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Dark Work, Devalued and Unprotected

Dark Work, Devalued and Unprotected: From 1619 to COVID-19

By: Erica Perry, Co-Director Workers’ Dignity and
Aaron Greene, Board Member of the Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights

(Workers Dignity and Mississippi Workers’ Center for Human Rights are both COSH Network Affiliates)

From the auction block in 1619 to workhouse factories during COVID-19, we see that Black Dark Work is still devalued and unprotected. Dark Work was and still is the foundation of production for this country. As Afeni Shakur once said, “we know that the Almighty dollar which everyone is taught to revere is only guaranteed by slavery and exploitation.” The original kidnapping of our ancestors from African shores signified the founding enslavers’ goal, which was to exploit and harm Black labor. Over 40 percent of our ancestors came through the harbor in Charleston, South Carolina. They were forcefully delivered to plantations to work Monday through Saturday for sometimes as long as 16 hours per day. Our ancestors labored for free in plantation fields under the Mississippi and Tennessee heat to the New Jersey snow.  

Juneteenth is our day to celebrate the emancipation of our enslaved ancestors who were kidnapped, tortured, and forced to work to further the goals of white supremacy and capitalism. We use Juneteenth to honor the strength of our ancestors, their resilience, and their fight to free themselves and future generations from captivity. Prior to the abolition of slavery, enslaved Africans were forced to labor without pay, often under inhumane conditions. To keep this exploitative system functioning, white slave owners colluded with the police force to maintain the captivity of enslaved African people through the criminal legal system. Unfortunately, over 100 years after June 19, 1865, we find that while policing has evolved from slave catching and Black codes, it continues to be a tool to enforce antiblack laws, control the movement of Black bodies, and capture Black people, forcing them into another form of captivity – incarceration. Further, the conditions of Black people in the United States – especially working class and cash poor Black people – mirror the exploitative and inhumane working conditions of our ancestors. The government and corporate response to COVID-19 and treatment of Black workers were but one important example of this country’s commitment to extracting dignity from Black labor and maliciously using Black labor as the driving force of the economy.

COVID-19 exposed the gruesome conditions that essential workers have endured for centuries. An “essential” working class that is disproportionately Black and Brown faces hazardous working environments, dismal access to health care, and unlivable wages. Nearly 25% of essential workers are not able to cover basic living expenses. No one should have to die to make a living, but we saw how numerous companies failed to protect and provide coverage for workers during a deadly pandemic. For example, there have been over 16,000 COVID-19 positive cases at Tyson plants and over 80 deaths — 87 percent of workers infected by COVID-19 in Tyson plants were Black or of color. Black essential workers are forced to produce for a country that views them as expendable commodities.

The brave voices of Fran Marion (Organizer for StandUpKC and McDonald’s employee) and Christian Smalls (Founder of the Congress of Essential Workers and former Amazon employee) provided first-hand accounts of their horrid working conditions. Fran shined a light on the fact that over 500,000 McDonald’s workers do not receive paid sick leave. Fran and many other McDonald’s workers are forced to go to work with the flu, Covid-19, or any other common sickness unless they are on their deathbed. Christian was fired by Amazon in early 2020 after helping to organize a protest to address the unsafe working conditions during the pandemic. Black essential workers experience a vicious cycle of stress and trauma as they have no safety nets while facing threats of retaliation from their employers for attempting to advocate for better workplace conditions.

As we reflect on the significance of Juneteenth, we must not forget the Black incarcerated class. The 13th Amendment grants permission for incarcerated people to be treated and considered slaves. In the U.S., incarcerated people are paid on average between 12 cents to 40 cents per hour for their labor. During the pandemic, we saw how Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York forced incarcerated people to manufacture over 100,000 gallons of hand sanitizer for the state at 65 cents per hour. Also, Governor McMaster of South Carolina forced incarcerated women to make thousands of masks for state health care workers; they were not compensated for their labor. The modern plantations called prisons are an ever-present reminder that the vestiges of slavery still exist. It is also important to lift up the role of the police, an institution founded to catch African people fleeing enslavement, in controlling Black bodies and capturing Black people to be incarcerated in jails and prisons throughout this country.  

We celebrate Juneteenth as an opportunity to join with Black people, the descendants of enslaved Africans and colonized Africans – in their fight for freedom. To honor our struggle by continuing the work of our ancestors who resisted enslavement and fought for liberation for themselves and future generations. The fight for Black freedom did not stop in 1865; in fact, our people have been fighting for our freedom through national and international organizations for 100s of years. Our work in this lifetime is to build on the work that our ancestors and elders have done before us by committing to joining a Black working class organization to fight for workers’ rights, abolish the prison industrial complex, and fight for a future where dignified housing and healthcare are not married to a job, where Black queer and trans folks can exist in the fullness of our dignity and humanity. As we channel the ancestral power of Juneteenth, let us never forget that our collective liberation is linked to one another: as the Great Mississippi Freedom Fighter Fannie Lou Hamer once said, “None of Us are Free until All of Us are Free.”

Published in The Tennessean on June 17, 2021