As the twin plagues of COVID-19 and police violence continue to inflict a disproportionate toll on the lives of people of color in North Carolina and around the country, local workers and worker advocates are speaking up and demanding change. A powerful recent example took place yesterday during a virtual event hosted by the North Carolina State AFL-CIO.
The event, which was part of a national “Workers First Caravan,” shined a spotlight on three North Carolina women of color who shared their heartfelt stories of struggle during the pandemic. All called for passage of the federal HEROES Act, which is a multi-part “second stimulus” bill that would expand and improve upon the federal CARES Act passed earlier this spring in numerous ways.
In sometimes tearful testimony, Sherita McCullers, a GoRaleigh Transit operator, explained how she worries about bringing the virus home to her family. She explained that her godmother has already passed away because of the virus and that her brother was recently admitted into the hospital with COVID-19.
“I know COVID-19 is real, and it’s not going away,” McCullers said. “So I’m asking Senator Thom Tillis, we need to keep all frontline workers safe and secure. We need you to do your job and support the HEROES Act.”
McCullers was followed by Ivy Jones, who is employed as a postal service worker. Jones explained how the U.S. Postal Service has been a critical resource for American communities for over 200 years and how she’s worried it could fail without new federal assistance. She said the USPS has provided many employment opportunities for Black Americans, and that privatization (or allowing the USPS to become insolvent) could have disastrous effects.
“Black women make up nearly 18 percent of the public workforce, or about 1.5 million workers,” Jones said. “The current administration wants us to go backwards, but Black people won’t go backwards, the labor movement won’t go backwards. We refuse to go backwards.”
Jones was followed by Jocelyn Bryant, a retired AT&T worker and union/community activist in Greensboro. Commenting on the 1,200-plus people in North Carolina who have died from COVID-19, Bryant noted that “Most of them were retirees like me. How can we pretend it’s over when people are still dying?”
All three women specifically urged Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard Burr to work to remove opposition to the HEROES Act in the Republican-controlled Senate — a plea that was reiterated by MaryBe McMillian, president of the NC State AFL-CIO and Will Munn, a policy analyst with the Health Advocacy Project of the North Carolina Justice Center (parent organization to NC Policy Watch).
McMillan put it this way:
“The HEROES Act would keep frontline workers safe by requiring OSHA to pass an emergency infectious disease standard and by mandating that employers provide proper training and protective equipment. In addition, it would provide hazard pay to frontline workers and provide needed funding to our postal service, our public schools, our states, and our cities.”
Meanwhile, Munn reported (as he has previously on The Progressive Pulse) that Black workers have contracted and died from coronavirus at much higher rates in North Carolina and elsewhere due to longstanding inequities, the prevalence of Black workers in essential industries, and the fact that so many workers of color must often work multiple jobs for low pay and without health insurance.
“That’s why we’re calling on Senator Tillis to support our essential workers in this time of unprecedented crisis,” Munn said.
Click here to view the entire event on Facebook.