What Labor Day means to my South Side and black union family

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At one time, janitorial work could open the door to a middle-class life, especially if you belonged to a union. | Wikimedia Commons via Google Images

Growing up on Chicago’s South Side, I learned at an early age the power of unions to dramatically improve the opportunities of black families in America.

My grandparents were janitors in Chicago, the children of sharecroppers who fled the racist violence and oppression of the South for new opportunities in the North. They began their working lives in the 1940s when jobs did not have benefits like pensions and health care. They lived in public housing because black people could not move wherever they wanted.


But my grandparents made a fateful decision one day to join the union. That single decision influenced the opportunities for all the subsequent generations in my family.

My family’s union story is that of black American families who joined the middle class with good-paying jobs, benefits and better working conditions.

My janitor grandparents were members of the Janitors’ Union, SEIU Local 1. The union ensured they had jobs that helped them save money and eventually buy a home on the South Side. The union ensured my grandparents could send the first person in our family to college – my mother.

In the 1950s, only two avenues were available to smart, young black women like my mom. She could be a nurse or a teacher. She chose teaching and taught in public school for more than 40 years.

She was part of a union too. It was that union job that allowed my mother — a single parent, in a working-class neighborhood, on the South Side of Chicago — to raise two boys and have economic opportunities not available to other black men and women of her generation.

My family is hardly unique.

A study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that unions have had a singular effect in closing racial and gender income gaps. The study found that black workers are more likely to be unionized than whites and that unionization has increased the income of black workers. Black union workers earned $24.24 an hour, compared to $17.78 for non-union black workers.

The study found that black women earned 37 percent more than black women not in a union, while black men in unions earned 35 percent more than black men not in a union. Black union workers also were more likely to have health insurance and employer-sponsored retirement plans.

We’ve been losing ground, though. Just 14 percent of black workers belong to a union, down from 31.7 percent in 1983. That’s still higher than the share of all workers who belong to unions. Twelve percent of workers are unionized, down from 23 percent in 1983.

Unions give people of color a way to increase their wages, and the unions defend their rights at work. Without unions, workers of color will be disproportionately hurt as they struggle to survive in this economy. Nationwide, more than half of black workers and nearly 60 percent of Latino workers earn less than $15 per hour.

Labor Day for me goes beyond the superficial aspects of the holiday, and in this I’m not alone. On Monday, thousands of workers are waging strikes and protests in Chicago and across the country demanding $15 an hour and union rights. These men and women will be fighting for the same union rights that empowered my grandparents 80 years ago to secure a better future for themselves and their families.

Unions paved the way for families like mine to grow and thrive. Unions made it possible for us to join the middle class. Unions made it possible for us to build wealth. Unions made it possible for my mother, and then me, to earn advanced degrees.

Unions remain the solution for workers to climb out of poverty and strengthen the middle class.

The evidence is clear: America needs unions.

Dorian Warren is the president of the Center for Community Change Action, which works to emplower low-income people, especially people of color.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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