In 1969, less than a year after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1199 asked Coretta Scott King to serve as honorary chair of the union’s national organizing campaign that was set to begin in Charleston, S.C., under the banner of “Union Power and Soul Power.” Mrs. King gladly accepted. Her leadership energized and emboldened the workers, overwhelmingly African-American women. And although the campaign fell short of full union recognition in Charleston, 1199 established a dozen chapters throughout the East Coast and as far west as Seattle.
Coretta Scott King represented a long line of committed and courageous African-American women leaders harkening back to women such as Sojourner Truth, who in her legendary “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech called for women’s rights and the rights of then-enslaved African-Americans. Truth, Scott King and countless women of color before and after them understood the interrelation of race, class and gender even before legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to help clarify the various and connected forms of African-American women’s oppression.
During March, Women’s History Month, it is fitting to pay tribute to these leaders whose contributions are sorely under-recorded and underappreciated. The Month, originally called International Working Women’s Day, has its origins in the struggle of New York City garment workers against oppressive sweatshop conditions and child labor, and for the right to vote.
This month helps to correct a history that unfailingly pays tribute to male leaders while ignoring countless women—leaders, organizers and strategists—who made our victories possible.
That leadership is demonstrated in many ways today. For example, Roy Moore, a right-wing extremist and accused child molester, was defeated in Alabama’s special Senate race last December because of the Black vote, and most pointedly the vote of African-American women who flooded the polls in unusually high numbers, giving Democrat Doug Jones 98 percent of their votes. Black women also came out in large numbers in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections last November.
Recently, the focus of the women’s struggle shifted to workplace sexual harassment, as #MeToo has lit up social media. An African-American woman, Tarana Burke, founder of youth organization Just Be, launched the campaign in 2007. Before Burke, significant battles in the fight against workplace harassment were led by African-American women. In an October 2017 article in the Nation, journalist Raina Lipsitz described early struggles of African-American women in in the 1970s and 1980s that laid the ground for the 1986 Supreme Court ruling that sexual harassment violates Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
A pivotal moment in the movement was the
testimony of Anita Hill, then a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, before an all-male Senate Judiciary committee during the confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas to sit on the Supreme Court. Although Thomas, an extreme conservative, was confirmed, Hill’s testimony awoke the nation to the scourge of sexual harassment in the workplace and helped lay the groundwork for today’s movement.
Although #MeToo has focused on well-known celebrities, the movement is beginning to focus on women on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. The voices of these women can be amplified only through organization. For example, a union contract that is strictly enforced provides a measure of protection and deterrence against abuse. But even that does not fully address the power imbalance and the subordinate status of marginalized women and so-called women’s work.
One means of addressing that power imbalance is to ensure that women always have a seat and a voice at the table. In 1199, for example, women represent the majority on every level of leadership, from the executive council to all the regions and union departments. This representation is morally right and organizationally correct. Individuals and organizations that limit in any way the ability of women to develop and make their fullest contribution are consigning themselves to eventual oblivion.
Our journey is still far from complete. For example, our lowest-paid members, such as our home care workers, still aren’t accorded the respect and wages and benefits their selfless and often dangerous work deserves. These workers are our wives, mothers, daughters, granddaughters and sisters. For our union sisters, we declare that an injury to one is an injury to all. When our sisters rise, we all rise.
George Gresham is president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the largest union in New York and the largest healthcare union in the nation.