Juneteenth and the Struggle for Black Worker Equality

This week the California labor movement joins in the celebration of Juneteenth, recognizing the end of slavery in the U.S. with a proclamation in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865. While many are aware of the historical significance of this day, few know about its connection to the struggle for workers’ rights and equality for Black workers.

Rebecca Dixon writes about this connection for the National Employment Law Project:

On June 19, 1865, two-and-a-half years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, General Gordon Granger issued an order in deeply confederate Galveston, Texas – ensuring the law of the land, that enslaved people were now free people, would be fulfilled. That order read:

This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.

The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts, and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

The racist logic embedded in the order, even while it’s about people being free, is painful in that it still set up a relationship built on exploitation and uneven power. The master became the employer and the shameless insistence that “idleness will not be tolerated” was an only slightly veiled hint that social control and surveillance would prevail in the new social structure – and that Black people would still be valued above all for their labor.  The order guides us in understanding how racial capitalism – a system that holds up white supremacy and is dependent on the construct of race as a hierarchy as a means for exploitation – was upheld post-slavery. This logic has been so deeply embedded, but Black people have been fighting to dismantle it throughout history.

The key to understanding the history of our struggle to obtain full rights for ALL workers under an inherently unequal capitalist system is recognizing that from Day One, Black workers and other people of color have been devalued and exploited. While we’ve made progress over time thanks to movements that connected the struggle of workers’ rights and civil rights galvanized by extraordinary leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and continued today by Rev. William Barber II and others, we have a long way to go.

Dixon gives a roadmap forward:

There was a real opportunity for the U.S. to make amends and make meaningful structural changes for Black people in the South with the New Deal only six decades after Reconstruction; but as I’ve previously pointed out, the framework that brought us Social Security, minimum wage, overtime pay, and the right to organize also had limitations which excluded agricultural and domestic workers, effectively excluding nearly half of all Black men and 90 percent of the Black women. In this pandemic we have been reminded of the vital necessities of food and caregiving, and the people who make sure we have both. It is significant that Black women were historically segregated in that work that all along has been valuable to the larger collective – yet what has historically been devalued as Black women’s work – which is still compensated with the lowest wages and least protections.

Black women have been on the frontlines of this crisis as registered nurses, nursing assistants, home care workers, cashiers, school teachers, and customer service representatives. Still, policymakers, corporations, and employers have fallen short during this pandemic. Our long fight for worker justice requires policy solutions that will address occupational segregation. We must fight for livable wages and increased wages in all occupations, guaranteed quality health care, paid sick leave and paid family and medical leave; robust labor protections and laws that counter wage theft and retaliation; strong social insurance programs that support stability and give workers power to leave when facing unjust conditions; sectoral bargaining that raises working conditions and wages across sectors; and just cause employment protections that require fair notice and severance pay before a worker can be left without a job. Black women’s labor is vital to everyone’s labor rights and freedom; we must center them in our struggle.

As we celebrate Juneteenth and Black liberation this year, as a labor movement let’s recommit to the struggle for true equality in every aspect of life, including the workplace. For racial injustice is an injustice against the entire working class, and no one is free until we are all free.