The beginning of May represents many things: warmer weather, the upcoming celebration of Mother’s Day, and the nearing of summer break and the end of the school year for many students. But the first day of the month also has importance for workers and is considered significant in the history of the labor movement. May Day – also known as International Workers’ Day – is a day that was chosen by an international group of trade unions in the late 1800s to commemorate the struggle of workers and the fight for an eight-hour workday.
So this seems like the perfect time to reflect on my own experiences – both recent and over the years of my professional life – with the fight for equality and fairness in the workplace.
The Black Jobs Crisis roundtable
Earlier this year, I was invited to attend an event aimed at encouraging dialogue about the systemic obstacles and challenges Black employees face in the workplace – and the enduring prejudices and stereotypes that have led to a discriminatory atmosphere ingrained in many organizations.
The cold winter weather meant it was chilly in my Bronx apartment that morning. Clearing a pile of bills that had been accumulating for months, I made space on the vanity that now served as a makeshift desk and logged into Zoom for Community Change’s Black Jobs Crisis Roundtable.
The Black Jobs Crisis Roundtable is one of the many ways the Black Freedom Collective, a program of Community Change in collaboration with other organizations, engages in serious conversations. It is a space where they can capture stories from the ground up – stories that all too often are silenced by the media. The roundtable serves as a place to gather, recollect, and demand a radical change in the way the Black workforce is viewed and, in many ways, ignored. This was the first in a series of roundtable events that would promote discussion and identify practical strategies and action steps.
As a Latina and a single mom, I know struggle firsthand. There have been many times that I’ve been impacted because issues of discrimination toward people of color were swept under the rug.
The roundtable is a chance to unravel the crisis and bring awareness to its origins, primarily stemming from methods of slavery. It serves as a protected space where participants can find the strength, culturally and spiritually, to continue to share the testimonies of individuals that have suffered these types of injustices. Together, participants unbind years of shame tied to stigmas of value and worth in the workplace. By pulling back the curtain on perpetuated anti-Black racism in the workplace – still prevalent here in America in the year 2022, even with documented accounts of loved ones being killed violently, the roundtable explores ways to maintain a space for who we are outside of the workplace.
Roundtable attendees included organizers from North Carolina, Texas, and Mississippi, representing organizations like Emancipate North Carolina and Central Florida Jobs with Justice.
Anne Price – the first woman President of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, a national economic justice organization – outlined the deeply-rooted power of white America, which led to the Black Jobs Crisis. Armed with evidence including real-life testimonials, Price explored the continuing economic hardship faced by low-wage workers across the state of Mississippi, specifically in selected regions such as Jackson.
Price cited the experience of a Black woman named Angie from Jackson, Mississippi, who worked at a radio show for 21 years making $7.25. It seems absurd that after working for a company for more than two decades, Angie is still considered “underemployed” because the station has been sold three times.
Price also shared the tragic story of her grandfather, who worked as a mechanic in a factory. Her grandfather was locked in the boiler room when there was an explosion. He and several other Black workers lost their lives in a raging fire. While I was haunted by images of her grandfather burning to death — this wasn’t the first time I heard of the common practice of placing Black workers into dangerous jobs and life-threatening situations.
My own haunting memories
For 15 long years, I worked as a dispatcher at a hospital in the Bronx. My duties consisted of giving out work orders to assigned shops such as plumbing, maintenance, and boiler room mechanics. Rumors that the hospital was going bankrupt quickly spread throughout all departments. Possible closures or mergers meant new management for the hospital and extensive layoffs for union workers. In 2016, the hospital moved forward with the merger. New renovation projects were on the rise throughout the facility. There was much more work, but due to the layoffs that did occur, there wasn’t enough manpower. I was asked to give harder and more dangerous work to Black workers during this time.
When the Black employees would call in sick, the next day the white employees would make gestures right in front of administrators and comments that still echo in my mind like: “Where’s so-and-so? You musta gave him a good whipping.”
Rather than taking any action upon hearing white employees called Black employees racial epithets, some administrators just laughed.
I and a few other employees brought this to the attention of union delegates, but we were told “It comes with the territory,” and were encouraged to “stay quiet” instead. As a single mom, I feared losing my job but I desperately wanted out. I finally resigned in 2018 – by that point, several Black employees hired personal lawyers to represent them and filed complaints against the administration. I went back to college full-time to pursue my master’s degree in journalism but due to financial necessity and unforeseen personal circumstances, I was forced to find employment, but I was let go in March 2020 due to the company downsizing associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Losing my job and coping with all of the challenges of a pandemic were not the only issues I faced. Vet bills had accumulated as a result of the illness and subsequent death of my dog, Max. I was barely making rent, even with governmental support. After finally paying off the vet bills, I was able to start saving some money. In September 2021, my unemployment benefits were exhausted, leaving me back where I started: applying for safety-net programs in a desperate effort to make ends meet.
Too often, struggling families are judged as lazy for staying home. But even after earning a college degree and establishing a track record as a writer and journalist, I am still unable to find a job with adequate pay to maintain a household of three in New York City.
That’s often a rare luxury for women of color, who are commonly pushed to the side or stepped over in the workplace. “Black women, in particular, get the shortest end of the stick,” said Jhumpa Bhattacharya, Vice President of Programs and Strategy at the Insight Center.
Becoming a more vocal activist
But what may have been the strongest message was to encourage Black workers to resist the status quo and instead fight for their rights – demanding what they deserve. “We gotta make that shit work,” exclaimed Dawn Blagrove, Executive Director of Emancipate North Carolina, who reassured participants of our legal rights both in the workplace and outside of it as we continue our work as advocates and organizers. Emancipate North Carolina’s work includes dismantling structural racism and mass incarceration across the state.
The roundtable enabled dialogue and discussion, but also provided an opportunity for reflection – and perhaps even a tiny step towards healing, although at times I still feel the need to “stay quiet,” afraid of retaliation for speaking out about these issues. Coach and healer Bianca Edwards ended the round table with words of encouragement: “Until one of us picks it up and starts weaving it in with the rest of it, it’s always gonna be a loose string. And there’s a lot of loose strings hanging about.”
Projects like ChangeWire allow voices like ours to be heard without fear of judgment or repercussions. In addition to the need for more advocacy for Black workers in general, I call for protection that’s urgently needed for journalists of color. It’s not easy doing this line of work and it is also time we start seeing it in newsrooms all around the country.
Let’s continue the work of the roundtable and its demands for better resources in the workplace. We have to know our rights, fight for better working conditions, and demand better wages and support for working-class parents.