Skip to main content

Celebrating Juneteenth


The Juneteenth holiday should forever hold a special place in the hearts of labor activists. It is indeed a holiday to commemorate the end of American slavery, but we should never lose sight that American slavery had as much to do with labor rights as it did with race-based discrimination. Marking the end of the civil war with this holiday is a celebration of the end of state sanctioned race-based exploitation of vulnerable workers. The effects of the end of slavery reverberated throughout the entire United States, not merely because it marked a shift in the moral direction of the country, but because it recalibrated work relationships all across the nation, and particularly in southern states. 

Slavery used race to mark Black workers as vulnerable and exploitable, but it devalued all workers in the process. Slave labor came at the expense of thousands of non-Black workers who sought work and opportunity, but could not sustain themselves because of the insidious institution. Dr. W.E.B Du Bois chronicled the history of the Civil War framing it as a “General Strike” enacted by the four million enslaved Black people across the south who fled plantations, refused to labor in support of slavery, and often joined the ranks of the Union forces contributing their talents in whatever way they could to help secure a Union victory. In addition to the millions of enslaved people to withhold their labor, there were tens of thousands of White southern workers who also walked off of jobs, laid down their tools, and renegotiated the terms of their labor. 

Kenya Campbell, President AFT Maryland

The labor movement is at its best if we remember this holiday as a significant win for labor justice, because it also calls on us to remember that no worker should be targeted for exploitation because of the color of their skin, despite the disgraceful founding of our country. Today, the labor movement and our nation are stronger, more resilient, and more fierce thanks to the courageous efforts of those enslaved Black people who decided they would be exploited no more. Those heroic efforts, combined with the sacrifices of millions of American soldiers in the Civil War make Juneteenth a holiday we all should be proud to celebrate in an effort to make our country a more perfect union. 


Share This