As we conclude Black History Month, it’s important to remember the fight for racial economic justice have always been inextricably linked. In the long history of the fight for workers’ rights, we have seen heroic black leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph and Dorothy Lee Bolden put their lives on the line to support unions and workers’ rights.
Dorothy Lee Bolden organized her sister domestic workers in the 1960s. They won much higher wages and the right to Social Security and workers’ compensation. Known as a leader of the “March on Washington,” A. Philip Randolph spent years organizing black workers– improving conditions for shipyard workers, elevator operators and sleeping-car porters, among others. Bayard Rustin—a pioneering labor leader, civil and gay rights activist—was another key architect of the March on Washington and spent a lifetime connecting the labor movement to social movements fighting injustice. Dr. King, a stalwart supporter of unions, was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. where he was supporting striking sanitation workers. These leaders knew unions have the power to lift Black workers– especially in industries where they are the majority and wages are low and conditions are poor.
Just as heroic are the millions of black workers who fought and won the right to form a union and bargain in good faith with their employers.
The roots of my union, 32BJ SEIU, grew out of solidarity between Black and white elevator operators in New York City who formed a union called 32-B in 1933. Shortly afterwards they went on strike to protest low pay and poor treatment. One of the leaders, a black elevator operator named Thomas Young, would become the union’s Vice President. Thanks to Mr. Young and his coworkers, almost 90 years later tens of thousands of New York City building service workers have good union jobs with fair pay and benefits and, just as importantly, our diverse membership has respect on the job.
In my own work with 32BJ over 35 years, I have been inspired by the thousands of mostly Black and brown security officers in New York City who over two decades have unionized to professionalize what was once a strictly low-wage industry. Since winning their first union contract in 2008, they transformed an industry and created 35,000 good jobs.
32BJ Union leader Sabrina Ladson put it best when she talked about what she’ll be thinking of when she’s at the bargaining table. “When I started this job, I only made $10.50 an hour. I struggled to pay my rent and put food on the table for my kids. Eleven years later, I have a stable life, my youngest daughter just graduated from college, and every day I go to work knowing I am respected and paid what I deserve,” she said.
Not long after security officers won their first contract, airport workers began organizing. Some of our newest members are cleaners, wheelchair attendants and other service workers at New York City’s airports. This workforce, largely workers of color and immigrants, have organized to raise wages to $19 an hour in 2023, not just for 32BJ members but for all airport workers. Now they have set their sights on winning quality affordable health care for all workers at JFK and LaGuardia through the Health Terminals Act, legislation in Albany that will require employers to provide compensation to the tens of thousands of New York airport workers that they can use to acquire quality healthcare they desperately need. They are demanding the highly profitable airlines, and other airport employers, provide a path to affordable health insurance so they can take care of their health while they serve the public.
In January I attended an airport workers’ rally to celebrate MLK Day, where LaGuardia wheelchair attendant Jordany Bueno Vasquez said that even with higher wages, they won’t be a livable wage if he doesn’t have health insurance. Jordany and his brothers and sisters at the airports have been inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and have successfully used many of the same tactics, including non-violent civil disobedience, to win major gains.
When workers like Jordany and Sabrina come together in unions, the benefit goes far beyond their paychecks. 32BJ and many other unions have been at the forefront of lifting all workers through policies like a $15 an hour minimum wage, Paid Sick Days, Fair Work Week, worker safety protections and many other improvements. 32BJ has also aligned with many other social justice movements fighting for equity for everyone. 32BJ has been deeply connected to the fight for immigrant justice, racial justice, criminal justice reform, environmental protection, affordable housing, affordable health care, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and voter protection.
The leaders that came before us knew the power of solidarity could win us civil rights and workers’ rights. Now as we face a President and a rise in voices on the Right that are trying to demonize our communities and tear them apart, it’s more important than ever that we learn the lessons our forefathers and foremothers taught us and continue to stand together in the fight for justice.
Kyle Bragg is President of 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, headquartered in New York City representing over 175,000 members up and down the East Coast. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.