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JobWatch, Juneteenth & the history of American labor

June 17, 2021

JobWatch, Juneteenth & the history of American labor

June 17, 2021

JobWatch Special Edition

Policy Matters Ohio will be closed tomorrow in celebration of Juneteenth, Emancipation Day. Tomorrow is also JobWatch day – when ODJFS and the BLS release the updated jobs numbers. For fellow Job Watchers, we’ll post our regular JobWatch statement next week, and our director will be tweeting (@HannahHalbert) our take on the new numbers when they drop, but we wanted to share why we celebrate this day.

Juneteenth is a day to honor the resilience and tenacity of those who survived slavery and fought for justice and freedom. On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger brought news to enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, that they were freed in accordance with President Abraham Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. That news took 2 1/2 years to arrive.

Juneteenth deserves an honored place in our labor history as we as we continue the fight for workers’ rights and to build worker power. On this day, we recognize the origins of the U.S. labor movement in the struggle of enslaved African people for emancipation. W.E.B. Du Bois characterized the American Civil War as a general strike. Black Americans’ withholding of their unpaid work collapsed the Southern economy and, with it, the defection of many Black residents to the Union military effort proved decisive in the Confederacy’s defeat.

The struggle for worker and racial justice is not yet won. Legal emancipation stopped short of restoring to Black Americans the wealth stolen from them and generations of their forebears. Post-war Reconstruction was rapidly abandoned in favor of the reimposition in the American South of a racial caste system during the Jim Crow era. Its echoes carry through our criminal justice system today, where Black Americans are more likely to face penalties at every stage, and forced labor continues in U.S. prisons, including one on a former cotton plantation.

Finishing the work of Reconstruction and building a just future for all working people means honestly confronting our past. This includes rejecting the false narrative of the Lost Cause curated by Southern states in the postwar period to depict a moral Confederacy fighting to defend a wholesome and honorable antebellum Southern way of life. Southern states fought to preserve slavery: America’s profoundly immoral first answer to the power relationship between people who worked, and those who employed them

Ohio’s own rich history of the abolitionist movement defies the falsehood of the Lost Cause myth. Akronite John Brown raided the armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) in a failed attempt to start a slave rebellion in 1859 — an act which inflamed tensions that ultimately led to Southern secession. The Ohio Anti-Slavery Society founded in Zanesville in 1835 quickly spread to comprise some 10,000 members in 130 chapters. Underground Railroad “conductor” John Rankin sheltered an estimated 2,000 runaway slaves at his home on the Ohio River, the first stop in free territory for people fleeing the antebellum South. Cincinnatian Harriet Beecher Stowe featured it in her 1851 bestseller, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which first awakened many white Northerners who had never met a slave to the brutality of slavery.

Ohio’s record too is fraught with racial violence. Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin after meeting African American victims of ethnic attacks by white Irish immigrants in Cincinnati who sought to block them from competing for jobs on canals and railroads in the booming Ohio River shipping trade. The opportunities of the Twentieth Century Great Migration that drew Black Americans to Ohio in search of a better life are similarly marred by violence.

Building a future that honors all working people — no matter their race — requires both honesty about how we got here and recalibration of the balance of power we tolerate in work relationships today. For four decades in Ohio, working people have driven growth that made the state wealthier than ever on the eve of COVID-19. Yet over that time, corporations, with policymakers’ help, consolidated power, pushed Black workers’ wages down and held wage increases to just 3.9% for the median Ohio worker. Economic justice requires policies that respect working people, starting with a living minimum wage, and building worker power, with support from policies like the PRO Act.

When General Granger declared enslaved people free in 1865, he also told them to get back to work. Formerly enslaved people “[would] not be supported in their idleness,” and the prior relationship between slave and master would now be one of employee and employer. When Gov. DeWine last month responded to business complaints about hiring challenges by prematurely ending federal jobless benefits to Ohioans whose jobs were destroyed by the pandemic, he similarly put his thumb on the scale to favor employers. Employer complaints about hiring are an indication that they must increase wages or other job quality factors in order to entice candidates. That is exactly how labor markets are supposed to work. Gov. DeWine’s cynical move will cost Ohio $1 billion in foregone revenue that would have helped some of the hardest hit Ohioans survive the recession and boosted business revenues to drive recovery.

Black Ohioans are among those hardest hit. The average unemployment rate for Black Ohioans in 2020 was more than double that of white Ohioans: 15.5% and 7.1% respectively. By May 2021, Black Ohioans still filed initial jobless claims at 1.9 times the rate of white Ohioans. The trend of Black unemployment running at double the rate of white unemployment has persisted since the 1940’s: AFL-CIO chief economist William Spriggs has called it an equilibrium of the systemic racism baked into the labor market.

Smart federal policy that directed unprecedented fiscal stimulus to states and the hardest hit Americans is driving a rapid recovery, but we cannot afford to let up. Centering the experience of Black working people who have long been the most marginalized will ensure our commitment to a recovery that includes everyone—no exceptions.

This week Congress passed a resolution to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. At the time of writing it awaits President Biden’s signature, but you can celebrate Juneteenth already. Join us by learning about the history and legacy of emancipation, and how to carry on the fight for worker justice.


[MS1]Ben, what do you think?

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