In the inaugural post of the Red Letter series, longtime labor organizer Ben Wilkins discusses how essential workers are confronting the crises of racist police violence, the coronavirus pandemic, and mass unemployment in the US South.
Part 1 – A Stirring in the South Today: The View from Siler City
On Saturday, June 6, a protest rally and march against the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police took place in what might seem like an unlikely place: Siler City, North Carolina.
Siler City is a meatpacking town in western Chatham County, an hour’s drive west of the state capital of Raleigh. As of the 2010 census, its population of 8,225 was 43% Latino, 29% white, and 22% black. It is home to the Mountaire Farms chicken processing plant, which employs nearly 2,000 workers, many of them undocumented immigrants.
Like many meat processing facilities, the Mountaire Farms plant has become a vector for COVID-19. Workers in the plant labor side by side all day long, making physical distancing impossible. As North Carolina Health News reported last month, the 27433 ZIP code that encompasses Siler City has the second-highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases among the state’s 1,000 ZIP codes. Starting wages at the plant, where the work is dirty and hard, are just $11 an hour.
But conditions in Siler City were dire even before the pandemic. According to the Census Bureau, the town’s median household income between 2014 and 2018 was just $33,445, compared to the national median of $60,293. Almost 27% of Siler City residents live below the government-defined poverty threshold compared to 11.8% of all Americans. And as with most US communities, Siler City has had its struggles around racism. Just last year, for example, a Black-owned soul food restaurant in town received a threatening racist letter signed “White Nationalists,” but the community responded to the hate by filling up the restaurant’s tables.
That same spirit of solidarity was seen in Siler City following the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd, who was born an hour’s drive away in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
Following Floyd’s video-recorded death on May 25 and the ensuing uprising in cities nationwide, a group of friends from Siler City decided to organize a protest. The organizers — Black, Latino, and white — are in their late 20s and have known one another since high school. One of them had been involved in earlier organizing efforts to publicize the COVID-19 outbreak at the Mountaire plant, which the company had tried to hide from public view. A key leader of the group is Jasmine Wiley, a Black woman who works at the local Wendy’s.
The group made a flier and distributed it on their social media feeds, inviting friends, family and co-workers from around town. “#JusticeForFloyd #BlackLivesMatter #KidsInCages,” it said, connecting the issue of police violence against Black people with ICE detention facilities for undocumented immigrants.
About 300 people showed up.
Siler City is a working-class town, and the crowd reflected that. It was multiracial and mostly young, including some participants from the local high school. The protesters demonstrated in front of city hall and then marched through the town center, chanting “Black Lives Matter” and “get your knee off my neck.”
Why did people come? The slogans on the homemade signs that almost everyone brought tell us:
“My color is not a crime.”
“Tu Lucha Es Mi Lucha! Black Lives Matter. No human being is illegal.”
“Christ and racism don’t mix. You can’t say ‘I love God’ and hate his creation.”
“Kids belong with families not in cages.”
“Las Vidas Negras Importan!”
“This is America. I can’t breathe.”
While the protest was organized and led by the group of young people from Siler City, they smartly reached out for help where they could find it, getting advice and material support from organizers with Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, and NC Raise Up, who had been involved in the earlier efforts around COVID-19.
A rally of 300 people in a small Southern factory town might not seem like much, when thousands are rising up in major cities across the country. But there is a stirring in the South today that’s poised to transform the region and the country. Siler City is just one example: In the past week, protests have erupted in other unlikely places like , , and , to name just a few.
The conditions suffered by the people of the South in this moment of crisis are explosive — particularly for Black and Latino people, but also for poor whites. Of the that have declined to expand Medicaid, the health care program for the poor, eight are in the South. with the highest poverty rates in the nation are in the South. The with the lowest levels of trade union membership are all in the South, leaving essential workers in those states with fewer protections at work.
Since the pandemic, things have only gotten worse for many Southerners, as Southern states have often been the when it comes to distributing unemployment benefits, and have provided the least amount of personal protective equipment and other . As Facing South recently reported, the region for devastating impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the Siler City protestors’ signs said “Black genocide. 1619-2020,” citing the year that the first enslaved people were brought to the British colony of Jamestown, Virginia. The ensuing 400 years tell a story of slavery, racism, plantation labor, and conquest. But they also tell a story of resistance, from slave rebellions to people’s uprisings.
Wiley and her comrades are the leaders of a new force for change in the South. Across the region, people, and especially young people, are stepping forward to build a better society — one where Black people aren’t killed by the police, kids aren’t locked in cages, and workers don’t risk their lives for poverty wages.
Part 2 – Essential Labor is Not Disposable
The protest in Siler City underscores the urgency of organizing essential labor in the South. I’m the director of NC Raise Up, a union of workers mostly in the service and care sector in North Carolina. These are commonly called “low-wage workers” many of whom are now deemed “essential workers.” Since 2013, most of our organizing has taken place in North Carolina, with some organizing in cities and towns throughout the South. We’ve built our union differently than traditional trade unions. Rather than organize inside individual workplaces, we’ve organized workers geographically, in a way that corresponds to workers’ lives. Our members might cycle through a dozen low-wage jobs in the course of a year, and then go through cycles of unemployment, which a lot of people are currently facing. In our experience, the best approach for building power is for workers from many different employers and industries to come together and fight around issues that impact all of us.
Since the pandemic, 42.6 million unemployment claims have been filed nationally. In North Carolina alone, the number is 1.02 million, or 25.6% of the state’s workforce. North Carolina ranks last in the nation for timely payment of unemployment claims.
The “essential workers” in our organization are dealing with a number of issues, such as a lack of paid time off. McDonald’s alone has over 500,000 workers with no paid sick leave. The lack of personal protective equipment has created a huge crisis, especially for workers in the health care industry. In addition, workers are receiving no hazard pay for essential jobs. This means that people working in grocery stores, restaurants, or health care facilities, have not been receiving the kind of hazard pay they need, despite the fact that their work puts them in tremendous danger.
One of our members, Cierra Brown, a McDonald’s worker and a worker at Duke hospital, recently began feeling symptoms of Coronavirus. When she went to the doctor, they told her that she had a viral respiratory infection. They wouldn’t test her for COVID-19 because she doesn’t have insurance. So, she was sent home. Now she’s not receiving any sick pay, despite the fact that she likely contracted the illness at work. Workers in many fast-food restaurants are having to pool their money in order to buy their own personal protective equipment. There are fast-food restaurants in Durham where customers have been bringing masks and gloves in for workers since they’re not be being provided by the employers. A McDonald’s worker in Chapel Hill recently came down with COVID symptoms. The store cut all of her hours, and sent her home without paying her any sick time, but kept the store open, potentially exposing other workers and customers. As we see too often, profits are more important than people in this pandemic.
Millions of similar stories have led to a massive strike wave across the country. From Bus drivers in Alabama, sanitation workers in Pittsburgh, poultry plant workers in Georgia, McDonald’s workers in California, to Amazon workers across the country, workers have gone on strike in extraordinary numbers. Many of these strikes were completely spontaneous. They were not organized by any official organization but occurred out of necessity in response to dangerous working conditions.
In March, members of NC Raise Up went on strike to protest these same conditions. Across North Carolina, workers from fast-food, convenience stores, grocery stores, gas station workers, struck to demand paid time off, more protective equipment, universal health care, and for the right to refuse work under life threatening conditions. Bertha Bradley, a leader of our steering committee, and leader in the Southern workers’ movement for decades, was quoted in a Dissent article about the strike, saying:
We’re nobody when it’s not essential, we’re just workers. They could care less about us if this virus wasn’t out there. They could do better by us than they’re doing, but they don’t seem to care. I don’t get health benefits, I don’t get sick time, I don’t get paid vacations, I don’t get a living wage. If I die right now, their business is still going to go. We’ve got to strike around the world, we need to strike more than just today, we need to strike every day. We need to shut it down, that’s what I want people to know, and let them know we’re not just essential workers, we’re humans.
The virus has had a devastating impact on the US South, a place with the highest poverty rate, the lowest rate of health coverage and some of the lower wages in the country. These pre-existing conditions have laid the groundwork for the long term devastation of the coronavirus in southern states. This region, rife with mass poverty and lack of healthcare, has also been plagued by an incredibly reactionary response from southern state governments. As states reopen their economies, virus hotspots are concentrated in Southern States. Of course, governors in northern states or Democratic states have also failed to in their responses, but southern states have witnessed an extra level of barbarism.
The governor of Mississippi, for example, justified keeping his state open for business by stating, “Mississippi is never going to be China.” South Carolina preempted local governments from issuing shelter-in-place orders. In Alabama, people with cognitive disabilities were given lower priorities for care; a practice that essentially constitutes eugenics. All these factors underscore why organizing in the South is more urgent than ever.
While entrenched conditions of exploitation and oppression exist, there is also a long history of the South operating as a seeding ground for revolutionary movements across country. People like W. E. B. Du Bois, Anne Braden, and Ella Baker all spoke eloquently about this. This long history only underscores the critical importance of building a working class movement in the South at this moment.
This is all the more important with the emergence of “essential labor.” Workers in our organization are being given passes by their bosses saying that they are essential workers and thus not subject to the rules of the shelter-in-place orders, particularly health care workers. Meanwhile, millions of workers are becoming newly unemployed. We are therefore seeing two interesting parallel developments: an emerging category of essential labor alongside a massive growth in unemployment. It incredibly important for our movement to unite the struggles of essential labor with the struggles of the masses of people who are becoming unemployed. These are struggles around healthcare, around housing, and around hunger.
When we can unite the struggles of labor with the struggles around basic survival, we can take a major step forward, and build the kind of movement that is urgently required right now. As the organizers in Siler City have shown, we can unite these struggles, against police violence, against deportation and immigrant detention, against hunger, the virus, the vulnerabilities of essential labor, and against these poverty wages. With this multiracial and intergenerational working-class struggle, the South can decisively show the country a way forward.
Ben Wilkins is director of NC Raise Up, based in Durham, North Carolina. This piece is adapted from reflections previously shared with Facing South, the online magazine for the Institute of Southern Studies, and ‘The People’s Response to the Crisis: A Working Class, Internationalist Perspective,’ an event hosted by The People’s Forum on March 28, 2020. The Red Letter Series features intellectuals committed to the struggles of the poor, working class, and dispossessed in North America from an internationalist perspective.
Notes for further reading on class struggle in the southern states, prepared by Aya Ouais:
According to the New York Times, new cases are still increasing in North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia, remain the same in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and West Virginia, and are decreasing in Arkansas. All Southern states relaxing social distancing measures have not yet flattened the curve. There is also dangerous potential for further spread of the disease in the South: 18 out of 50 U.S. “hotspots” (counties with the highest number of cases per resident) identified by the New York Times are in the South, versus 12 in the NY/NJ area. The county with the highest number of cases per resident in the country is currently Trousdale, Tennessee with 10,655 cases per 100,000 residents and 1,020 cases total, all of which are connected to the Trousdale Turner Correctional Center in Hartsville, Tenn.
Intellectuals and organizers have been raising their voices all around the country to demand the release of racial data on COVID-19 cases, and deaths, and tests, and highlight the crisis’ disproportionate impact on Black communities. The conditions workers face in the South exacerbate this impact. While across the world men are dying at higher rates than women of the virus, in Mississippi, a majority of the cases and deaths are of Black women. Women in Mississippi make up 90% of cashiers, nurses, and 70% of food service workers, some of the many jobs deemed “essential” during the state’s lockdown.
Southern states have taken almost no measures to protect their grocery workers. A few miles away from the early Albany, GA hotspot, meat processing plant workers are still working shoulder to shoulder, causing more concern that “the food supply chain is breaking” than for workers’ lives lost. In Florida, immigrant farmworkers are risking their lives while the Trump administration seeks to lower their wages. In Memphis, Tennessee, PFS workers are still forced to come to work to pack cosmetics and charm bracelets after their co-workers have contracted the virus, in Alabama workers are still building missiles.
Not only did the Trump administration allow so many clearly non-essential businesses to continue operating amid a pandemic, it is moving to give them full impunity for the deaths of their workers. The EPA also refused to impose stricter controls on the oil and gas industry’s PM 2.5 emissions which have been linked to the catastrophic COVID-19 death rates in “cancer alley” counties. Meanwhile, some Southern states are dealing with this catastrophic situation by suing China, or attempting to conceal the true data coming out of their prisons and nursing homes, or the death count altogether.
What about the unemployed? A Pew study found that more than 70% of jobless Americans did not receive March unemployment benefits. It also found that most of the states where fewer than 15% of unemployed people received benefits were in the South, and fewer than 8% of applicants in Florida received benefits. Southern states also have shorter limits, much lower payments than those included in the CARES Act. Instead of working to meet the needs of their people and using federal money to do so, senators are vowing to end these federal benefits, and governors are re-opening workplaces to force people off the unemployment rolls.
We do not have access to the full picture of the devastating effects this health and economic crisis will have on the Black, immigrant, and working class communities in the South. But what we do have access to is damning.