by Stuart Appelbaum
In America—and indeed the entire world—an unprecedented and long overdue conversation on racial justice is happening. We are seeing sweeping changes in the way people from all sorts of different backgrounds view ingrained racial injustices and the consequences that result for people of color. It’s a societal reckoning the likes of which we have never before seen.
And while the changes being made around the country show that the protest movement is making a significant difference, it’s important that we also focus on the economic issues that contribute to systemic racial injustice in the U.S. It’s clearer than ever that to achieve true racial justice, we need to address the underlying economic conditions under which so many people of color live.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the poultry processing industry, a low-paying, dangerous job performed almost exclusively by people of color. The poultry workers who feed everybody from California to here in New York face blinding fast line speeds, extreme temperatures, dangerous, repetitive cutting motions that often lead to debilitating injuries, and for the majority of them, who do not have union representation, no voice to help make their jobs and their lives better.
Poultry workers have gone so far as to call themselves “modern day slaves,” and say management only cares about corporate profits at the expense of the health and welfare of their workers. The COVID-19 crisis shed a harsh new light on the treatment of workers at these “modern day plantations,” with dozens of workers dying and thousands infected. And while unions like the RWDSU have been able to improve working conditions in union plants—forcing implementation of better social distancing, more PPE, and policies that encourage sick workers to stay home—the industry as a whole has failed terribly when it comes to prioritizing safety during this pandemic.
And that must change. America needs to start treating all its workers—including people of color—with dignity, not just in poultry, but in all industries across the country.
That’s just one of the many reasons that we support the Black Lives Matter movement. We embrace this movement because it is the morally right thing to do, and long overdue. Unions fight for economic equality and for racial equality. We know that these two things are intertwined, and we can’t have one without the other.
The RWDSU has a proud history of fighting for racial justice. Today, we are proud to be part of the BLM fight. All workers, from poultry workers in the South to car wash workers here in New York, deserve economic and racial justice. We will not stop fighting until they are achieved.
Stuart Appelbaum is the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. www.rwdsu.org, twitter: @sappelbaum