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Juneteenth Is about Black Liberation — not Union Busting

Companies like Starbucks and Amazon are celebrating Juneteenth while union busting and hyper-exploiting their Black workers. We must resist these attempts to strip Juneteenth of its radical legacy and de-fang the movement for Black Lives.

Otto Fors

June 19, 2022
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On the left, an Amazon warehouse. On the right, someone holds a "vote union yes" sign.

For corporations, June has long been a time to adopt a facade of progressiveness while profiting from performing inclusivity of LGBTQ+ people. But in the past two years, a new occasion has fallen prey to this co-optation: Juneteenth. 

June 19 — or Juneteenth — commemorates the day that the final enslaved people in the U.S. were emancipated. On this day in 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, a union general announced in Galveston, Texas that “in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” At the time, 250,000 Black people were still enslaved in the state.

While Juneteenth has been celebrated every year since then — Texas was, in 1979, the first state to make it an official holiday — President Biden designated the date a federal holiday in June 2021. The move was in response to the massive upsurge in the Black Lives Matter movement in recent years, especially in 2020, which saw huge mobilizations on Juneteenth. In the past two years, as with Pride Month and other occasions to recognize important events for marginalized communities, corporations have jumped on the opportunity to strip the holiday of its radical elements and cash in on its growing popularity. 

Walmart, for example, landed in hot water when it sold Juneteenth-themed ice cream and partyware, including drink koozies reading “It’s the freedom for me.” The hypocrisy of a hyper-exploitative company draping itself in the colors of the Pan-African flag did not go unnoticed. While Walmart pays lip service to the Black Lives Matter movement and Juneteenth, it has a long history of union busting, and its Black workers have been discriminated against and are disproportionately concentrated in the lowest-paying positions. Following heavy criticism on social media, the company was forced to issue a public apology for their Juneteenth products. 

But this year, corporate hypocrisy is going even further: companies like Amazon and Starbucks are celebrating Juneteenth while aggressively union busting, ensuring that they can continue hyper-exploiting their Black workers and raking in enormous profits while putting forth a veneer of progressiveness. 

Union Busting during Juneteenth

Starbucks founder Howard Schultz has long boasted about the value of corporate social responsibility. The CEO and one-time Democratic presidential candidate once said that his aim “has never been just about winning or making money,” but about “striking a balance between profit and social conscience.” From healthcare to stock options to college tuition contributions, the company touts a progressive image.

But just a cursory examination of the company’s treatment of Black workers and customers shatters this illusion. Starbucks has settled several non-discrimination lawsuits following complaints of racist treatment and promotion practices among both baristas and engineers, and has been the target of protests over discriminatory firings. In 2018, two Black men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks while waiting for a friend, and in 2020, during the height of the uprising following the murder of George Floyd, the company prohibited its employees from wearing pro-Black Lives Matter pins, t-shirts, or other gear. 

Events of the past year in particular fly in the face of any notion that the company is pro-worker. As Starbucks stores across the country unionize at a fast pace — at least 150 at the time of writing, with many more filing election petitions — the company has embarked on a vicious union-busting campaign. Baristas across the country have been fired in retaliation or had their hours cut and schedules changed to prevent them from organizing. Starbucks has hired anti-union lawyers from the law firm Littler Mendelson, and forces workers to attend anti-union meetings. 

Against this virulently anti-worker backdrop, Starbucks is marking Juneteenth as a company holiday, hailing it as a time to “celebrate freedom, independence, [and] truth,” while showcasing Black employees and sponsoring events at Seattle’s Northwest African American Museum. 

But make no mistake: Starbucks is no friend to its Black workers. Rather than improving the material conditions of Black employees by, for example, allowing them to unionize, providing them with regular hours and paid leave, or making it easier for them to access healthcare, the company offers symbolic concessions such as a company holiday. In fact, Schultz recently said that Starbucks will never even engage with the newly formed Starbucks Workers United union. The company will always prioritize its profits over the wellbeing of its Black workers.

Amazon, too, is heralding Juneteenth as “a time to reflect, celebrate, educate, and advocate.” The company holds up the holiday as offering “global communities the opportunity to reflect on the continuous march for justice and equality for Black communities around the world and reminds us we all have a shared responsibility to create lasting change.”

But, like Starbucks, Amazon’s lofty rhetoric around racial justice falls apart as soon as we examine its treatment of workers. Last year, Amazon bullied its way into defeating a unionization effort at a majority-Black warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. As one Bessemer worker and BLM activist remarked, “when the majority of your workers are Black and you work them like dogs, putting Black Lives Matter on your website doesn’t help them. You’re still keeping them as a marginalized group.” 

This year, the company has been desperately trying to thwart unionization attempts at warehouses on Staten Island in New York. While one warehouse successfully unionized with the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), the trillion-dollar company has been using the same tricks as Starbucks to stop other efforts, including retaliatory firings. Amazon has even leveled racist attacks against ALU organizers like Chris Smalls, whom they called “inarticulate.” Amazon even banned a worker from posting on a company message board after he made a post advocating for making Juneteenth a holiday. 

Black workers represent some of the most exploited sectors of the working class. These so-called progressive companies’ staggering profits and their CEOs’ wealth — indeed, all of the country’s wealth — are built on the hyper-exploitation of Black workers. Under capitalism, exploitation and racial oppression are tightly linked. 

But Black people aren’t just victims of this exploitative system’s racist brutality — they’ve been the subjects of some of the most explosive struggles in this country and around the world, and have always been on the front lines of the labor movement. During the Reconstruction Era, Black workers rose up across the South, going on strike over living and working conditions and wages. Black workers in the South organized major strikes in the 20th century and throughout the Civil Rights Era, like in 1968, when Black workers formed the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM). These workers combined the spirit of Black power with the labor movement, organizing their factories, and making radical demands. And now, Black workers, workers of color, and queer workers are leading the charge to unionize their workplaces.

This is why we can’t let corporations like Starbucks, Amazon, and Walmart co-opt Juneteenth with their progressive rhetoric, and we can’t fall for their claims that they care about racial equality and Black lives. The fight for Black liberation requires fighting against the exploitative conditions that Black workers face on the job and demanding concessions that would materially improve their lives. We need to resist attempts both by corporations and capitalist parties to strip Juneteenth of its radical legacy and de-fang the movement for Black Lives. 

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Otto Fors

Otto is a college professor in the New York area.

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