Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Roya Sabri headshot

Essential Workers Went on Strike for Black Lives. Is Corporate America Listening?

Tens of thousands of essential workers across the U.S. took to the streets for the Strike for Black Lives, demanding justice for frontline employees.
By Roya Sabri
Black Lives

Tens of thousands of essential workers across the country took to the streets on Monday in a strike for Black lives and to demand justice for frontline employees. Black workers make up 17 percent of frontline employees, though they represent 12 percent of the total workforce, according to a 2020 Center for Economic and Policy Research report.

Monday’s strike for Black lives followed weeks of global protests spurred by the brutal killing of George Floyd by police officers in May. While Floyd’s killers are going to trial, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and others have yet to see justice — an indication of the systemic racism the United States has yet to dismantle.

The strike for Black lives challenged companies to go beyond blanket statements supporting BLM

Organizers of Monday’s strike for Black lives called out companies including McDonald’s and AT&T.

“What we’d like [AT&T] to understand is if they’re going to go out and advertise that they believe black lives matter, take the steps you need to take to protect the lives of your black employees,” said Randall LaPlante, a member of the executive board of the Communications Workers of America Local 3806, told the Washington Post. “This is a company that has all the resources in the world to slow the spread of the pandemic, and they are failing.”

Companies have taken varied approaches to the strike. Airbnb, which in the past has been accused of failing to ensure hosts didn’t base rental decisions on race, stepped up with their employees.

Demands of the strike and why corporations should listen

Organizers of the strike include unions like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), as well as social justice and environmental nonprofits — all recognizing the connectedness of racial, economic and environmental justice.

The demands on July 20 were four-fold:

Declare that Black Lives Matter — a necessary first step for progress.

Government officials at every level should rewrite election laws to ensure fair and safe voting, while collaborating with workers and community stakeholders to protect worker wellbeing through the pandemic.

Corporations should take steps to dismantle racism and economic exploitation wherever workers face it, including raising wages, providing adequate healthcare and paid leave during the pandemic, and listening to employees when planning for a safe workplace.

Finally, companies should provide the freedom for any workers to form a union.

Specific demands included a $15 and hour minimum wage, fully funded healthcare and paid sick leave for all.

Strikes were held in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, New Jersey, and across the U.S. in a total of nearly 200 cities.

Essential workers to companies: Back up words with deeds

Essential workers called on companies to stop hiding behind empty words.

“Companies like McDonald’s cannot on the one hand tweet that ‘Black Lives Matter’ and on the other pay us poverty wages and fail to provide sick days and adequate [protective equipment]," Angely Rodriguez Lambert, an Oakland McDonald's worker and leader in the Fight for $15 and a Union, said in a press statement from SEIU. “We're going on strike because McDonald's and other fast-food companies have failed to protect us in a pandemic that has ravaged Black and brown communities across the country. We’re going to keep joining together and speaking out until McDonald’s and other companies respond with actions that show they really value our lives."

Any nationwide labor strike would indicate severe dissatisfaction with working conditions. Not only does such action alert customers to unjust practices, but it also indicates that companies are leaving money on the table simply by not listening to the needs of their frontline workers. Happy employees can be 20 percent more productive than their unhappy counterparts. And companies that take good care of their employees find healthy stock price increases.

The bottom line: No company saves money by exploiting their workers.

AirBnB: An example worth noting

In a July 20 statement, Airbnb shared that it stands with the Strike for Black Lives and that employees are able to take paid time off to participate in peaceful protests.

The statement also lists some steps Airbnb has been taking to create a more equitable work environment and platform. Airbnb created a “Living Wage Pledge” that hosts can opt into to pay the workers who clean their homes between stays. Also listed are partnerships and methods the company has been using to combat discrimination on its platform, as well as a commitment to increasing diversity on its leadership team by 2021.

Airbnb admits there is much more it can do, which is a step ahead of other companies that spoke out this week.

Some companies respond with defensiveness

In its statement, McDonald's threw its support behind Black Lives Matter and claimed its employees are safe, protected and well-paid. Despite the bonuses and raises franchises are potentially handing out, the fact remains that cashiers are paid an average of $9 an hour.

Then, there’s the decision to go on the defensive in the face of criticism. AT&T said in its statement, “Everything we do meets or exceeds the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and local guidelines and has been a result of lots of consultation with medical community to minimize risk at our locations. Any suggestion otherwise is wrong.”

The July 20 strike made corporate leaders around the country take a look in the mirror.

The questions are clear for anyone in management: Am I supporting my essential workers? Am I meeting the demands these tens of thousands of people agree on?

These strikers are not asking simply for words of solidarity, but for action, specific steps — fight racism in the workplace, provide a living wage for all, take care of your sick employees, lift up those workers on the bottom of your totem pole. Those are the actions every business leader and elected official can work toward and accomplish.

Image credit: Clay Banks/Unsplash

Roya Sabri headshot

Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn

Read more stories by Roya Sabri