By Elizabeth Falcon and Sequnely Gray
This month, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31. The case could interfere with the ability of working people to stick together in strong unions to improve their workplaces, their lives and their communities by attacking the collective power of local government workers.
Here in DC, it’s DC Public Schools teachers, nurses, and bus drivers, professors at UDC, trash collectors, neighborhood librarians, and crossing guards who keep our community running that are under attack. Data analysis done by DCist using 2013 data showed that the areas with the highest level of government workers in the District are wards 5, 7, and 8 – areas that include higher levels of unemployment and poverty than the rest of the District. These are jobs with a true path to the middle class for District workers, and have been so for decades. (Adjoining Prince George’s County, one of the richest Black-majority counties in the country, shows over 30% of the workforce employed in the public sector – clearly demonstrating how public sector jobs have contributed to the total economic security of county residents.)
Across America, state and local governments have historically provided more employment and advancement opportunities for Black workers in comparison with the private sector. Through legislation and the adoption of affirmative action and antidiscrimination policies, the public sector exceeds the private sector in maintaining a commitment to a diverse workforce.
As a result, Black Americans comprise a higher share of the state and local workforce compared to the private sector (12.8 versus 10.3 percent). Similarly, women constitute a disproportionately large share of the state and local workforce compared to the private sector (59.5 versus 46.7 percent). The public sector has also been a source of higher paying jobs for Black employees.Black women in the public sector earned 25 percent more than Black women in the workforce as a whole. Attacks on the collective power of these workers acutely weakens the power of Black workers to work free of harassment and retaliation, plan for their futures, and provide for their families.
For decades, District of Columbia families of color have looked to DC government jobs for financial stability. Sequnely and her family know this first hand. She grew up close to her inspirational grandmother and public housing organizer Kimi Gray who also worked for 30 years at the Department of Parks and Recreation as a Roving Reader. The position allowed her to expand her knowledge and share it with her community, which was her first love.
Sequnely’s brother-in-law Romell is a single father of one and a Legal Instrument Examiner at the Department of Motor Vehicles. For him, having a stable government union job means that home ownership isn’t far away; he is looking forward to moving out of his uncle’s house and raising his daughter in a stable living environment and eventually leaving the home to her. Already, his job has meant that he does not have to worry about choosing between paying the electricity for the month or buying his daughter school shoes – and he can take care of his aging uncle.
Tiara, Sequnely’s cousin is a wife and mother of two little girls who is also employed at the Department of Motor Vehicles. This job allowed her to move off TANF into a position that includes strong worker protections, good pay that allows her to save money for her daughter’s college tuition, and stability for her family. For her family, being a part of a union is a generational thing. Her mother and grandmother were very active union members and have always encouraged the women in her family to go for union jobs. She says, “I too will encourage my daughters to go for union jobs to keep our legacy going.”
This family is not unique among Black Washingtonians who have had greater access to stable careers that have supported their families through DC government jobs. Attacks on the collective power of these workers endangers their futures and those of their children.
This attack on the collective power of Black workers is one piece of an orchestrated attacks on all social justice movements by those who have driven this case to the highest court of the land. The corporate leaders championing this case include the Koch brothers’ funded National Right To Work Foundation and a who’s who of corporate leaders. This case is an intentional part of their strategy to undermine the movements for justice. As last year’s article in the Guardian illustrated, the far right wants to “defund and defang” unions as a way to ensure “the permanent collapse of progressive politics.” This is not just an attack on the workers that serve our communities. It is an attack on our ability to fight together on the intersecting issues that impact our lives. The civil rights, LGBTQ, women’s and environmental movements would all be weaker if working people had less collective power.
In the month when we recognize the 50th anniversary of the Martin Luther King’s assassination as he stood with striking Memphis sanitation workers – unions, community groups, faith communities and civil rights leaders will come together to resist the attacks on unions and say with one voice: we need unions now more than ever.
We invite you to join us on the Working People’s Day of Action, when we will stand up for our freedom to come together and negotiate collectively, fight for equitable pay, affordable health care, quality schools, vibrant communities, and secure futures for all of us.
Washington, DC: Working People’s Day of Action
February 24, 2018 – 10:00 AM
Freedom Plaza – 14th St and Pennsylvania Ave