Corporate accountability is just as important as police accountability

Corporate accountability is just as important as police accountability
© getty: Protesters march on June 15, 2020 in New York City.

Today on Juneteenth — June 19, or "Freedom Day," commemorating the date in 1865 when a Union general's order freed slaves in Galveston, Texas — a broad coalition of black, brown and indigenous leaders is coordinating a nationwide Drive for Justice to demand an end to police brutality against black people, of which the torturous killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis was just the latest example.

While our demands to defund and demilitarize the police, to prosecute killer cops and to release law enforcement personnel records will be heard and echoed through American streets, we cannot lose sight that some companies — up until very recently — failed to help prevent institutionalized racism. 

That’s why recognizing and celebrating Juneteenth requires an understanding that the day, in our minds, is inextricably tied with supporting the labor movement. Our ancestors were "essential workers" when they were forcibly brought to America, and much of our community continues to serve in indispensable roles in our society today. Nevertheless, our country’s existing power structure fails to treat too many of us as full citizens and we are still fighting for issues of equality, such as being paid the debt for our ancestors' work on behalf of this country. 

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Now, the COVID-19 pandemic is magnifying this current and historical reality. In New York City for instance, neighborhoods that are black and poor have more than double the COVID-19-related death rate when compared to low-poverty communities. 

So, as it turns out, early symptoms for severe COVID-19 cases include being on the wrong side of an exponentially growing racial wealth gap (black households have one-tenth the net worth of white households); being paid less than white people for the same work (women of color are paid only 63 cents for every dollar a white male is paid); being unable to work from home (80 percent); and having limited or no access to health care (11percent of blacks are uninsured compared to 8 percent of whites).

Unless a company’s workforce is diverse, paid a living wage, given health care and provided the freedom to form a union, we must view their attempts on social media to show solidarity on Juneteenth with deep skepticism. Indeed, we cannot begin to fully challenge systemic racism without taking on the corporate practices that feed a cycle of multi-generational poverty and violence. Thus, labor rights are part and parcel to our calls for police reform. 

We have been fighting for years for a living wage, a safety net and universal health care because we have never viewed them simply as “benefits” but as “necessities.” These are matters of life and death — just like unchecked police power. The overlapping horrors of the recent police killings of black people and the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact have made these policy demands as salient as ever.

Ultimately, if corporations want to practice what they preach, they should treat all workers equally and fairly. They also need to stop supporting or enabling politicians who block the very laws that would make black workers' lives better, such as implementing paid sick leave. 

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Our vision for a more just society includes dismantling structural racism and corporate power. We cannot have one without the other. Black people deserve both dignity on the job and to make it home alive to their families — without experiencing brutality from the police. 

As 2020 once again has shown, the problems facing black people are vast. The systems in place ensure that our community stays sicker and poorer than others. We know how to fix these problems and we know who is standing in the way. We have to recognize how our economy and our public health cannot be separated. There is no social justice without economic justice.

Kyle Bragg is president of 32BJ SEIU, which represents 12 states and Washington, D.C., and is the largest service workers’ union in the U.S. He also serves on the Security Guard Council of New York State and is a board member of Community Board 13 in Queens, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter @kyle32bj.

Rev. Kirsten John Foy is a native New Yorker who has served as a civil rights and labor movement activist. Currently, he is the president of Arc of Justice, a civil rights organization based in Brooklyn, New York. He previously served as a staffer for New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio and Northeast Regional Director for the National Action Network, founded by Rev. Al Sharpton. You can follow him on Twitter @KirstenJohnFoy.