Thousands more joined them at the close of the convention to march on this city’s Confederate monuments in a protest against racism and poverty wages.
The events were organized in Richmond because it was the capital of the Confederacy. The Fight for $15 Facebook event page explained the choice of the former heart of the enslaving Southern states, saying Richmond draws “links between the way workers are treated today and the racist history of the United States, and connects the Fight for $15 with the growing Black Lives Matter and immigrant justice movements, while exposing the connections between the slave economy and low-wage economy today.”
Ashley Cathey, a Sonic fast food worker from Memphis, Tenn., explained that unpaid labor from enslaved Africans, estimated at amounting to $2 to $4 trillion, built the U.S. This pattern continues today with the private prison industry’s exploitation of unpaid and barely paid labor of prisoners up to $2 billion yearly.
More than half of Black workers and nearly 60 percent of Latinx workers are paid less than $15 an hour because of such factors as discrimination in hiring, underfunded schools and an unjust “justice” system. Many people of color hold jobs that are the legacy of slavery, like home care and domestic work, positions that have historically been deliberately denied such basic labor protections as overtime pay or the minimum wage.
Lauralyn Clark, home care worker and SEIU Virginia 512 member, told the convention: “We always did the grunt work for low wages. White babies drank from our breasts, but we couldn’t drink from their fountains. White families relied on us to care for their elderly parents, but we couldn’t ride the bus with them. We cleaned their schools, but our children couldn’t attend. We cooked their food, but we couldn’t sit at their table. Well, enough is enough.”
Recognizing that the majority of people forced to work for low wages come from the same Black and Brown population being killed by police, about a hundred convention delegates marched through the hall holding up placards of Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd and other victims of police terror. Delegates shouted “Black Lives Matter” and Assata Shakur’s widely chanted quote was recited three times by the crowd: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
New Orleans fast food worker Miranda Yonta said, “For me, the fight for $15 is not just a fight for higher wages. It’s also about making Black lives matter.”
From bus monitors to blueberry pickers
Three thousand strong and from coast to coast, the participants at the Friday evening and Saturday morning convention were at least 80 percent Black and Brown. Women may have been the majority, reflecting the gender and racial reality of workers who performs the tough jobs that are paid less than a living wage.
Workers from 16 different industries spoke in succession, each one adding to the realization that the Fight for $15 movement includes health care and home care workers, bus monitors and retail store clerks, child care and airport workers, T-Mobile and farm workers, nail shop and fast food workers, auto parts workers and janitors, university adjuncts and migrant blueberry pickers, and more.
Just four years ago, a few dozen fast food workers in New York City went out in the first strike for $15 an hour and union rights. Today the movement those strikers set in motion has won raises for 20 million people, with 10 million workers on a path to $15 an hour in New York and California, as well as in Seattle, Washington, D.C., and other cities across the country.
Fight for $15 has helped change the conversation on economic and racial justice, not only for the 64 million workers being underpaid for their labor, but for all workers. While migrant and Black and Brown workers make up the vast majority of those in the lowest-paid industries, millions of white workers would also benefit from an increase in wages and benefits, just as white sharecroppers and other workers profited from Reconstruction after the end of the Civil War.
Before the Saturday meeting started, hundreds of workers and their family members took buses and vans to a protest where they joined local residents and McDonald’s workers in a spirited rally against poverty wages.
The convention ended with approval of a five-point resolution calling for: 1) for a National Day of Action on Sept. 12 at state capitol buildings throughout the U.S.; 2) for presidential and other political candidates to make pay raises a priority for their campaigns; 3) for direct actions and demonstrations at presidential debate locations; 4) for legislation to raise minimum wage standards in cities and states that were once part of the Confederacy; and 5) for the right to join unions without fear of retaliation.
March targets monuments to slavery
Despite 96 degree weather, 10,000 people marched through Richmond after the convention ended. They gathered in Monroe Park and proceeded up Monument Avenue — an infamous street lined with racist monuments memorializing Confederate generals and other white supremacist leaders. The march passed the Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart statue and ended at the monument glorifying slavery-defender, Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee.
In September 2015, Monument Avenue was the main route for international championship bike races. These were picketed by the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality and other groups. Protesters both condemned the monuments to racism and slavery featured prominently in the publicity, and also elevated a long struggle to stop real estate development of Shockhoe Bottom. This is a slave burial ground near downtown Richmond. The African-American community is demanding that they be able to decide how to preserve the land.
North Carolina NAACP and Moral Monday leader the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II addressed the Fight for $15 crowd at the close of the march. Rev. Barber said, “It took us 400 years to get from 0 to $7.25. We can’t wait another 400 years. Labor without a living wage is nothing but a pseudo form of slavery.”
Organizing the South against wage slavery
The South as a region is home to some of the most reactionary anti-worker legislation in the U.S., rooted in its history of slavery and racism. The region is a bastion of so-called right-to-work (for less) and other racist anti-union laws. For instance, in Virginia and North Carolina it is illegal for public workers to collectively bargain.
The South has the lowest level of unionization in the U.S. The restructuring of the capitalist economy taking place on a global scale is more and more finding that the U.S. South is a vital region for extraction of superprofits from workers, particularly Black and Latinx workers.
In many ways, the South is a laboratory for reactionary legislation that is then brought to other parts of the U.S., such as right-to-work laws and attacks on collective bargaining in Wisconsin, Michigan and elsewhere. It is no coincidence that Charlotte, N.C., is now the second-largest banking center in the U.S., behind New York City.
There will be a referendum this November in Virginia on whether or not to put “right to work for less” into the state constitution. More information on the Vote NO Campaign is at ow.ly/Yzwr303edBG.
The Southern Workers Assembly is a network of unions and workers’ organizations in the South committed to building rank-and-file, democratic, social movement unionism. The SWA helped to mobilize Southern unions to participate in the Richmond march.
The SWA contingent included workers from United Electrical Workers Local 150, who have been waging their own Fight for $15 and a Union at the Cummins Rocky Mount Engine Plant in North Carolina. Signs of the SWA marchers had images of Black people who have been killed by police with the words: “Black Lives Matter to Labor.”
The Workers World Party campaign for Monica Moorehead for president and Lamont Lilly for vice president also participated in the march, distributing a statement of solidarity with “Fight for $15 and a union.” Also distributed was an announcement about the Southern Socialism Conference, Hard Times Are Fighting Times on Sept. 24 in Durham, N.C.
For more information about the conference, which took up some of the most pressing struggles of the day, go to hardtimesconference.org.