Editorial: The New Face of Labor, Civil Rights is Black & Female

Domestic Workers United with a banner at Union Square rally
Domestic Workers United with a banner at Union Square rally. The International Woman's Day Coalition gathered with other activist groups for a speak out in Union Square Park to speak on issues that effect women. Pacific Press / LightRocket via Getty Images

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By Kimberly Freeman Brown and Marc Bayard

From Black Lives Matter and Fight for $15 to North Carolina’s Forward Together Moral Movement, black women are leading and playing significant roles in shaping the direction of groundbreaking efforts to reform policing and our criminal justice system, raise the minimum wage and ward off right-wing attacks on the Voting Rights Act and our fragile social safety net.

A closer look at these powerful women reveals a little known connection they share — all have ties to labor union and worker activism.

Before launching the hashtag that birthed a movement, Oakland, California based Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza led and still leads the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s (NDWA) “We Dream in Black” campaign. This campaign organizes housekeepers, nannies, and caregivers for the elderly across the black diaspora and cultivates a vision for a new economy and democracy.

CWB honorees Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors speak onstage during attends The New York Women's Foundation Celebrating Women Breakfast at Marriott Marquis Hotel on May 14, 2015 in New York City.Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images fot The New York Women's Foundation

Because all domestic workers are not covered by federal labor law protections, in part due to racism of the 1930s and a legacy of slavery, NDWA has had to secure basic rights such as maternity leave and paid time off state-by-state—already succeeding in six states. Recently, a federal appeals court upheld the Department of Labor’s rule mandating minimum wages and overtime pay for approximately 2 million home health care workers across the country.

RELATED: #BlackLivesMatter: How a Hashtag Became a Digital Civil Rights Anthem

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin Jobs Now executive Jennifer Epps-Addison has played a central role in winning victories for working people—such as securing paid sick days and helping to pass a living wage ordinance through the Milwaukee County Board.

Wisconsin Jobs Now members and staff also play leadership roles in Fight for $15, a national campaign to increase the minimum wage at fast-food restaurants to $15 an hour. The campaign has recently won minimum wage increases in New York, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

Rosalyn Pelles brings her experience as a former labor organizer and retired director of the Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Department of the AFL-CIO to North Carolina’s Forward Together Moral Movement. Across the state, the diverse coalition launched by the North Carolina NAACP has organized thousands to protest efforts by North Carolina’s governor and general assembly to slash unemployment benefits, reject federal funding for Medicaid, and repeal voting rights.

“There was a time when black labor was robust and really transformed the landscape of the labor movement in this country. We’re working on getting that back."

In some respects, the shared labor movement background of Garza, Epps-Addison and Pelles should not come as a surprise. For generations, the black community has recognized the benefit of union membership as a strategic tool for insulating itself from discrimination in the workplace and as a ladder to equitable pay and fair treatment on the job.

For black women, the union advantage is significant. Black women in unions earn nearly $5 more an hour than their non-union counterparts. For black women who are low-wage earners, union membership is a greater factor than education in determining increased wages and benefits. These economic advantages are especially important considering that black women are three times more likely to be single heads of households with children under the age of 18.

Various protesters gather outside a McDonald's restaurant to "Fight for $15" increase in pay wage on April 15, 2015 in New York.AFP/Getty Images

Further, labor has been an important partner in iconic economic and racial justice activism. The 1963 March on Washington rarely is referenced by its full title. The omission of “for jobs and freedom” strips us all of an important piece of history.

Further, few know that the march would not have been possible without the support and partnership of labor unions. Five years later, Martin Luther King, Jr. died in Memphis after traveling there to support the strike of black sanitation workers who declared their rights as workers and human beings on placards stating, “I Am A Man.”

“There was a time when black labor was robust and really transformed the landscape of the labor movement in this country,” recalls Garza. “We’re working on getting that back. In Ferguson, I saw leaders from the Fight for $15 movement really on the front lines moving labor leaders by saying, ‘I’m not just a worker. I’m somebody who lives in this community, who is being targeted by the police all the time—and you have to see that about me.’”

For black women who are low-wage earners, union membership is a greater factor than education in determining increased wages and benefits.

Black labor women taking the lead inside unions and within their communities allows their experiences to shape the future of the labor movement in the same way that it has redefined economic and social justice activism. At or near the bottom of nearly every social and economic indicator, black women represent all that is not working in our economy and society.

It’s precisely that position that makes black women eager to engage in the kind of activism necessary to make lasting change. This is the premise of a recent report, And Still I Rise: Black Women Labor Leaders’ Voices, Power and Promise, that features Garza, Epps-Addison and Pelles along with 24 other black women labor leaders across the country.

The report showcases the organizing acumen of black labor women and suggests that their underutilized expertise is part of the path forward for a labor movement that has been in rapid decline. Creating opportunities to organize more black women into unions could be a vital part of labor’s revival and improved economic security in the African-American community.

Says Pelles of the need for labor to be front and center on social issues: “We need leaders who can take a stand on issues in the workplace and in the community. If something happens at the plant or when something happens in Ferguson, workers should be there in full colors and in full motion.”

On this Labor Day, it is time for all of us to reconsider what we think we know about unions. Black women, with the highest rate of union membership among all women in the labor movement, not only lead, but can also take every worker with them into a new economy and more just society.

Kimberly Freeman Brown (@kfreemanbrown) is author of And Still I Rise: Black Women Labor Leader’s Voices, Power and Promise and former executive director of American Rights at Work. Marc Bayard (@marcbayard) is a Public Voices fellow of The OpEd Project and the Director of the Black Worker Initiative at the Institute for Policy Studies, which published And Still I Rise in May 2015.