And Still I Rise

Black Women:
Labor’s Lowest Hanging Fruit

Exploring the impact of allowing black women to innovate, organize and win

Successfully organizing black women workers—particularly in economic sectors such as teaching, nursing and customer service where they are concentrated—could mean significant growth in both union density and in economic stability for black women and families.

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, for example, earn an average of $21.90 an hour while non-union women earn $17.04. In addition, more than 72 percent of women in unions have health insurance, while less than 50 percent of non-union black women do.

Coupled with the fact that women of color win 89 percent of union elections when they comprise the majority of the workforce and are led by an organizer who is a woman of color, it becomes clear that black women are the labor movement’s “lowest hanging fruit.”

Despite this potential, only 27 percent of respondents to the Institute for Policy Studies’ National Survey of Black Women in Labor believe that their unions are investing sufficient resources in organizing black women workers. Said one survey respondent, “The labor movement needs facts and figures to assist them in recognizing the power and importance of organizing black women.”

Through interviews with And Still I Rise participants and the national survey, we explored their thoughts on whether black women want to be organized and whether the same practices used to organize white women would work. Here is what we found.

Black women want to be organized but not taken for granted. In the national survey, we asked respondents if black women workers are or would be receptive to organizing efforts by unions. Of the respondents, 72 percent of union members and 80 percent of labor affiliate respondents answered affirmatively. A number of survey respondents offered suggestions on where to focus investment, most frequently recommending organizing “low-wage private sector workers…because there are lots of black women in these jobs.”

While survey respondents and those interviewed believe that black women want to be organized, the subtext of this belief is a caution not to take the black community’s support for granted. Although 74 percent of union members surveyed had a positive impression of unions before belonging to one, one survey respondent warned, “Unions need to reach out more to the black community. In general, blacks who are not affiliated with unions don’t believe they’re effective and don’t trust them. Unions should have a stronger presence in the community—supporting community initiatives, not through money alone but [through] active support.”

Black women want to be organized by black women organizers with leadership skills and authority. Nearly 50 percent of those surveyed have been a union organizer at some point in their careers. Without reservation, the No. 1 recommendation to unions about how to successfully organize black women is to ensure that black women are not only doing the organizing but developing the organizing strategy and leading the campaigns. Said one survey respondent, “[We need to have] visible leadership, not constantly deferring to white men as the authority.”

Being organized by other black women was shorthand for a host of important characteristics that black women organizers embody. First, workers desire organizers and leaders with a shared experience to their own. “[Workers] trust women who have overcome similar obstacles as the women they are trying to organize,” said a survey respondent. “Women who have come from similar backgrounds…will better relate to the workers.”

Second, the presence of black women in leadership positions within unions builds trust in unions. Several survey respondents spoke of the importance of ensuring that workers “see themselves represented in the existing organization.” This recurring theme may suggest that black women workers pay close attention to whether African American women already in unions are respected and given opportunities to lead. It is likely that workers quickly deduce that a union that esteems and elevates black women within will be more likely to fight for respect, fairness and leadership opportunities for black women in their workplaces. A survey respondent confirmed this notion by noting how important it is for unions to “be explicit about [their] desire to cultivate leadership of black women.”

This need to expand opportunities for black female organizers to lead campaigns reflects broader, long-held needs within the labor movement as it relates to women in organizing. A 2002 report by the International Labor Organization (ILO) titled, Promoting Gender Equality: A Resource Kit for Trade Unions, and a 2004 report by the Berger Marks Foundation titled, Women Organizing Women: How do We Rock the Boat Without Being Thrown Overboard?, found that unions are not structurally prepared to develop women organizers. Senior female organizers said that unions regard organizers as second-class workers compared to bargaining representatives or other union employees. Within this “second class” category, female organizers are seen as second class to male organizers. This makes it difficult for women to establish themselves as professionals within their field. The research also noted a lack of women organizers within unions leads to a limited ability to build a strong “woman-organizing base.” Perhaps this research has some bearing on both the reason why more resources have not been devoted to organizing black women and the path toward a correction in course.

Black women workers require a specialized form of organizing. Finally, those interviewed and surveyed report that a more nuanced strategy is necessary for organizing black women workers. Only 24 percent of those surveyed believed that the same skills and tactics for organizing white women workers would be effective with black women.

A central difference identified by survey respondents and interview subjects is the need to more explicitly take on the confluence of race and gender when organizing black women workers. “Lead with race and gender in campaign language,” instructed one survey respondent. And Still I Rise participants reveal that workers want to know that campaigns will reflect “issues that deeply impact black women more than others.” These issues are not solely the classic “bread-and-butter” economic issues. Respondents call for organizing around “family and community” issues, including such topics as police brutality and mass incarceration.

This strategic focus represents an important departure from the Alinsky organizing model that has dominated labor and community-based organizing for over 50 years. Alinsky style organizing focuses on geographically based, short-term campaigns on winnable issues—usually in the public sphere. But in communities of color—which are increasingly immigrant, young and poor—organizers must be committed to tackling identity-based, structural problems that are at the root of systemic oppression to truly have legitimacy and support.

Further, And Still I Rise participants paint a picture of organizing strategies built on gaining the trust of skeptical workers who too often have been on the receiving end of false claims and promises and utter disrespect for their experiences and talents. Trust-based strategies include building a strong and consistent presence in the community; involving workers’ families in the organizing campaign; establishing principles of honesty, transparency and accountability of campaign leaders to workers; and development of messaging that reflects community interests, concerns and language.

Most important, survey respondents and those interviewed identified the importance of letting black women workers help set the agenda and training them to be leaders of the campaign. That includes “allowing them to define what their struggle at work is about; helping them to develop organizing skills…and making them aware of other black women organizers of all stripes who’ve led successfully to change working conditions,” said one survey respondent. Another said it this way, “[Be] there to assist and encourage! [Then] slowly step back and let black women become leaders instead of helpers in the movement.”

These insights are embodied by the women who are profiled in this section of the report. From Sanchioni Butler and Sandra Joyce Bellamy, we learn about the importance of perseverance in organizing in the South—a region that has been a notorious hotbed of anti-union activity. From Sukari Pinnock-Fitts and Natalicia Tracy, we see the value of aligning with black women to build power that can win major political victories. And from Wilna Destin and Erika Glenn-Byam, we see the power of what happens when women take care of other women who look like them. These amazing organizers—whether or not they officially hold the title—are rewriting the rules of organizing in profound ways.

At the end of the day, organizing more black women is about winning. Said one survey respondent, “Winning is important to the African American woman, so it is important that we can achieve positive results as part of a successful organizing campaign.” The goal for the future has to be creating more win-win opportunities for black women and unions by working together to organize our working women.