Juneteenth, emancipation and freedom in the workplace.
What does it mean to be “free?” When we think of “freedom” in the U.S., we often associate it with a degree of individual autonomy and certain rights guaranteed by our Constitution–freedom of speech or the right to vote, for example. Although definitions of freedom vary–and sometimes along partisan lines–the concept of freedom is usually associated with one’s autonomy as a citizen within our broader system of government.
With Juneteenth on June 19th quickly approaching, it is a particularly opportune time to reflect on “freedom” in today’s society. Commemorating the end of slavery and celebrating Black freedom, Juneteenth is also a reminder to take a closer look at the institutions and systems still in place that oppress Black and other minority employees. One such system is the modern workplace; in fact, studies find that within modern capitalism, minorities continue to face exploitative workplace practices that narrow their autonomy and inhibit personal freedoms more so than white employees. In what follows, we’ll explore the ways our capitalist system infringes on freedom today and offer solutions for “emancipating” America’s workers.
A Quick History of Juneteenth
Although Juneteenth celebrates Black Americans’ emancipation from slavery, the holiday doesn’t mark the day slavery was formally outlawed–that is, the date of President Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. Instead, Juneteeth commemorates the day that enslaved Blacks in Galveston, Texas were informed by the Union General, Gordon Granger, of their official emancipation and the end of the Civil War on June 19th, 1865, two months after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. (New York Times)
Juneteenth has been celebrated annually as a holiday since 1866, though last year’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations that brought light to the ongoing pattern of police brutality towards Black Americans have also increased general awareness of the holiday and further renewed the significance of Juneteenth. As Black Americans celebrate their freedom from the bonds of slavery, Americans of every race can also take the time to reflect on our history’s dark injustices inflicted upon Black populations–including slavery, as well as other forms of oppression such as Jim Crow laws, segregation, redlining, and police brutality.
Freedom Gained, Freedom Lost
While we commemorate Blacks’ emancipation from slavery this month, the bitter truth is that we have not fully eliminated the modern tools of oppression that disadvantage marginalized populations. Stagnant wages, the exorbitant costs of childcare and healthcare, crippling debt, institutionalized racism–all part of our capitalist system–are just a few of the forms of oppression Black people and other vulnerable populations currently face.
In fact, as we’ve explored in previous articles, our capitalist system as we know it today was built on the institution of slavery; it continues to oppress vulnerable and disadvantaged populations today. Workers within the system often have little control over their situations, especially those in low- or minimum-wage roles, being forced to meet the demands and whims of their employers in order to receive a paycheck. Healthcare benefits are scarcely guaranteed; shortly after the Affordable Care Act solidified the requirement of providing health benefits to workers scheduled for 30 or more hours per week, Walmart, the country’s largest private employer, was famously accused of scheduling employees under this threshold to avoid the obligation of health coverage. (Forbes)
The situation appears to be worse for Blacks and other minorities, as low-paying roles are disproportionately held by people of color. In 2017, 8% of white workers were employed in roles that paid poverty wages; by comparison, 19.2% of Hispanic workers and 14.3% of Black workers received poverty wages. (Economic Policy Institute) What’s more, Black workers, on the whole, receive fewer or worse employer-sponsored benefits; while 66.6% of white workers have paid sick leave, only 58.7% of Black workers receive this benefit. A larger share of white workers also have the ability to work from home, as nearly 30% of white workers are able to do so, while only 19.7% of Black workers can. (Economic Policy Institute) It’s also been suggested that employers are more likely to exploit and pay lower wages to Black and Latina women due to extreme wealth disparities, where lower household wealth prevents such workers from taking time off to find more meaningful work or transition to other roles. (Washington Center for Equitable Growth)
In addition to employers paying lower wages to marginalized groups and restricting healthcare access, other forms of worker exploitation persist. In last month’s article, we mentioned the plight of Amazon workers facing inhumane work conditions, being prevented from taking bathroom breaks on the clock. (CBS News) In an even more jarring–and tragic–example of worker exploitation, more than 250 employees of meatpacking plants across the country died due to COVID outbreaks in their workplaces throughout the past year, thought to be in part due to improper social distancing and safety measures within the plants. (NPR) Companies including Smithfield Foods and JBS Foods were eventually fined for their endangerment of workers–many of which are “Black, Hispanic and/or from low-income households”–in an amount “so small that it would fail to serve as an incentive for the nation’s meatpackers to take social distancing and other measures to protect their employees.” (NPR, Washington Post)
Given the ways capitalism oppresses people of color and those in poverty or facing financial challenges, is it even possible for workers to gain meaningful autonomy in this system and within their workplaces? How can we rein in the control that large employers retain over their employees?
Emancipating the Workplace: Democratization & Employee Autonomy
For starters, companies can prioritize efforts that boost employee autonomy and democratize their workplaces. The cooperative (co-op) business model does this through shared ownership of a co-op, acting as mini democracies in which all employees are granted one vote in making important decisions affecting the co-op. The employees are not simply working to meet the demands of a boss or shareholder–they have a say in decision-making and share in the profits as well. (Model D)
But companies can still boost employee autonomy without utilizing the cooperative model; businesses can do so by allowing workers greater flexibility in setting their schedules, freedom to work remotely, and greater autonomy over the way their tasks are performed. Those employees who enjoy increased autonomy are still under oversight and have benchmark goals to meet, but are given “the ability to use [their] talents to meet these goals.” In fact, workplaces that are “more autonomous in nature have not only higher job satisfaction, but also better productivity.” (Houston Chronicle)
On a macro level, we can also continue to push for universal healthcare, which eliminates the hold employers have over employees who are reluctant to leave or even start their own businesses due to fear of losing health coverage. In fact, this appears to be a legitimate retention tactic of employers; 1 in 6 American workers profess to remain in their jobs out of fear of losing their healthcare, according to a Gallup poll published last month. (Gallup) If healthcare weren’t tied to employment, workers would have greater freedom to leave their employers for other opportunities or personal ventures.
With “freedom” and “emancipation” fresh in our minds in the coming weeks, it’s an excellent time to look around and assess the ways in which we can promote a freer society–one in which all individuals are free to pursue happiness, achieve economic stability, and take part in the American dream. It’s true that unfettered capitalism is often associated with freedom (i.e. the “free” market), yet in many ways, our overarching economic system inhibits freedom, oppresses marginalized groups, especially Black and Hispanic Americans, and ensures that those trapped in poverty remain in poverty. And while many of us don’t associate the notion of “freedom” with our day jobs, it is perhaps time that we do so and begin to collectively fight for increased autonomy in our workplaces.