Introduction: A Labor of Love
By Kimberly Freeman Brown and Marc Bayard
After spending over 25 combined years promoting the trade union movement and protecting the right to organize in the United States and around the world, we see this report as a love letter of sorts.
First and foremost, it is a love letter to the black labor women within these pages and to their sisters all over the nation who do not yet have unions. They are the grandmothers and mothers who sit regally in church pews each Sunday and invisibly clean homes Monday through Saturday. They are our Southern aunts; our African, Afro-Latina and Caribbean-born sisters and cousins who work hard on the job and harder at home to make sure that their children’s dreams are less deferred than their own. And they are tried and tested labor activists who break down barriers and work to build a better economy for each other and for all workers as rank-and-file members, shop stewards, organizers, elected labor officials, and leaders of worker centers and member organizations for workers who are outside of labor law protections.
The roles they play in their families and communities, on the job and in their unions are acts of resistance against everything that African Americans are up against. The statistics on African American wealth and wage inequality, unemployment, mass incarceration, police brutality and poverty are daunting. The black community’s hard-fought social and economic gains are quickly being rolled back as structural inequality grows—not only threatening African Americans, but the equality and democracy of U.S. residents more broadly.
It is our heartfelt desire that this report reminds black women, and shows others the power of black women to make a way out of no way and rise above these barriers that stand between them and true economic and social justice.
Second, this report is our love letter to the labor movement—offering sometimes tough, but always unflappable affection. We know what some may have forgotten. That if you are concerned about the economic advancement of black women, families and communities, you must think twice before you dismiss the value and importance of the labor movement. No question about it, the fact that black women covered by collective bargaining agreements fare better than their counterparts without one makes unions worth fighting for.
Many of our years working within the labor movement have been spent convincing people—policymakers, progressive friends, and disillusioned black workers—of labor’s virtue. For some, personal experiences or second-hand knowledge of racism and sexism within unions has been enough to cause them to back away. Others, especially young people, are ambivalent because they do not know people who belong to unions.
And all too often, policy strategies by civil rights, women’s and progressive organizations to address economic issues facing African Americans and all working families do not include organizing workers into unions as part of the solution.
In many ways, these realities bear witness to the distance labor still has to go in finding authentic ways to root out persistent discrimination and inequality within and to build true partnerships outside of itself. We believe that the multi-faceted nature of black women’s identity, their expertise as activists and organizers, and the urgency of their economic reality places them in the perfect position to lead new efforts to make these connections real, lasting, and capable of producing winning results.
Despite the tremendous potential of widening leadership opportunities for black women, one of the biggest challenges of this project has been convincing potential supporters of the value of focusing on black women. “Why not women of color or all women?” was a common question we were asked over and over again. Sadly, the question reinforces an often unconscious, but deeply held and historic belief that the experiences of black women are not important enough unless attached to others.
Rising above these questions, we decided to focus on black women because we know that they are, and have always been, “the miner’s canary” for workers in America. Black women have experienced for decades many of the economic and social ills now faced by others. Therefore, it stands to logic that making black women whole raises the floor for all women—likely, for all workers.
The idea for this report emerged in October 2013 when the Black Labor Scholars Network (now the Institute for Policy Studies’ Black Worker Initiative) and Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor hosted a two-day conference titled The State of the Black Worker in America. This event delved deeply into the history of black workers and their organizing efforts; the current state and vision of black leadership within unions; innovative and cutting edge black-led organizing across the country; and a gender-based analysis of black organizing.
Little-known, groundbreaking research about the effectiveness of black women’s leadership in union organizing created a lot of buzz at the conference and begged an important question: Why has the organizing success of black women not resulted in more black women serving in leadership positions that help shape the direction of the labor movement? We hit the road in search of an answer. In our travels from the West Coast to the Deep South, we heard amazing stories from incomparable women.
And Still I Rise: Black Women Labor Leaders’ Voices, Power and Promise gives the 27 amazing women we interviewed and the 467 who responded to the Institute for Policy Studies’ National Survey of Black Women in Labor an opportunity to not only explore this question for themselves but, more important, to show the labor movement a way forward. The report is organized around three emerging themes—leadership, organizing and policy issues of concern to black labor women—and reflects the women’s unique position at the nexus of race, gender and class. More than giving a critique of what is wrong, the women offer insights into winning organizing strategies, ways to build power by linking arms with others, the value of opening opportunity to black women in nontraditional fields; and what happens when white allies use their position and power to make room for the leadership of black women to emerge.
These topics are explored through first-person narratives of the women we interviewed and a summary of the national online survey results. The report concludes with a series of recommendations to move the ideas within these pages to action.
It is our sincerest hope that this report is received in the spirit with which it was written—as a call for labor to invest more in what the women say that unions have done right. For it will be these actions, matched with the tenacity and passion of black women for building a better world, that will allow all of us to declare Maya Angelou’s immortal words, “Still I Rise.”