Gage went weeks without work. And yet he still hasn’t gotten unemployment benefits despite applying for the benefits Congress extended to nontraditional workers like him.

Then there’s safety. Lyft was “incredibly slow to react to the need for PPE for drivers,” he said. “It was an incredibly scary situation.” In July, he said, he got his first packet from Lyft in the mail with protective equipment in it. “They’ve really been negligent in their effort to make a safe, sanitized driving environment.” And yet, he noted, people who are wary of taking public transportation are turning to Uber and Lyft. The services, he said, “are key to help flatten the curve.”

On Monday, he plans to cover his car in signs and join a caravan that will begin at a McDonald’s and then travel to the Los Angeles Unified School District and the University of Southern California to demand they both stop using police on campus. He noted that a lot of his fellow gig workers are people of color. “These two things are totally related,” he said. He won’t take any rides while he’s out protesting, and he hopes other drivers, even if they don’t join the caravan, will also turn off the app in solidarity. “I think that will send a significant signal to Lyft and Uber,” he said, “that we have the ability to organize.”

Striking workers are making a series of demands: first, that corporations make “an unequivocal” declaration that Black lives matter, but also that they raise wages, allow workers to form unions, offer child care support, and provide health care and sick leave. They also want politicians at every level to “use their executive, legislative, and regulatory powers to begin to rewrite the rules and reimagine our economy and democracy so that communities of every race can thrive.”

The movement already has some wins under its belt. When I spoke several days ago to Patricia Parks-Lee, an employee at Loretto Hospital in Illinois, she and her coworkers were planning to time a strike over unfair labor practices with Monday’s action.

They had accused management of failing to bargain in good faith over a new contract since December. Parks-Lee makes $19.50 an hour, and many others among the predominantly Black workforce make less than $15. To get by, Parks-Lee usually works at least one other job at a different hospital as a certified nursing assistant. She said she and her coworkers weren’t just striking for better pay, but for “dignity and respect.”

But on July 17, before they had to walk off the job, Loretto reached an agreement with workers. Their union, SEIU, said it included “life-changing” wins, such as bringing all workers to at least $15 an hour and raises for others, improved staffing, greater scheduling stability, and immigration protections.

The hospital was short-staffed and under-resourced long before the pandemic. Employees bring clothes in from home for the patients who come in without undergarments or wearing soiled clothing. Then, Parks-Lee said, the hospital rationed personal protective equipment like hand sanitizer and gloves. “If you respect who I am and respect my job, why would you limit my ability to do it by counting out the number of gloves?” she said.

In response to a request for comment, Mark Walker, director of community relations at Loretto, called the allegation that workers were not given proper PPE “blatantly not true and unfounded.”

Parks-Lee, who is Black, is a crisis worker in the emergency room at Loretto. That means she is often helping community members most in distress — women fleeing domestic violence, people going without food or shelter. “Whatever the crisis situation presents itself, we try to assist,” she said. Racial injustice impacts not just her and her coworkers, but her patients, too. They are “Black, brown,” lacking in “financial stability,” she said. And yet other hospitals often refuse to accept them and send them on to Loretto instead. “Nobody wants them. But we welcome them,” she said.

That’s the throughline bringing all of these varied workers together: outrage over racial injustice, which impacts pay, benefits, and how Black and brown Americans are treated both inside and outside of work. “It’s not surprising that we’re in this together,” Gage said. “We may have different careers, but we’re all going through the same issues.”

Andrews says seeing so many different workers come together is “awesome.”

“That’s going to show unity,” she said. “It’s going to show that we tired, we’re not playing anymore. We want to be heard.”

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