The Movement for Black Lives Convening took place last weekend in downtown Cleveland, drawing together a vast, vibrant group of activists to discuss the multi-faceted foundation of racial inequality in the U.S. Sandra Ellington, a member of SEIU Local 1 here in Cleveland, attended the event and spent some time with Scene to further describe the Movement's work and her own union's efforts to promote labor rights in our city. Yanela Sims, northern Ohio coordinator for SEIU Local 1, was on a weekend panel and joined us for our conversation.
How was the weekend?
SE: The topics that we covered were racial equality as far as labor is concerned. In a lot of our contracts, we have that. There is no room for discrimination, whether that's gender, color, religion. That's a big point at SEIU. We feel that everyone deserves an equal chance and opportunity at any job that they're qualified for. If our members have obstacles, they have a place they can reach out to so that we can figure out how to make it better, so that folks can feel comfortable at their workplace no matter their gender, color, you should never feel uncomfortable at work. If there's an issue, we will address it completely.
In talking about labor and economic issues, do you feel that racial inequality -- a major aspect in this -- gets lost?
YS: You're absolutely right. In a lot of cases, when we talk about "black lives matter," we don't really look at the labor component of that. Racial inequality is often linked to low wages. They almost go hand in hand. When you're at the bus stop waiting to go to to work or come home from work, when you're being harassed by the police, that's a problem. If you don't have a job and you have to find other outlets to take care of your family, that's an issue. SEIU is lending a voice to that, and I think labor in general is kind of moving toward acknowledging that they're not separate issues. When you talk about race and black lives, you're also talking about low-wage workers and the disparity between other groups of people. It's common knowledge that lower-wage workers tend to be people of color and women, so when you have that discussion you have to talk about both of them.
Are those conversations happening in Cleveland?
SE: Yes, I do get the sense that these conversations are happening. We often talk about that in our membership meetings, figuring out ways to raise our workers up and giving them an understanding that they do have an outlet. I myself do catch the bus, and there can be a sense of, you know, me feeling comfortable because you're trying to make a living. That's what it is. That's real life. The conversations are happening. SEIU Local 1 is lending a hand in that and working together with the community. That's something that we do.
Following that, the union has been very active on the issue of raising the minimum wage.
SE: It's not just about "labor," it's about people. We don't have the manufacturing jobs anymore. McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's: Those are the jobs. Those are the jobs for when the factories close down and people need to take care of their families. So they do need a decent wage. No one should have to work two jobs to take care of their family. That should not be happening in this country. We want to raise everybody up. We're not just about the labor -- people in unions -- we're about all the people. We live next-door to these folks, we ride the bus with these folks, we walk hand in hand with these folks. If you raise from the bottom, it comes to the top.
YS: She eloquently stated that, and I just want to add that those jobs in fast food are not jobs that only children looking for work are doing now. Adults -- people who have to support families -- are looking toward those jobs now because other jobs are no longer available. It's not fair for us not to acknowledge those jobs as jobs people are doing to support their families.
Is there a lot of pushback against the idea or are people open to raising the wage here?
SE: It's a mixed field. We're going to invite everybody to the conversation so everyone can get an understanding and see what's really happening. Working people understand, but other folks who are not in that situation have to understand. And I get it, you know?
YS: I would add that our voices are definitely being heard. In places like California and New York -- because of the efforts of working people taking a stand and communicating what they need and want to be able to support their families -- they are listening.
So the conversation is one thing. Then comes the need for action. To go back to the Movement for Black Lives panel, what sort of conclusions were drawn?
YS: The biggest takeaway is that labor can no longer separate itself from the community. The other point is that working people are a tremendous and incredibly important resource. We need to raise working people up. We need to hear their voices, listen to their recommendations and work with them so that we can rebuild our communities and even the playing field for the haves and the have-nots.
SE: It was absolutely beautiful. I loved it. There was so much love in the room. I can't wait for the next one. I was educated in many different things on many different levels, and I felt very comfortable.
YS: We really appreciated that there was a full representation of the LGBTQ community. When we talk about black people in those communities, sometimes we don't connect the two, so I personally appreciated that their voices were present and heard and respected. There were so many panels and speakers and workshops that you couldn't attend all of them.