Essential Workers Strike for Black Lives

MAPA Newsletter Jul-Aug 2020

by Andrew King 

Nearly 200 essential workers and their allies rallied at the State House on July 20 to demand racial and economic justice as part of a national Strike for Black Lives that took place in many cities across the country.

The rally was organized by healthcare and frontline workers from the Service Employees International Union—SEIU Locals 509, 1199, 32BJ, 888, and CIR. They were joined by the Poor People’s Campaign, Movimiento Cosecha for Immigrant Rights, State Rep. Liz Miranda, Senator Ed Markey, Congressman Joe Kennedy, and many labor and community allies, including members of Mass. Peace Action.

Markey stood in solidarity with the workers, before heading to Washington D.C. to push for passage of the HEROES Act, which will provide increased protections for workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. A version of the bill has been passed by the House and is now being taken up by the Senate.

“We need to make sure that unemployment benefits are extended, that we provide the testing, the contact tracing, and the personal protective equipment (PPE) for every worker in our country,” Sen. Markey declared. “We need to make sure that we don’t just beg for our rights, but we take them from Donald Trump.”

Rafael Garcia, a member of SEIU 32BJ who cleans bathrooms at Logan Airport, spoke about the desperate need for hazard pay for workers. “The coronavirus has affected Black and Latino communities disproportionately because we are disproportionately put at risk by our jobs,” he said. “We need hazard pay for the incredibly risky work that we take on. We need it for our families so we can feed them. We deserve it for the sacrifices we make every day.”

Union organizer Joanne Thenor said, “I’m here supporting Black lives, because they’re the backbone of America and we need to make sure their lives are respected, valued and appreciated…Most of the essential staff and frontline workers making minimum wage are people of color. They are actually the ones on the front lines putting their lives at risk…It affects our population as a whole, because it puts us in danger as we have to go to multiple jobs, we can’t just survive on one job, which spreads the disease.”

Savina Martin, co-chair of the Massachusetts Poor People’s Campaign, told the crowd, “We stand in solidarity with workers across this nation, because we are the essential workers, just like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and you. Together we will declare that Black Lives Matter and together we will build a fusion movement that fights against the interlocking injustices of systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and a distorted moral narrative. And we will bring together a fundamental revolution of values.”

State Rep. Liz Miranda described the deeply interconnected struggles of workers, Black communities, and immigrants: “We are fighting for better jobs, better wages, and unions for all…As working men and women, this country was built on our backs and will continue to thrive on our backs,” she said. “Our destinies are tied. These struggles are interlocked. You cannot fight for immigrant justice and not fight for economic justice. You cannot fight for economic justice and not fight for racial justice.”

As the US Senate takes up the HEROES Act, many Republican senators are expressing reservations about extending the $600 per month in additional unemployment benefits for workers who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. The additional funds have been a lifeline for many families. Yet, during the worst unemployment since the Great Depression, many Republicans are putting forth the insulting message that extra benefits may discourage workers from taking jobs. The Strike for Black Lives is one expression of a nationwide movement demanding relief for workers and poor people during this deepening depression.

The SEIU locals that organized the event included 1199SEIU, which represents more than 70,000 healthcare and homecare workers; SEIU Local 509, which represents 20,000 human service workers and educators; 32BJ SEIU, which represents 20,000 building service workers in Mass. and Rhode Island; SEIU Local 888, which unites more than 8,500 public service workers; and the Committee of Interns and Residents SEIU, which unites and empowers resident physicians to have a stronger voice within their hospitals.

Watch the rally video at:
View rally photos at:

—Andrew King is a PhD candidate in public policy at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and a member of Mass. Peace Action’s Latin America and Caribbean Solidarity working group.