A Black women leading a United Auto Workers Protest and holding a megaphone, while a group of protestors stand behind her holding signs that read, “UAW On Strike”
Image credit: Rawpixel on istock.com

We’re in the middle of a historic and long-overdue uprising of worker power in the United States. Working people who’ve been told their whole lives to be grateful for a job—any job—are finally, understandably, fed up. As billionaire profits increase while wages remain stagnant and inflation looms, record numbers of Americans have quit their jobs. Those who haven’t quit are increasingly joining unions or finding other ways to organize—and going on strike.

These seismic shifts in the labor market will hopefully presage a new era of worker voice and power that will chip away at runaway inequality and injustice in our economy. Indeed, a report by the Economic Analysis and Research Network (EARN) and Topos found that, even in the South and Midwest, “where people are far down the spectrum in terms of what people believe a worker has a right to expect (or demand) from an employer,” a strong majority of Americans believe that “the system is set up to make it easier for some people and harder for others.” This reflects a shifting worldview and an increased opening for further worker organizing and power building.

As long as Black workers remain in a figurative hole at the bottom of the American economy, exploitation, injustice, and inequity will be bottomless.

As philanthropists, we can and should support these workers—especially the Black workers leading the fight—and the vision of economic opportunity and fairness that their movement represents.

Labor Justice Is Racial Justice

This new labor resurgence is led by Black workers and leaders—which is why supporting it is key to racial justice missions. For instance, workers of color made up 100 percent of union growth in 2022, with Black workers as a driving force with the highest rates of unionization nationwide. This is both historic and strategic.

Black workers have always been the afterthought of labor rights and economic justice movements, or worse, the workers whose rights and wages were flagrantly exploited so that White workers could access more power and privilege. This means the building block of America’s original sin of slavery remains a foundation for the modern economy. As long as Black workers remain in a figurative hole at the bottom of the American economy, exploitation, injustice, and inequity will be bottomless.

Conversely, as john a. powell has written, when we center the needs and experiences of Black workers and other marginalized communities, the structures and solutions we propose inevitably make a better workplace, a better economy, and a better world for all.

While the organized labor movement has steadily embraced the value and necessity of workers of color, philanthropy has largely been absent from investing grant dollars to advance worker justice. There is no question that more foundations have increasingly supported the needs of families of color through the lens of health equity, education, and social services. However, these same foundations have not recognized that the success of these families is based on the stability of the workers responsible for putting food on the table.

Strong workers are the first domino to systemic societal change. When workers can organize for fair and just conditions, pay, and benefits, they can elevate their families and their communities.

In our private lives, of course, many of us in philanthropy support collective bargaining efforts and worker strikes as important levers of worker power to balance out corporate greed and inequality. Yet, as institutions, either because of misconception or lack of understanding, we have not intentionally coordinated with organized labor to bring about the change we both want for workers in America.

To fully realize the potential of the worker-justice lever for change available to us in philanthropy, there are three things we should all consider to provide a tangible lift to the worker movement at this moment.

Three Things Philanthropy Should Do

First, fund worker organizing groups led by Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) workers because they are not only the canaries in the coal mine when it comes to injustice, but they’re also making the biggest, boldest swings for new models and a new scale of transformative organizing. Black workers drove one of the most visible union victories of the past year, including the 1,400 workers in rural Georgia who won their union with United Steel Workers. Black workers also played a vital role in the United Auto Workers reaching an agreement with Ford, General Motors and Stellantis for wage increases over 30% after a weeks-long strike by 150,000 workers.

Labor history is full of examples of unions using strikes to build power before the law offered any protections.

Another example is the work of Stand Up Nashville, a Black-led organization that brokered a landmark community benefits agreement with MLS Soccer. Community benefits agreements are independent contracts between businesses and community groups that guarantee that the jobs and economic benefits associated with development projects actually benefit local communities and workers. Stand Up Nashville forged such an agreement with the local MLS Soccer investor to require that 20 percent of all housing units built at the development site be used for affordable and workforce housing and that all stadium workers be direct hires paid at least $15.50 an hour. The agreement even includes establishing an onsite childcare facility for workers. These types of legally binding agreements between private corporations and community-based organizations represent a new era of organizing around economic and racial justice that’s achievable when BIPOC-led organizations are given the necessary resources.

Second, in addition to funding organizations led by BIPOC workers, as influential leaders in this field, we must reframe our goals away from “jobs” and toward “good jobs.” It is no longer enough to just get people jobs. If those jobs don’t pay a livable wage and don’t ensure basic rights and benefits, they aren’t jobs worth having—let alone jobs we should be helping create.

One example of this is the work of One Fair Wage and its partnership with the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable. These organizations know that just having “a job” that pays the subminimum wage of $2.13 an hour to restaurant workers is not sufficient—and, frankly, is racist and a holdover from slavery, given that most workers in these jobs are Black people and other people of color. So, in Jackson, MS, One Fair Wage and the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable joined forces to launch a High Road Kitchens program that creates good jobs by subsidizing restaurant owners who pledge to provide a living wage and uphold fair employment practices.

We need to make sure all our funding isn’t just creating jobs but good jobs—whether it’s jobs that are good for workers, jobs that are good for our planet, or, ideally, both.

Finally, as philanthropists, we are uniquely positioned to amplify and accelerate new mechanisms for worker organizing and self-determination. Worker organizing outside of the confines of labor law is an example.

Labor history is full of examples of unions using strikes to build power before the law offered any protections. Today, Jobs to Move America is advancing the community benefits agreement model, worker standards boards, and other innovative tools that advance worker rights, good living wages, and green jobs where unions don’t exist yet. These models are built for real change and give an authentic voice to workers—especially Black workers.

The Chance to Make History

Philanthropy has a chance to help make history—or be left behind.

We are in a time of unprecedented public support for worker organizing. More than two-thirds of Americans see labor unions as a good thing for the economy, and almost 200,000 workers joined unions in 2023. Black workers have consistently led and driven these efforts and are fighting to change inequality in this country.

But these efforts do not happen in a vacuum or without help and support. As Erica Smiley puts it, “Our job now is to keep standing with them, accompanying them in battle by providing resources, capacity, expertise, and validation for what they are attempting to do—not just for themselves but for all of us.”

Eventually, we will look back on this moment in history as a turning point for workers’ power and voice, where Black workers led a transformation in how we think about and create good jobs that benefit workers, businesses, and communities. Further, we will reflect that building Black voice and power at work helped empower Black voice and power in our democracy, at a time when—more than ever—we needed to protect basic rights and freedoms for all.

Philanthropy has a chance to help make history—or be left behind.