In October of 2020, as the pandemic continued to rage, unemployment to soar, and a recession of historic proportion loomed, Americans once again found themselves asking which side is our government on? Throughout this country’s history, the answer has consistently been “the side of big business and the side of the wealthy,” rather than the side of the rest of us.
At the Kairos Center’s “Moral Policy in a Time of Crisis” conference, the “Right to Work with Dignity” session examined what it would look like for everyone to experience the domestic tranquility and security promised in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. Kairos Center’s Policy Director, Shailly Gupta Barnes, opened the session by stating emphatically where we stand: “We know which side we are on. We are on the side that believes that ensuring the right to work with dignity for all workers, frontline and essential workers, workers who are underpaid and overworked, is not only the right to do, it is also good economics … Moral policy that prioritizes the poor is also sound economic policy.”
“We are on the side that believes that ensuring the right to work with dignity for all workers, frontline and essential workers, workers who are underpaid and overworked, is not only the right to do, it is also good economics.”Shailly Gupta Barnes, Kairos Center
Over two hours, organizers, economists, scholars and experts in their own right talked participants through this idea by first laying bare the dire jobs and economic situation we find ourselves in, sharing personal and professional experiences, and proposing solutions that would lift our economy up from the bottom as a remedy for our failing economy.
Watch the entire panel discussion here:
Chris Caruso, a popular educator, researcher and community organizer with more than 30 years of experience in the movement to end poverty, started the session by discussing how the COVID-19 crisis was exacerbating the pre-existing economic crisis in unprecedented ways, including the underlying problems of “record levels of poverty, inequality and household debt.” As of October 2020, the U.S. had experienced 31 consecutive weeks of unemployment claims far greater than the worst week of the Great Recession, he explained. And even though some recovery had occurred, he continued, “We are still in the worst jobs situation since the Great Depression. It’s also happening at a rate which is much faster than the Great Depression, which was spread out over almost 10 years.”
“We are still in the worst jobs situation since the Great Depression. It’s also happening at a rate which is much faster than the Great Depression, which was spread out over almost 10 years.”Chris Caruso, Kairos Center
Further, this economic crisis is disproportionately impacting poor and low wealth people:
- Almost 40% of those in households making less than $40,000 year in February had lost a job in March;
- Household debt, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, was over $14 trillion in the second quarter of 2020; and
- At least 12 million people had lost their employer-sponsored health insurance.
Chris concluded by saying that most of the jobs we have lost are not coming back but cautioned that those most directly impacted should not engage in “self blame or self shame for the circumstances we find ourselves in which are objectively not our fault….We really need a massive, massive stimulus in the short term in order for us to prevent what could be one of the darkest winters of our lifetimes.”
Shana Bartley, Director of Community Partnerships and Community Development and Income Security / Childcare at the National Women’s Law Center, added to this discussion by focusing on the impact of the pandemic recession on women. Citing data from 2018, she explained that women comprised 64% of workers in the 40 lowest paying jobs in the country while making up less that half of the workforce overall. Women of color are most dramatically impacted by low wage jobs, and now with the pandemic, more than half of Black and Latinx women reported loss of employment income since March. As Shana said, “We are now living through the tragic example of how racism and sexism in this country impact our shared economic future,” and called on participants to consider, “What is possible if we center the leadership of Black and Brown women in historically low paying jobs in our plans and our policies to rebuild our community?”
“What is possible if we center the leadership of Black and Brown women in historically low paying jobs in our plans and our policies to rebuild our community?”Shana Bartley, National Women’s Law Center
Sheree Allen, former childcare worker and leader with NC Raise Up! and the Fight for $15 and a Union shared her experience of losing her job as a health care worker, because of the pandemic, and then as an organizer for workers’ rights. “Because childcare jobs have historically been done by women and especially women of color, our work has been undervalued, underpaid and our rights have been unprotected. Now they’re saying that childcare workers are essential workers, that we keep the economy running. But for years they’ve told us that we are unskilled, and that we don’t deserve $15 an hour. The truth is, all of our low wage jobs are essential jobs.”
After outlining the demands that NC Raise Up! is working on, she concluded: “Poverty, racism and exploitation of workers are systemic problems and need systemic solutions. We are that solution — low wage workers of all races coming together as a union. That’s the solution.”
We are that solution — low wage workers of all races coming together as a union. That’s the solution.”Sheree Allen, Fight for $15
Janie Grice, former Wal-mart employee and organizer with United for Respect, based in Marion, South Carolina, shared her perspective as a retail worker making only $7.78 an hour, who in four years never got full-time hours or a stable, predictable schedule. To make ends meet, she always had to choose her job at Walmart over time with her son. Janie called for “big and bold policy change that improves our lives, particularly those in the retail industry … Deeming investment in essential workers a matter of national security and safety is not just a tactic, or hyperbole, it is a reality.” She went on to say that “today, most working people are denied the opportunity to organize, to speak with the collective voice, and are silenced and retaliated against when they do speak out.” If the nation is serious about a conversation on worker dignity, then workers need a seat at the table.
“Deeming investment in essential workers a matter of national security and safety is not just a tactic, or hyperbole, it is a reality.”Janie Grice, United for Respect
Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers for Massachusetts followed Janie and spoke to conditions in the education sector. She highlighted the existing majority female education workforce, as well as librarians and nurses, who due to the pandemic were likewise juggling increased childcare responsibilities as well as care for aging parents. She explained that many educators also have second jobs because of high student debt and high cost of living and that many of these second jobs were gone now due to the pandemic.
Calling for a well supported childcare system, Beth stated, “For too long, women workers have been expected to fix all that ails society.” She questioned whether we as a nation had the will to make necessary changes and challenged that we need to get organized and tell our government exactly how our money should be spent in order to ensure domestic tranquility and security.
The discussion then shifted to organizing strategies to build this political power. Ben Wilkins, labor organizer for 13 years and director of NC Raise Up! talked about the two key fronts of struggle: massive unemployment and the emerging idea of essential workers. Drawing on lessons from his experiences with the Fight for $15, he said, “ the lesson really is that making big, bold demands that resonate with millions of people is the way to build power, because only mass action can achieve what’s required … Over 20 million workers have won wage increases through legislation … and this would not have happened without a mass movement of workers, and poor and low income people, leading those fights.” He then went on to discuss the struggle in Alabama, where the state legislature unilaterally stopped the city of Birmingham from being able to raise wages, adding that the South is a key battlefront in this fight for workers and human dignity
“The lesson really is that making big, bold demands that resonate with millions of people is the way to build power, because only mass action can achieve what’s required.”Ben Wilkins, NC Raise Up!
The final presenter was Darrick Hamilton, internationally recognized scholar and stratification economist, and the Henry Cohen Professor of Economics and Urban Policy, and the founding director of the Institute for the Study of Race, Stratification and Political Economy at The New School. He clarified that, to combat “a system that actively produces inequality, a federal job guarantee is a powerful solution and would bend our economy towards racial and economic justice. This would create a public option for a productive quality job building our physical and human infrastructure, with decent wages, benefits and proper working conditions.” He explained how Black people and other communities of color had been disproportionately impacted both physically and financially by the pandemic and how we needed a transformative, more equitable economy that would be “less vulnerable to the next pandemic or climate-related catastrophe.”
This is in keeping with defining moments of our nation’s history, from the Economic Bill of Rights that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called for and the federal jobs guarantee demand from the civil rights movement. Connecting economics and morality, he said, “Having Americans out of work does immense damage to the human spirit and it imposes extensive costs on individuals, families, communities, and society as a whole. Yet the current political frame centers the problems of poverty and inequality and racial disparity as deficiencies, internal to the poor and Blacks themselves.”
In keeping with the speakers before him, Darrick challenged participants to think boldly and advocate for initiatives that truly empower people with economic security and dignity: “What we need are bold transformative anti-racist, anti-sexist policies that by design and implementation are intentionally inclusive of all racial, ethnic and gender groups; policies that ensure universal equality, healthcare, housing, jobs, schooling, financial services, capital and the free mobility in our society without the physical and psychological threat of bodily harm at the hands of a state-sanctioned terror because someone’s social identity is linked to a vulnerable or stigmatized group.”
This is the vision embraced by the Poor People’s Campaign’s “Jubilee” Policy Platform, which calls for raising the federal minimum wage to $15 / hour immediately, establishing a federal jobs program, securing the right to form and join unions and debt relief. This is not too much to ask for, rather, the consequences are far too high to continue the way we are.