I started working as a classroom aide in Baltimore 50 years ago. My colleagues and I—mostly black women—were making $2.25 an hour with no benefits. A gallon of milk cost a dollar and a dozen eggs cost 60 cents, and we knew the work we did was worth a lot more than that.
So, we organized. We joined with the Baltimore Teachers Union. And in 1970, when we negotiated our first contract, we won a grievance procedure and salary steps.
That’s the power of a union. Being union members helped me and my colleagues win the respect we deserved as education support professionals.
We all know the statistics: African-American women earning 64 cents and Latina women earning 56 cents for every dollar earned by a white, non-Hispanic man.
But here’s a stat you may not have heard: Women covered by a union contract earn 31 percent more than their nonunion peers. Black women earn 34 percent more. And Hispanic women earn 42 percent more.
No matter your job. No matter your community. No matter your race. If you are a woman and you are covered by a union contract, you earn more.
That extra money can help pay for things your family really needs. On average, union women make $212 more each week, $11,000 each year. That’s enough to buy groceries for a family of four. To pay for child care. To put a big dent in tuition at many public colleges and universities.
There’s a reason why union women—and particularly union women of color—are better off. We don’t leave anyone on the sidelines. The whole point of a union is coming together, working together, raising our voices together, bargaining together. Together. That’s the key word. In a country that has too often found itself divided, unions have united working people, across race and across gender.
And together, we have won basic workplace protections like a minimum wage and overtime pay. We fight for policies like paid sick and family leave that are so important to working moms. And we are champions for on-the-job fairness, like transparency around hiring, wages and advancement opportunities that acts as a direct counterweight to discrimination.
When I was at the bargaining table back in 1970, flanked by my union sisters, I told our bosses that we weren’t settling for anything less than a fair day’s pay for a hard day’s work. And together, we won that raise.
That was a turning point in my life. Yes, it helped me provide for my family, but it also helped me realize my own power, as a person of color, as a woman and, yes, as a trade unionist.
So, if you want to earn more, join a union. If you want better benefits, join a union. If you want to fight the good fight and win, join a union.
Join a union, sisters. I promise, it’ll make a difference.
Lorretta Johnson is the Secretary-Treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers. The AFT represents 1.6 million pre-K through 12th-grade teachers; paraprofessionals and other school-related personnel; higher education faculty and professional staff; federal, state and local government employees; nurses and healthcare workers; and early childhood educators.