Dozens of Black workers — many of whom have been working throughout the pandemic — and their supporters rallied in Philadelphia’s blistering heat Monday as part of a national Strike for Black Lives.
At a rally in Old City, between the African American Museum and the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, many held signs reading “Strike for Black Lives.” Speakers noted that the location — between buildings representing Black history and America’s wealth — illustrated the ties between low-wage “essential” work and slavery in oppressing Black people.
“People say all lives matter,” said Lance Biggs, an organizer with labor union 32BJ SEIU. ”We say all lives can’t matter until Black lives matter. People say all labor has dignity. All labor cannot have dignity until all labor affords you a living wage.”
The nationwide day of action, part of the broader Black Lives Matter uprisings sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, took place in more than two dozen cities nationwide. It aimed to link the Black Lives Matter struggle to the fight for workers’ rights, and call attention to the racial discrimination that Black workers face on the job, which workers say has only worsened during the current health crisis.
“People were already struggling before this pandemic,” Councilmember Kendra Brooks said at the rally at the African American Museum. “We were already struggling trying to figure out how we’re going to take care of our families working two, three, even four essential-worker jobs. And there’s no reason we should be begging now for a fair wage.”
At the rally, attended by members of labor unions and groups like 32BJ SEIU, Unite Here, and One Fair Wage, workers called on the U.S. Senate to pass the HEROES Act, which would provide personal protective equipment, hazard pay, and extended unemployment benefits to workers.
At Chestnut Hill United Church, cleaners, dietary workers, nursing assistants, and other service workers at Chestnut Hill Hospital protested what they describe as a pattern of racial discrimination against Black workers.
“The HR director once told me he hasn’t seen racism here,” said Venus Russell, a unit support coordinator. “I asked him, ‘What color are your glasses shaded in?’ Because it’s here.”
Russell, a grandmother and member of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, said that Black workers, who make up the majority of the hospital’s more than 200 service workers, have experienced harsher disciplinary measures than their white colleagues, have been called racial slurs, and once heard management refer to the lobby as “a ghetto street corner” when three Black workers were taking their break.
In a statement, Tower Health spokesperson Jessica Bezler denied allegations of racial discrimination.
“Our employment policies and practices are applied consistently throughout the organization and do not tolerate discrimination or bigotry by any person,” she said. “Claims of bias are investigated thoroughly and appropriate actions taken based on facts.”
Workers here did not walk off the job, though some workers around the country did so as part of the national campaign.
32BJ SEIU, SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, and Unite Here represent thousands of low-wage service workers in Philadelphia, including security guards, hospital cleaners, cooks, and airport wheelchair attendants. Those workers are part of the city’s vast service sector: 320,000 workers who make up nearly half of the city’s workforce. These workers make a median salary of $25,000 a year, according to a Drexel University analysis of census data from 2011 to 2016.
Most of the city’s service sector — retail and fast-food workers, for example — is not unionized, and makes lower wages and receives fewer protections than their union counterparts.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of 21 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.