by Haley Leibovitz
A few months ago, while getting my teeth cleaned, the dentist came in and began to make small talk. “When did you move to the Twin Cities?” “A year and a half ago for work.” “And where do you work?” “I’m a union organizer, I work for a labor union.” The dentist, an affable guy whose practice gives out free roller derby tickets and serves a demographic in the Twin Cities that might be called “yelp familiar/unusual hair dye friendly,” took his hands out of my mouth, looked me in the eye and jokingly said, “Well, I hope you’re not going to rabble rouse any of the staff here!”
This is a common story among those of us who organize in the labor movement. While there are a lot of Americans who would generally label themselves “liberal” (eating organic or voting democrat) or say that they theoretically support unions, many of these same people also think unions are a relic of the past – and if they realize that unions still exist, they believe that they’re “for other people.” For example, unions might only be for people who flip burgers, are across the world in Bangladesh, or did piecework in garment factories in 1910. But if these same people start to pay attention to the movement, they’ll realize that it not only still exists but is also in a time of change. And if these people can see themselves in solidarity with all workers, then they might begin to understand that the labor movement cannot continue to be balanced on the backs of the poor. Instead, we all must collectivize and join in solidarity with others to align (but not co-opt) many different struggles.
Labor unions build the power of workers. The more power all workers have, the better they can act as activists in their own lives. When I was first learning about the labor movement, I heard an organizer put it this way: “I organize in labor because everybody works and because everyone needs to feel dignity in that work and respect in that work. If someone cannot work, for whatever reason, they must be lifted up as well.”
This is what collective power looks like:
- At the Allina Hospital system in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, almost 1000 healthcare workers went on strike for more safety and to protect job security. When the strike was over and contract bargaining was completed, workers won $15/hour and better health and safety provisions.
- In June 2014, after months of organizing by people who work in low-wage jobs across the country, Seattle became the first city in the United States to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour. This means that people working full time minimum wage jobs can make $30,000 a year, giving them access to things like childcare or safe housing. Commonly known as the “Fight for 15,” the struggle for better wages has caught fire all over the country. This past April 15th, low-wage workers all around the country went on strike to demonstrate the need for better working conditions.
- Over the past several years, thousands of faculty members in higher education, both adjunct and tenured, have organized themselves into unions. They have done so as higher education becomes more corporate, less secure, and academic freedom is increasingly threatened. In Washington, DC, for example, adjunct faculty metro-wide are now more than 75% union. This kind of density and power means better contracts for many, instead of just a few.
Before I worked for a union, I was a 2012-2013 AVODAH New Orleans Corps member. When I was in AVODAH, I was placed at a job skills organization established for a category of young people who are called things like “at-risk” or “opportunity youth.” Generally, the participants or “trainees” are 16-24 years of age, black, and from low-income households. When they finish the program, they often get minimum wage jobs as prep cooks or cashiers. These jobs pay so little and are so inflexible that missed bills, not having time off to take care of kids, and major unchecked health issues seem inevitable.
Despite participating in a program intended to help young people get and keep jobs (and even working with programming staff who go above and beyond the intended mission), the participants could not make it work. I was similar in age to the majority of the trainees in the program. However, it was assumed that my privileges – my education, relative wealth, and, frankly, my whiteness – made me capable and qualified to “educate” participants on various life and workplace skills. This was simply untrue, as many participants were already paying bills, raising children, and working diligently as much as possible before, after, and during the program. Now, my job as a union organizer is framed by my time working in New Orleans with young people who needed much less “training” and much more collective power to increase their wages, attain sick days, and secure their schedules.
Our struggles are not the same. The color of our skin, the money in our pockets, and the educations we receive from the places we grow up all inform our struggles. The experience of the college professor is not the same as the experience of the fast food cashier. However, the alignment of our struggles and the conviction to stand with each other in solidarity is what makes the labor movement so important. As Paul Wellstone, a Minnesotan progressive powerhouse, famously said, “We all do better when we all do better.”
Organizing is important and it is a skill. So, when my dentist, a friend of the family, or a stranger on the street asks me what I do for a living, I am proud to say I am a labor organizer. I am following in the tradition of many who came before me, including countless Jewish women. Today, May 1st, is May Day, which is known all over the world as the international celebration of working people. In honor of May Day, I encourage you to read more about some of these Jewish women (all sources are from the Jewish Women’s Archive, an impressive collection of Jewish women’s stories). As you read about their work and their struggles, I encourage you to think of yourself in solidarity with these women:
Originally from Chicago, Haley was an AVODAH Corps member from 2012-2013 in New Orleans where she did workforce development for at risk youth. In January 2014, she followed her passion for labor organizing and began work with SEIU Local 284 in Minnesota. She strives to be like her hero, Leslie Knope.