By Kenneth Wiley, Special to the AFRO
It’s hard to imagine things getting any worse for African-Americans these days, whether it’s police shootings, Starbucks or the rise of hate crimes. However, no one is talking about an assault on African-American workers that is right around the corner.
By the end of June, the Supreme Court will decide the case of Janus v AFSCME. This is yet another attempt by big corporations to get over on us by weakening public sector unions that represent school workers, government workers, postal workers and more who are largely African-American and include many longtime Baltimore residents.
As a father of four, I could not provide for my family the way I needed to with my non-union job. Previously, I worked in food service making $13 per hour and paid out of pocket for benefits. I had my hours cut regularly which meant that I was often late paying the rent and utility bills. Adding insult to injury, they talked down to us and no one had my back when they mistreated me. Without the union, you can work hard but never get a raise, even if you deserve more, and most importantly, they can fire you anytime for any reason.
Now that I have a union, I earn about $20 per hour with much better benefits and employer-paid health care. If I’m ever mistreated, I can call the union and someone can help with my problem. We were all holed up in a tiny apartment before, but with the union job I was able to buy a house, a car for myself and my wife and I’m saving money for my family’s future. My entire family benefits from the union and I don’t have to constantly worry about losing my job. My life is much better with the union.
That’s why this is personal for me. The outcome of this case would kill some of the few remaining middle-class and family-sustaining jobs, the kind that are even harder to come by for African-Americans. Only through a union are these workers – and any others – able to bargain for fair pay, health care, job security, a fair schedule, respect and dignity, among many other benefits. In fact, the difference between a union and a non-union job often means the difference between poverty and being able to support a family.
As if the injustice of poverty that plagues many our communities isn’t bad enough, the richest of the rich are using Janus v AFSCME to attack the gains we have been able to achieve. They can’t stand to see any threats to their profits or to see us rise up through the ranks of society, so they try to divide us and limit the power in numbers we have together in our union. An attack on unions is an attempt to drive a nail in the heart of our overall movement for social justice. Even before the days when Martin Luther King Jr. fought alongside sanitation workers in their fight for good jobs with dignity, unions have always been and will continue to be a strong ally helping communities of color, not just by fighting for good jobs, but for racial and criminal justice, affordable healthcare, better education among many others.
History shows that we are stronger together and that we win by standing together. And we are far from alone. Teachers all across the country continue to show, that they won’t take it anymore. Many other workers who don’t yet have a union yet are also fighting hard to join together. Fast food workers, airport workers, home care workers and other hard-working women and men have united to demand $15 an hour and a union. They are all united across different workplaces, jobs and communities, through our shared fight for economic justice.
We also have the power to control our own destiny by voting for elected officials who will do everything they can to make it easier, not harder to form unions. No single court case will stop us from coming together for the basic human dignity of a fair wage, the ability to support our families and to help ensure our children have more opportunities and a brighter future.
Kenneth Wiley is a food service worker and 32BJ Service Employees International Union member based in Baltimore.