Workers protest racial inequality on day of national strike

NEW YORK (AP) – Workers from the service industry, fast-food chains and the gig economy rallied with organised labour on Monday to protest systemic racism and economic inequality, staging demonstrations across the United States (US) and around the world seeking better treatment of Black Americans in the workplace.

Organisers said at least 20,000 workers in 160 cities walked off the job, inspired by the racial reckoning that followed the deaths of several Black men and women at the hands of police. Visible support came largely in protests that drew people whose jobs in healthcare, transportation and construction do not allow them to work from home during the coronavirus pandemic.

“What the protesters are saying, that if we want to be concerned — and we should be — about police violence and people getting killed by the police … we have to also be concerned about the people who are dying and being put into lethal situations through economic exploitation all over the country,” said the Rev William Barber II, co-chairman of the Poor People’s Campaign, one of the organisations that partnered to support the strike.

Barber told The Associated Press that Monday’s turnout showed the importance of the issue to the people willing to come out during a pandemic to make their voices heard.

“Sadly, if they’re not in the streets, the political systems don’t move, because when you just send an email or a tweet, they ignore it,” he said.

Protesters rally outside a McDonald’s in Detroit. The national workers strike saw people walk off the job on Monday in US cities to protest systemic racism and economic inequality. PHOTOS: AP
Demonstrators march in Philadelphia during a rally for racial justice

The Strike for Black Lives was organised or supported by more than 60 labour unions and social and racial justice organisations, which held a range of events in more than two dozen cities. Support swelled well beyond expectations, organisers said, although a precise participation tally was not available.

Where work stoppages were not possible for a full day, participants picketed during a lunch break or dropped to a knee in memory of police brutality victims, including George Floyd, a Black man killed in Minneapolis police custody in late May.

Dozens of janitors, security guards and health care workers observed a moment of silence in Denver to honour Floyd.

In San Francisco, 1,500 janitors walked out and marched to City Hall. Fast-food cooks and cashiers in Los Angeles and nursing home workers in St Paul, Minnesota, also went on strike, organisers said.

At one McDonald’s in Los Angeles, workers blocked the drive-thru for eight minutes and 46 seconds, about how long prosecutors say a white police officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck as he pleaded for air.

Jerome Gage, 28, was among a few dozen Lyft and Uber drivers who joined a car caravan in Los Angeles calling on companies to provide benefits like health insurance and paid sick leave to gig workers.

“It’s basic stuff, and it creates a more profitable economic environment for everyone, not just the companies,” Gage said.

Glen Brown, a 48-year-old wheelchair agent at the Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport, said his job does not give him the option of social distancing. Brown and fellow workers called for a USD15 minimum wage during an event in St Paul, and he said workers were “seizing our moment” to seek change. “We are front-line workers, (and) we are risking our lives, but we’re doing it at a wage that doesn’t even match the risk,” Brown said.

In Manhattan, more than 150 union workers rallied outside Trump International Hotel to demand that the Senate and US President Donald Trump adopt the HEROES Act, which provides protective equipment, essential pay and extended unemployment benefits to workers who cannot work from home. The House has already passed it.

Elsewhere in New York City and in New Jersey and Connecticut, organisers said 6,000 workers at 85 nursing homes picketed, walked off the job or took other actions to highlight how predominantly Black and Hispanic workers and the residents they serve are at risk without proper protective gear during the pandemic.

In Massachusetts, about 200 people, including healthcare workers, janitors and other essential employees, joined Democratic US Senate candidates in front of the Statehouse in Boston.

“We’re just being overworked and underpaid, and it makes you sometimes lose your compassion,” said Toyai Anderson, 44, a nursing aide at Hartford Nursing and Rehab Center in Detroit. “It makes me second-guess if I am sure this is my calling.”

Anderson makes USD15.75 an hour after 13 years on the job. Nationally, the typical nursing aide makes USD13.38, according to healthcare worker advocacy group PCI. One in four nursing home workers is Black.

Hundreds of other workers at six Detroit nursing homes walked off the job, according to the Service Employees International Union. The workers are demanding higher wages and more safety equipment to keep them from catching and spreading the virus, as well as better healthcare benefits and paid sick leave.

Participants nationwide broadly demanded action by corporations and the government to confront racism and inequality that limit mobility and career advancement for many Black and Hispanic workers, who make up a disproportionate number of those earning less than a living wage.

The demands include allowing workers to unionise to negotiate better healthcare, sick leave and child care support.

In South Korea, members of a transport workers union passed a resolution in support of the strike, raised their fists and chanted “Black lives matter” in Korean and “No justice, no peace” in English.

In Brazil, McDonald’s workers rallied outside the flagship restaurant in Sao Paolo. The two largest Brazilian labour federations, together representing more than 24 million workers, filed a complaint with a national prosecutor describing examples of structural racism at the company.

McDonald’s said it stands with Black communities worldwide.

“We believe Black lives matter, and it is our responsibility to continue to listen and learn and push for a more equitable and inclusive society,” the Chicago-based company said in a statement.

Justice Favor, 38, an organiser with the Laborers’ International Union Local 79, which represents 10,000 predominately Black and Hispanic construction workers in New York City, said he hopes that the strike motivates more white workers to acknowledge the existence of racism and discrimination in the workplace.

“There was a time when the Irish and Italians were a subjugated people, too,” said Favor, who is Black. “How would you feel if you weren’t able to fully assimilate into society? Once you have an open mind, you have to call out your coworkers who are doing wrong
to others.”