“Society is So Much More When All People are Free from the Violence of Poverty and Low Wages” A Q&A with Organizer and Social Justice Activist Cherri Murphy

Black History Month is a time to reflect on those in the struggle for racial equality who’ve moved us forward through bold and principled action. But’s it’s also a time to look to the future and the Black activist leaders making history NOW to end white supremacy and tear down systems of oppression that harm all workers. It’s in that spirit that we interviewed one of the most dynamic organizers and social justice leaders working in California today: Cherri Murphy. Cherri was a force of nature as a member-leader with driver groups like Gig Workers Rising in opposition to Prop 22, the gig company ballot measure to erase the rights of hundreds of thousands of workers.

Tell us about Cherri Murphy. What was your path to social justice advocacy?

I’m 53 years old and a Social Justice Minister in the East Bay. I’m also a Doctoral student at Berkeley School of Theology

I worked in the Charlottesville DA’s office located in Virginia for approximately 13 years before moving to Oakland. I was able to combine my experience growing up as a Queer Black Woman in a former plantation state with my political-theological experience here in Oakland. Since arriving here in 2008, Oakland has taught me a lot about organizing particularly, Black-led grassroots groups like Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) and the Anti-Police Terror Project (ATPT). This also involved participating in campaigns sponsored by faith-based organizations like Second Acts and obtaining my Masters of Divinity (MDiv) from the Berkeley School of Theology.  All the lived experience, knowledge, and skills I’ve learned prepared my path to social justice advocacy.

How did you get involved with driver organizing at Uber and Lyft?

For three years, Lyft was my primary source of income and I had driven over 12,000 rides. I was in my last year of my MDiv and beginning to start my Doctoral Program and I needed something that was conducive to the life of a community minister and student.  So in 2017, Lyft seemed like an answer, a godsend.  They advertised a job with a feature of “FLEXIBILITY’ that allowed me to make money along with loaning a rental.  I was in desperate need of that so-called flexibility and a car. Over the years, as the number of bonuses decreased, while the demands to complete rides increased, making major cuts to take-home pay, it was becoming increasing difficult to sustain a living.  Signs of a good deal that never was became painfully clear…my views of Lyft were shifting.  More specifically when COVID-19 hit. Both COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter movement have pulled back the curtain and showed America’s diseases for which there still is no vaccine.

Who or what most inspired you to become an organizer?

The legacy of African Americans and their allies who dared to challenge the status quo by holding on to what bell hooks describes as a love ethic.  I believe society is so much more when all people are free from the violence of poverty and low wages.

You became one of the leading spokespeople against Prop 22. I was always so impressed with your innate ability to explain the measure in human terms. Was that a role you expected? What advice would you give to others about getting your message out through the media?

I was not seeking to be a leading spokesperson at all, yet it was critical that I shared my experience as a means to invoke change. My advice for Black and Brown workers who historically have not been centered in their own experience of racial and economic injustice: You are the experts! Create room at the decision table and share your story.

After Prop 22 what’s next? What’s next for you?

Organizing is in my blood and I’m not done with Prop 22.  Right now there is an epidemic of misclassification that has not only affected drivers but other industries across the state and nation.  I will continue to organize for dignity and worth around economic and racial justice.  Currently, I am also an interfaith organizer with East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE) in Oakland.  We need a moral framework around economic and racial justice and it’s vital we hear from those who are mostly impacted like Black folks.  We can do this through Community Benefit Agreements (CBA) that include good jobs, local hiring, anti-displacement protections, affordable housing and community investments.

California union members are as diverse as ever. And some of the most innovative organizing is being done by young immigrants and POC. What does that say about the future?

Black people must be trusted with their experiences, their thoughts, their methodologies, because we have a worldview which can support freeing us all from a theology of profit over people. It’s great to see a diversity among California union members because it suggests an understanding of racism and its interlocking oppressions.  By understanding that economic justice is racial justice will make another world possible.

The Black community has a long history with the labor movement. Many important victories for Black people were led by Black labor leaders. But there’s also been a lot of racism in labor’s past. What can we learn from history to help us chart a better course in years to come?

In order for any institution to deal radically, and therefore effectively, with the issues of discrimination and injustice we must name the wounds of racism. We must look and listen to Black people. This involves a reckoning and an allowance of the Black experience to lead the way out of racial and economic injustices.

The conditions that make police killings of Black people possible and inevitable are the same conditions that make the exploitation of Black and Brown workers possible and inevitable.  It’s important that Unions (as an institution) do their work in not exploiting and abusing Black and Brown people in this country. It’s our moral duty to transform any history of betrayal.

There are many young black organizers doing incredible work in labor. But still far too few Black labor leaders. How does that change?

I have a personal vision of creating a bridge between Black communities and labor.  This involves professional and leadership development programs.  I would also like to see the labor movement and faith communities work more closely together to help bridge Black communities.

Finally, what is your vision for the labor movement? What tactics do you think lead to growth and inclusion, especially in lifting up Communities of color?

How vital it is to be comfortable to talk about race and stop treating it like it’s a 4 letter word.

Listen to Black thought, Black Theology, Black lived experience of what the people themselves are saying about themselves, their experiences and not what outsiders looking in could describe.
A couple of other things:

1.  It is important for workers stories to be at the center of any campaign.  We’ve always known in our work that workers’ stories – real stories, real lives – is what cuts through the noise.

2. Worker voices need to be not at the decision-making table and not as a mere afterthought. A table that is comfortable having a deeper analysis around race and how it plays a role with economic justice. This is going to require that stakeholders redistribute the power sharing around strategy and trusting the experiences of workers.

3. Worker organizing involves being intentional about culture, being purposeful about building strong coalitions that are Black led.  The reality is cultural change takes hold through consistency and repetition not just when MLK day or Black History Month rolls around. It takes courage, accountability and transparency.