When the banality of workplace organizing is the best weapon against the banality of evil
AT the height of the 2014 Christmas shopping season hundreds of people converged on the Mall of America rotunda to disrupt business as usual and remind a nation that Black Lives Matter—and matter more than shopping.
It was a moment I had dreamed of for years. I had been a part of business as usual in the Mall of America. For six years, I was a barista at the Starbucks that faces the Mall of America rotunda. While for shoppers the Mall of America is a place of glistening wonder, where a constantly-changing array of commodities surprise and delight, the hours my coworkers and I spent at work were a mind-numbingly torturous monotony of feeding a never-ending line of shoppers concoctions of caffeine and sugar for a pittance that kept us in poverty. Our plight was not unique.
No one I knew while working at the Mall of America from 2006 to 2012 made more than $10/hour. No one had quality healthcare from their employer. No one had full-time or guaranteed hours. These are the dead-end food service and retail jobs that are eating the American working class alive. It is a dead end inhabited disproportionately by black and brown Americans.
Business as usual is largely unbearable for workers in the Mall of America. It was only occasionally disrupted. Mall management sought to draw shoppers by organizing various kinds of spectacles in the rotunda in front of our store: a concert, a job fair, a televised competition, a special sale. On one weekend, the rotunda was filled by a giant “suitcase of cash.” Six contestants were chained to the suitcase. The one who managed to stay enchained longest was to win a cash prize- $10,000, roughly what a retail worker earns in a year. “What a metaphor” I thought, “For all of us chained to our jobs in this building,” staring out at the rotunda.
And then I noticed something different. An object was falling through the air. It looked like a mannequin. It hit the ground with a deadening thud. It was not a mannequin, it was a man. Blood begins spreading from the fallen body. The contestants handcuffed to the giant suitcase begin to scream. My coworkers and I run to the door of our store, panic sets in. Mall of America security guards rush to the body and begin to administer CPR. The body’s chest cavity rises and falls like a bubble of chewing gum. He is not going to make it.
Paramedics hoist the mangled corpse onto a gurney and wheel it away. A janitor puts down some powder to absorb the blood. Stroke by stroke, he mops up the vital fluids that the body had spilled onto the floor. Stroke by stroke, the floor regains its marble shine. In minutes, shoppers are again walking through the rotunda, aimlessly wandering from store to store over the spot where the man died.
I worked in the Mall of America for another two years. The Mall was renovated, shining glass and steel replacing worn surfaces and blurry windows. New roller coasters in the theme park. New stores replacing tired old ones. Eternally rejuvenated, the Mall endured, but mall workers got older, more broke and broken with every passing year. Ligaments and tendons succumbed to repetitive strain. Psyches suffered under anxiety and depression. I realized that the mall was maintained in its eternal youth because it mattered. As poverty-wage retail workers, our lives did not.
We did fight for our lives. My coworkers and I started a union at our Starbucks. Our demands were mundane — an end to understaffing that ran us ragged as we served lines that stretched out the door, fixing broken equipment that added injury to the insult of poverty wages, a work visa for an immigrant coworker, among others. We won some small battles — blocking an unfair firing, winning consistent scheduling, getting a sexist boss fired. All of these struggles were inextricable from a struggle against racism. At Starbucks, it was workers of color who had the hardest time getting hired, were the most frequently fired, and the most rarely promoted. Outside our shop, it was clear from our daily experiences and the surveys our fledgling “Mallworkers Alliance” conducted that black workers were overrepresented in the Mall of America, possibly the nation’s largest concentration of awful low-wage work, and that, within the mall, they tended to have the worst of the worst jobs. No life matters in the Mall of America, but black lives mattered least of all.
Word of our small victories at Starbucks spread, and workers from other stores in the Mall of America began meeting with us, plotting their own small-scale rebellions. For a moment, everything seemed possible, a movement was growing. But the forces that wore us down as workers also wore down the union. The attrition that is typical of the service industry took its toll, our numbers as a union shrank rather than grew. I quit in 2012, the first and last participant in the campaign. The dream of shutting down business as usual at the Mall of America to assert that the lives of workers mattered was deferred.
In 2014, Black Lives Matter made the dream real — succeeding where our small insurgency for workers’ power had failed. This is a telling parable for a labor movement struggling to confront low-wage service industry capitalism. To be a force for the working class, the labor movement must become a movement to make black lives matter, combating the exploitation of black people on and off the job. This requires white labor activists (like the one writing this article) to ask difficult questions of themselves and develop a new praxis of organizing based on an understanding of white supremacy in capitalist America.
The movement for black lives targeted the Mall of America because, in the words of Kandace Montgomery, one of the organizers of a similar action in 2015, “When you disrupt their flow of capital … they actually start paying attention.” The flow of capital in the Mall of America reflects and perhaps concentrates the culture outside its walls. On the streets outside, a similar business as usual prevails. And there is also blood on the ground.
On November 15, 2015, Minneapolis police shot and killed Jamar Clark while he was locked in handcuffs, facedown on the ground. This was the latest in a long chain of extrajudicial police murders of black people, which are only one facet of an entire complex of systemic oppression. In Minnesota, infant mortality rates for black babies are more than double those of white babies. More than 24% of black families live in poverty, while just over 8% of white families in Minnesota live in poverty.
A USA Today analysis of FBI arrest records found that in 2011 and 2012, the Minneapolis Police Department made 34,147 arrests of blacks in a city that has only 71,098 black residents. The MPD arrested only 7.3% of the number of white residents of the city during that time period. The ACLU released data demonstrating that blacks in Minnesota are:
- 5 times more likely to be arrested than a white individual for marijuana possession;
- 86 times more likely to be arrested than a white individual for disorderly conduct;
- 54 times more likely to be arrested than a white individual for vagrancy; and
- 39 times more likely to be arrested than a white juvenile for curfew/loitering
As a result of Minnesota’s Jim Crow–like policing, black Minnesotans make up only 4.7% of the state’s population but count for 36% of the state’s prison population, one of the worst racial disparities in the U.S.
This is the banality of evil that Black Lives Matter protesters disrupted in the Mall of America in December 2014. It was a high-water mark for the movement nationally, but by the end of the day, the tide of protest had ebbed, and business as usual resumed in the Mall of America, just as it would in all of America as highway blockades, protests, and riots subsided.
The movement needed to escalate, but by winter 2014, resistance seemed to have hit a hard limit: the working day. Protesters too are captives of business as usual. In every non-labor movement, the biggest protest actions are on nights and weekends for the simple reason that, by day, protesters are workers, producing the very business as usual that protest then seeks to subvert. To escalate protests, even just in terms of longer actions, would require confronting the fundamental reality of exploitation under capitalism — the compulsion to work. If the labor movement needs to make black lives matter, we may also say that Black Lives Matter needs the labor movement.
The shutdown of the Mall of America pointed to a potential way to take the movement forward. The mall is not only a space of consumption but also a space of production animated by the labor of over 10,000 low-wage service workers, disproportionately black in the majority-white state of Minnesota. The radical labor tradition has long sought to organize at the intersection of black power and workers power. Black labor exploited by white capitalists has been the starting point for a current of resistance stretching back to the earliest days of colonization.
Whiteness was possibly the first truly American invention. In 1676, free and indentured Europeans joined forces with free and enslaved Africans against their colonial rulers in the Jamestown colony in what became known as Bacon’s Rebellion. The British rulers put down the uprising, and set to work dividing and conquering the rebel masses of the new world. The principal tool in their counterinsurgency strategy was the creation of what we would now call whiteness. Under the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705, blacks were stripped of their rights and assigned to a status as slaves, while European settlers were set on a path of incorporation into what would become a “democracy” of white male landowners.
In a nation of immigrants, whiteness was an ever-shifting boundary, adjusted by the rulers as a tool of social control. For immigrants, whiteness was a sought-after concession in the class struggles of the 1800s and 1900s. Irish, Italians, Jews, all were eventually granted assimilation into whiteness and the “invisible knapsack” of privilege it provides in exchange for a basic loyalty to American capitalism. At various times in history, white privilege included the right to be paid for your labor, the right to vote, the right to habeas corpus (getting a trial instead of being shot in the street by police), better schools, better jobs, better housing, and even the right to form a union with the National Labor Relations Act, which intentionally excluded majority-black sectors of the economy.
No such deal was on the table for black workers. They faced nothing but limitless exploitation, their unpaid labor laying the literal foundations of white American wealth and black poverty. As of 2013, the median household wealth of a white US family was $141,900. The average black family had $11,000 in assets, a gap that is accounted for by the $14.2 trillion in unpaid wages — “reparations” — owed to the descendants of slaves.
The unwillingness of white America to pay the economic and moral debt owed to African-Americans validates Stokely Carmichael’s famous statement — “In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.” America does, however, have a wallet, which has often been a more sensitive target than the white liberal heart. According to W. E. B. Dubois’s account, it was a “general strike” of slaves across the south that dealt the fatal economic blow to the confederacy in the Civil War. The economic power of the black community, amplified by the moral clarion call of the Civil Rights movement, served as the major weapon of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike. As the Civil Rights movement gave way to Black Power, black worker organizing also radicalized. The League of Revolutionary Black Workers, a Marxist-Leninist formation organizing in Detroit’s auto factories and black community in the 1960s and 1970s, connected the exploitation of black workers in Detroit to the exploitation faced by blacks from the days of Jamestown Colony. Black workers were relegated to the most dangerous, dirty, and dull occupations in Detroit’s industries. For all the fine words of Walter Reuther’s support for the Civil Rights movement, the United Auto Workers was complicit in the white supremacist employment structure in Detroit’s plants. This led the League of Revolutionary Black Workers to build wildcat strikes and organize the community against not just the capitalist bosses but also the union bosses who ratify white supremacy.
Given the long legacy of worker resistance to white supremacy, it is notable that so far, there have been only occasional connections to workplace organizing in the Black Lives Matter moment. This paucity of workplace-based struggle may stem in part from structural transformations in the economy. The conditions that allowed the League of Revolutionary Black Workers to turn their strategic location at the heart of the industrial economy into structural power no longer exist. Since the 1970s, capitalism has scattered production across the globe, displacing American workers into a sprawling service sector. Automation has reduced the size of the labor force in relative terms. These shifts have disoriented the labor movement, with union density plummeting in virtually every industrialized country.
The devastating impact of the shift has been felt particularly by black workers. But even in this brave new world of precarity, a new wave of worker struggle against white supremacy is finding its footing. Black football players at the University of Missouri brought economic power to bear where moral suasion had failed to waken the white conscience, launching a wildcat strike that threatened to cost the university millions of dollars. The Mizzou administration didn’t have hearts, but they did have wallets, and soon met the team’s demands. The Fight for Fifteen has in several places drawn clear connections between the exploitation of black workers in the fast-food industry and police violence against African-Americans on the streets. In Minneapolis, a cell of IWW organizers at UPS organized their shift to refuse to handle boxes of targets featuring black children as target practice destined for police training facilities. Chipotle workers in Ferguson somehow carted off over $1,000 worth of burritos, distributing the goods at a protest march. Prisoners across the United States are increasingly restive, launching labor strikes against the prison-industrial complex. And from Detroit teachers shutting down the schools with sickouts to Verizon workers out on strike, black workers are disproportionately represented on the front lines of virtually every labor struggle. Black Lives Matter is arriving in the workplace. The question is who will meet it there.
For far too long, black workers have gone it alone, sold out by the white working class. It’s time for white antiracists to bring their politics to work. This would require a different, less glamorous engagement than street protests. It requires many patient but persistent conversations with white workers, pushing for a new understanding of the world we create. Through our labor, workers produce and reproduce a world of white prosperity and black poverty, a culture that glorifies whiteness and vilifies blackness in the media, hospitals and schools that are as separate and unequal as ever, pollution that afflicts black communities far more than white, a world, in short, of white supremacy. Workers have the power to bring this business as usual to a grinding halt, and to make this world anew. To get there, we need a different kind of unionism, one that looks beyond bread-and-butter for the dwindling number of current union members to the whole person and our whole community, fighting for a radical reimagining of both. If white supremacy is sustained by the banality of evil, it will be undone by a crescendo of class-wide resistance. Black workers are leading, white workers need to follow.