This article is part of Prism’s series on The New Normal, reimagining the United States in the wake of COVID-19 and racial injustice.
We are at an inflection point in American history. COVID-19 and the resulting economic impact have left more Americans unemployed than in any other point since the Great Depression. Millions cannot pay rent, and nearly as many cannot pay for groceries. And during a time of profound racial violence against communities of color, those struggling the most to keep their jobs and their homes in this pandemic are Black Americans.
What makes all this even more shocking is the fact that our government, our supposed “democracy,” is actively leaving millions of people behind in the wake of COVID-19. In over half a year, during a period when COVID-19 deaths and COVID-related job losses continued to climb, the most relief many Americans received from their government was a single, $1,200 check, all while corporations got billion-dollar bailouts—nothing sums up the ineptitude of our democracy in 2020 better than this.
If it wasn’t clear before, it certainly is now—a vaccine for COVID-19 won’t cure the underlying reasons that made this crisis so bad for so many Americans, especially Black Americans. Therefore, we simply cannot return to business as usual when the pandemic ends. Instead, much like in the aftermath of the Civil War, we must reconstruct the institutions that COVID-19, racism, and the ultra rich used to their advantage.
Even before the heightened unemployment, mass evictions, and racial violence, things weren’t great. During our supposed best of days when the stock market was skyrocketing, 40 million Americans were living in poverty, half of them in “deep poverty” struggling to survive on less than $2 per day, while three extremely rich Americans owned (and still own) more wealth than the entire bottom half of the country. In this economy that billionaires are all too anxious to get back to, 700 of our fellow Americans died each day because of poverty. That’s over a quarter million deaths per year—just from what we accept as the normal costs of doing business in America.
It’s a modern day slavery, where a few prosper at the expense of the lives of the many. We cannot go back to the so-called “good old days.” For those of us who have been fighting for democracy, this is a critical moment to permanently turn the tide. The screeching engines of our imperfect union are in trouble, and we’re way past the point of an oil change. It’s not another “New Deal” that we need. Rather, we need to finally complete the Great Reconstruction that our ancestors started back in 1863, to finally make this country a strong democracy for all its people.
Historian Eric Foner elaborates on how Reconstruction-related policies sit at the root of modern-day conflicts in his most recent book The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution. The early Reconstruction periods were, by many accounts, marked by attempts to build a multiracial American democracy in all aspects of society. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery and all forms of forced labor, at least outside of the context of incarceration. The 14th Amendment guaranteed citizenship to those born in the United States, and the 15th Amendment guaranteed the right to vote for Black men. Each included clauses empowering Congress to enforce these provisions to ensure that “Reconstruction was not only a specific time period, but also the beginning of an extended historical process: the adjustment of American society to the end of slavery,” explained Foner.
Clearly, the democracy Reconstructionists aspired to goes well beyond people voting once or twice a year. Rather, a healthy democracy is a system in which as many people as possible have the ability and mechanisms in place to consult, confer, and govern themselves. While voting, lobbying, and all forms of policy and legal work are important forms of democratic participation, collective bargaining—both at work and along the lines of other economic relationships like wages, rents, and debts—inserts much-needed democracy into our currently lopsided economic system. Without collective bargaining, the whole system of democracy is compromised, and a few will continue to control the future of the many.
Unfortunately, the ability to collectively bargain has been successfully undermined by many of America’s biggest employers. Walmart is a prime example. The retail giant is the nation’s largest employer of Black Americans, with over 21% of its workforce being Black. Yet, only 5.7% percent of those within Walmart’s executive ranks are Black. The lack of representation for Black workers within Walmart’s leadership has translated into mistreatment, low pay, and yes, aggressive anti-unionization efforts. And the lack of union power left many of Walmart’s Black workers totally unprotected from COVID-19, resulting in thousands of cases and over 20 preventable deaths.
Amazon is another example of a white-led company denying democratic protections to their Black workers. Chris Smalls, a Black Amazon warehouse worker in New York, was fired after five years with the company, despite having a good record. He was fired for no reason other than attempting to democratize his workplace, and organize his coworkers to demand better protections from Amazon when COVID-19 hit. Smalls’ effort, like all collective bargaining efforts at Amazon, was brutally suppressed. So, we can’t be surprised that the lack of worker power led to almost 20,000 COVID-19 cases among Amazon employees, all while their white CEO Jeff Bezos increased his wealth to almost one trillion dollars.
As noted by Rachel Kleinfeld in The Washington Post this past September 11, “The Union won the war, but the Confederates prevailed in the peace. Attempting to undo nearly a century of segregation and discrimination with civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s ushered in the next national outbreak of violence.”
Today, segregation still exists, but between white CEOs and their Black workers. Until we dismantle these corporate blocks to true, economic democracy through collective bargaining, we cannot finish what the Great Reconstruction started.
To reclaim our country and the vision of our ancestors, we must acknowledge that those who exploit the labor of other people are not anti-racist, but racist. And those who defend the rule of a small, corporate minority over the majority are not democratic.
Working people, especially Black working people, have disproportionately borne the brunt of this pandemic. And this will happen in the next pandemic, and in every crisis, unless we finally give them a seat at the table.