Black Workers and the Ongoing Struggle for Labor Equity in Baltimore
Frederick Douglass lived during the time of another thoroughly white supremacist president—Andrew Jackson. Douglass was 11 years old when Andrew Jackson assumed the highest office in the land on March 4, 1829. Douglass has been sent to learn the trade of caulking in Baltimore’s shipyards after spending his younger years on the Eastern Shore. Douglass was an enslaved worker in Fells Point when then President Jackson—himself an owner of over 100 enslaved Black workers—signed the Indian Removal Act in 1831.
Later in Jackson’s presidency in 1833, Frederick Douglass would be sent to work in St. Michael’s, Maryland for a brutal farmer and “slave-breaker” named Edward Covey. Covey proceeded to terrorize Douglass by beating him. But one day, Frederick Douglass had enough. He arose and proceeded to fight Covey. Douglass would emerge victorious over slave-breaker Covey and he would never attempt to beat Douglass again.
Fast forward to today almost 185 years later. America’s president is Donald Trump, who has attempted to undo virtually every progressive policy or action undertaken by his predecessor, President Obama. Trump has attempted to repeal the Affordable Care Act and stop the enforcement of the HUD rule to affirmatively further fair housing. The GOP-controlled John Roberts’ Supreme Court handed down a decision (Janus vs. AFSCME) to weaken the influence and political power of public sector unions, where a disproportionate number of Black workers find gainful employment. With an even greater zeal for border enforcement, Trump’s border policy entails building a wall on the Mexican border and splitting innocent Central American children from their families.
Meanwhile, lower income Black workers in Baltimore face assaults on their ability to live by the local urban Democratic Party. Mayor Pugh promised to support raising the minimum wage to $15/hour as a candidate, only to renege and break her promise after lobbying by the Greater Baltimore Committee. Water bills are rising rapidly and Black property owners face property confiscation and losing their homes or churches after tax liens are placed on their properties due to water bills.
Black workers in Baltimore are also threatened by the highest rental eviction per capita in the nation along with a high number of foreclosures spurred by predatory bank lending. As a result of a long legacy of America’s white supremacy and Baltimore Apartheid, the median household income for Black workers in Baltimore ($38,688) is virtually half the median housing income for White workers ($76,992).
Given all this, one must ask: what to Black workers in Baltimore is the Fourth of July? Black workers continue to face tremendous threats to their livelihood and ability to survive due to existential threats by a trumped up national GOP and a low down local Democratic Party. Black workers in Baltimore are being beaten repeatedly by public officials who promise to uplift Black workers but ultimately serve the interests of large White corporations such as Under Armour, Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, and large corporate developers. On this Fourth of July, 200 years after the birth of Frederick Douglass, the prospects of Black labor remain precarious and the terrain of opportunity remains strikingly unequal.
In order to win the ongoing struggle for labor equity and to make all Black Lives Matter in Baltimore, Black workers must organize, mobilize, strike, and take the fight to public officials who take their marching orders from big capital. Like Frederick Douglass, Black workers will emerge victorious if they organize for power and rise up to challenge the public officials and corporate entities that continue to diminish Black workers and Black Lives in Baltimore’s beautiful Black Butterfly.
The Baltimore Black Worker Center stands at the ready to assist Black workers across the city in mounting a surge for labor equity in Baltimore City. For the Baltimore Black Worker Center, the Fourth of July is a call to renewed organizing and a time for strategizing how the fight for Black Lives and labor equity in Baltimore can be strengthened and intensified. With the release of The State of Black Baltimore, the Baltimore Black Worker Center aims to provide the type of data and policy recommendations that will help bolster the organizing efforts of Black workers citywide. Let this Fourth of July be the beginning of Black workers rising, Black workers organizing, and Black workers thriving from Franklintown to Highlandtown, from Chinaquin Park to Morrell Park, from Cherry Hill to Hilltop, from Pigtown to Oldtown.
-Lawrence Brown, PhD
Assure Justice and Independence for all Americans
Baltimore Black Worker Center is bringing to the front, the need for urgent attention and action in regard the plight of Black workers in Baltimore. Its first Report launched today, ‘The State of Black Workers in Baltimore’ shows:
- 54.7% of Black workers earn low wages compared to 29.3% of white workers.
- 52.6% of Black male workers are low-wage workers, but Black males are 62.3% of the low-wage male workforce.
- 56.3% of Black female workers are low-wage workers, but Black females are 71.1% of the low-wage female workforce.
- 84.2% of all Black workers in the Grocery Store industry receive low wages.
There’s much more in this report that confirm the dual crisis for Black workers in Baltimore and beyond: underemployment and employment in sectors that are least likely to assure wages that sustain the wellbeing of Black workers and their communities.
That it is released today July 4th re-focuses us on the urgency of equity Frederick Douglass announced in his speech on July 4th 1852: ‘What to the Slave is the 4th of July?’ He said: “The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me.” This inequity in freedom and justice in all aspects of life Frederick Douglass spoke of 166 years ago exists today. As long as inequity exists in the ability to find work and the type of work accessible to Black workers, we continue to live in the shadow of independence. Full inheritance of justice, liberty, and prosperity continues to escape Black Baltimore in general and low income Black Baltimore specifically.
This first Black Worker Center Report offers us not only the state of Black workers today, but defines the history of how we came to exist in this state and how we can move toward equity for Baltimore workers. This history also delineates the organizing that challenged the injustices, bringing Baltimore closer to better working conditions, better jobs, and better pay for low income Black workers.
There remains much to do to keep us on track and speed us toward justice.
Until Black workers and their families are able to live in cities that offer education, recreation, health and employment that support them in moving away from low-income employment, celebrating a day of independence for all Americans remains the sham Frederick Douglass declared more than a century ago: ‘…your celebration is a sham…your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery’.
The work ahead of us is clear and the invitation to right this history is the birthright of all those who would call themselves ‘Americans’. So while you celebrate this day of independence for some Americans consider supporting Baltimore Black Worker Center in its mission to assure justice and independence for all Americans.
-Marisela B Gomez
Blackwork and Freedom
To be emancipated from economic exploitation and alienation of work provides the starting point to discuss blackwork and its bond to freedom. Working class black workers and black cultivators of the land represent the most significant percentage of the black populace. The owners of wealth and the means of production some growing numbers of people say exploited and alienated both blacks and whites with blacks of course remaining in the bottom of the barrel. They use racism as a tool to divide blacks from their white sisters and brothers.
Racist stereotypes abound to justify racism. “They lower housing values living next to whites." They commit most crimes. Our jails are full of them.” Too many live off of the government dole.” “They take away whites’ jobs with government goals and quotas.” It then becomes part of the culture.
Racism crosses the line of social class. The likes of Clarence Thomas, Michael Jordan and the black CEOs’ of big business corporations remain exceptions.
U.S. history shows that black struggle in its many forms paved the way for us. Slavery and our fight back begin our American journey. To justify slavery, the story goes that blacks’ inferior biological status naturally accrued to them. Massive profits came from slavery.
We blacks were not even considered a whole person as the codified U.S. Constitution showed.
The over 700 U.S. colony and U.S. slave revolts lay testimony to blacks’ attitudes toward slavery. For a long time up to the Civil War, the white big plantation owners through their mouthpieces had their way.
The great emancipator and Marylander Harriet Tubman said, “Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom, keep going.”
Blacks fought in the U.S. Civil War. At first, we were turned down. Eventually, about 179,000 black men enlisted as ground soldiers. About 19,000 served Navy duty.
After the failure of Radical Reconstruction despite its highlights up through Plessey v. Ferguson that made separate but equal the law of the land – to just before WWI blacks were relegated to debt peonage and sharecropping. They were hardly more than slavery.
Then came the migrations of blacks looking for greener pastures and a better way of life through employment and to ending terrors of the KKK and other like-minded Americans that threatened, tortured, and killed blacks. This migration continued until the 1970s. Blacks still were discriminated against as we are to this day.
Black women poured into the labor force after the Civil War. They faced racial issues the same as black men at the workplace. Their plight as women compounded the problems. To this day they mirror the economic stigma of being a woman as well as being black.
It was the beginnings just before WWI, blacks up until the so-called Roosevelt “New Deal,” that expressions for freedom found their way to the Marcus Garvey movement, other forms of Pan Africanism, the choices between Dubois’s and Booker T. Washington’s roads to freedom and the entrance of the U.S. Communist Party (The 1930s marked its largest black membership).
During these times blacks often had to fight to join unions. The amalgamation of the AFL-CIO helped blacks to take part in unions since blacks found themselves in many industrially organized unions as opposed to craft unions.
The blacks up until the 1930s were in the party of Abraham Lincoln and soon switched their allegiance to Democrats after Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” Still, black struggle lead the way that intertwined freedom with blackwork and quality life.
The modern day civil and black rights issue that some trace to A. Philip Randolph’s threatened March on Washington in 1942 demanded federal jobs.
After WWII the U.S adorned the throne as leader of the imperialist free world. The economic, social, and political disparities became more visible, especially in the job sector as we fight for our rights. The civil and black rights movement addressed these issues in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Our efforts reaped much, but still not leveling the playing field of blackwork and freedom.
Malcolm X’s words still ring loud and clear. They remain instructive regarding Republicans and Democrats. He said, “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there's no progress. If you pull it all the way out, that's not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven't even pulled the knife out much less heal the wound. They won't even admit the knife is there.”
Today we still must boldly say, Black lives matter, and take action. The Baltimore Black Workers mission is to help to forge a new day as the U.S. and world economic crisis vividly show how our freedoms are reflected in blackwork.