Southern California bosses pit Latinx and Black workers against each other

Oct. 12, 2022. At a press conference called by Unión del Barrio on the steps of LA City Hall, speakers called out the racism of councilmembers and demanded accountability. PHOTO: Capture from video by Unión del Barrio
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For years Black warehouse workers were viciously harassed on the job by Latinx co-workers and supervisors at Ryder Integrated Logistics and Cardinal Health, both located in the Inland Empire distribution hub of southern California. The Los Angeles Times reported that almost daily racist slurs, in English and Spanish, were the norm. The paper quoted Leon Simmons, a Black warehouse employee, saying: “When they look you right in the eye and call you the N-word to your face, that’s dehumanizing.”

Most do a double take when it is racist behavior from Latinx folks towards Black people because it is usually whites being the culprits. But racism, like sexism, homophobia or any other discriminatory behavior, can be exhibited by any person or group.

A rising right-wing movement is also encouraging intolerance and sexism to be acted out more openly — including vicious attacks on immigrants, Asian Americans, LGBTQ+ folks and other vulnerable communities.

At Ryder and Cardinal Health, the abuse was fueled by management. The staffing agencies purposely favored Latinx applicants over Black candidates for higher paid positions and less physically demanding jobs. The bosses created a sexist and racially-charged hostile work environment in order to keep workers at each other’s throats. They did nothing when complaints were voiced.

Going to court. When attempts to alleviate the problem in-house failed, Black workers looked to the courts for relief. In 2019 lawsuits were filed against Ryder and Cardinal Health for racial harassment and retaliation.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) also filed suits against the staffing agencies that provided employees to Ryder and Cardinal Health — Apple One and Kimco Staffing. These cases mark the largest race bias suits brought by the federal government in California over the last 10 years.

In a victorious settlement, about 300 Black workers will divide $3.45 million in compensation from Cardinal, Ryder and Kimco. AppleOne must hold harassment training in both English and Spanish and monitor any discrimination or abuse.

Winning the cases exposed the corporations for their deliberate promotion of racial divisions in the workplace, which was good. However, the settlement was not large enough to really affect the bottom line, so it is unlikely to create meaningful change.

Labor organizers should go to the Ryder and Cardinal warehouses. This is a great opportunity to educate about the power of class solidarity — that workers have more in common with each other than with fat-cat bosses.

Divide and conquer. Ryder and Cardinal Health pitted workers against each other to keep natural allies from banding together on the shop floor and demanding equal pay and better treatment.

Setting one group above another creates a hostile work environment. Promoting bigotry can also focus attention on individual behaviors rather than on the bosses’ actions that are rooted in the capitalist dog eat dog status quo.

This is cultural nationalism, a form of separatism based in the idea that putting down another group helps raise up ones’ own race or ethnicity. It is fostered by the thinking that things like good working conditions and wages are finite, like a pie, so folks have to fight over crumbs. Cultural nationalism doesn’t challenge the corrupt system or bring workers together.

Finding common class ground. In the fall of 2022 another outrageous example of cultural nationalist bigotry happened in Los Angeles, this time at the city official level and exposed via a leaked audio. The tape of Nury Martinez, president of the council, and councilmembers Gil Cedillo and Kevin de León in a meeting with Ron Herrera, head of the LA County Federation of Labor, revealed their racist prejudices.

Martinez made bigoted remarks about the adopted young Black son of another councilman who is white and gay. Derogatory comments about the Oaxacan immigrant community and Koreans were also made. The LA community exploded. An outpouring of multi-racial protest and labor pressure forced both Martinez and Herrera to resign.

Ron Gochez from Unión del Barrio led a protest at City Hall that demanded the resignation of the other two council members, de León, and Cedillo. Gochez said “We call for this action with Black organizations, brown organizations, and indigenous organizations. … We all unite on this issue.” Val Carlson of the Freedom Socialist Party held a sign reading “Fight public corruption with multi-racial solidarity.” Other speakers expressed disdain for the crooked Democrat-led council.

In order to turn things around in politics and at workplaces, it will take organizing by those who understand that class divisions are foremost and who are willing to educate about that. The most exploited laborers, among them both Black and Latinx — especially immigrant — workers, are key to providing this leadership on the job and in society overall. Because in the end, it’s not a race war but a class war that needs to be fought.

The author was a founding member of the Comrades of Color Caucus and co-author of Viva La Raza: A History of Chicano Identity and Resistance. Contact her at Yoli.alaniz@yahoo.com.

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