By Wendy Smith, Special to the AFRO
Before getting a union job, I knew very little about the power of having a voice on the job in a union. Now that I’m in one and understand the changes my coworkers and I can make together, I have dedicated myself to ensuring that others, especially Black people, understand the value too.
I was in a labor union for a while before I became active. It wasn’t until I witnessed a colleague experiencing unfair treatment that I really looked into how I could use my power as a member. I discovered that my coworkers and I had rights that our employer had to respect. As a result, we took action together and achieved more equitable practices that not only improved our lives but also had a positive impact on the children that we serve.
We would not have been able to make change without the union backing us. It’s victories like the ones that I experienced in my workplace that serve as inspiration for the billionaires and greedy corporations that are trying to weaken us. They are using self-interested politicians and our courts as tools to attack our right to negotiate fair wages, healthcare and other essentials. Without my union, I wouldn’t have the healthcare that provides life saving medication my son depends on.
Their latest attempt to rig the system against working people is the U.S. Supreme Court case Janus vs. AFSCME. If this case is decided the wrong way it could have huge implications for working families across the country, but would have a disproportionate impact on Black women like me.
The case targets public servants like teachers, firefighters and all government employees who serve our communities. These are the jobs that have traditionally helped Black families gain access to the middle class. Black women make up the highest share of working people in these fields and stand to lose essential assets that help keep our families strong.
By stripping away our collective power these groups hope to drive wages down and roll back the progress we have made. My brothers and sisters and I don’t just fight for the good jobs this country needs—we stand up for racial justice, clean air and water, commonsense immigration reform and equal pay for equal work. Important issues that the corporate CEOs and billionaires behind Janus oppose.
I’m inspired by the teachers in West Virginia, Arizona and Colorado who have stood together to demand decent pay and benefits. They are fighting for the same things that I now enjoy because of our ability to collectively bargain.
It’s time for us to pay attention to the attacks on labor unions. It scares me to think about how the Black community will be impacted and most of us don’t even realize this fight is happening. At a time when wages are stagnant and profitable companies increasingly cut essential employee benefits, we need more worker power not less.
No matter what the courts decide, I plan to stick with my coworkers in our union. No court case can stop that. By stepping up and taking action we can determine our future, and restore an economy and democracy that works for working people.
Wendy Smith is a member of SEIU Local 500. She serves as a Special Ed Paraeducator in Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools.