Janus v. Black Families

As I was preparing to start my new teaching job at San Diego State University in the fall of 2007, I got a call from my father. It was an ordinary call at first, but then he got serious.

He wanted to know if I was planning to join my university’s faculty union. I knew the answer to that question right away: “Yes, Dad.”

After all, with me our family would enter our third generation as trade unionists — while black.

Flash-forward to today: The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in the Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 31 case. Public-sector workers across the nation will now find it harder to exercise their collective power for the foreseeable future. Some folks might think this is an insurmountable challenge to unions, but I’m not ready to give up on the hard-won gains of generations past. Organized working people have always faced mighty obstacles in this country, but when we fight we win.

Two years after my father’s death, I honor his and my family’s legacy by continuing to believe in and fight for workers’ right to organize.

My father’s parents were both union members until they retired. My grandfather, an army veteran, worked as a postal worker in 1960s Memphis, while my grandmother worked as a high school teacher there. Later, in the 1970s, she went to work for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And my father worked as a cascade operator at Kentucky’s Paducah gaseous diffusion plant from the late 1970s until the early 2000s.

My father’s union went on strike twice during that 35-year period. The last time, in 2003, he went to work at a gas station as a clerk to make ends meet. He did what he needed to do to stand strong during those trying times.

I was pursuing a PhD in sociology at Stanford back then. Higher education represented another step in my family’s long march for freedom and dignity, and witnessing my father’s resolve and discipline during that strike inspired me to keep walking.

He reminded me that strong unions of working people had fought for the stable, well-paying public-sector jobs that ensured my grandparents’ hard work translated into buying a home, sending my father and his sister to college and securing a dignified retirement for themselves.

My father’s union-bargained healthcare benefits meant that, unlike too many other children growing up on the southside of Paducah, my brothers and I could visit the doctor, dentist and optometrist regularly. And my father’s stable, relatively well-paying job meant that he could help my brother and me pay for college.

By the time I began my university teaching career, my family’s experience had taught me that working people coming together at work and in the community allowed families, particularly black families, a shot at economic stability and a decent life.

We still had to navigate the racism and gender discrimination that pervaded our lives in Kentucky and Tennessee, but union membership allowed us to dream of a better tomorrow for ourselves and our children, and to actually do something to make that dream a reality.

What the deep, corporate pockets bankrolling this latest legal assault called Janus v. AFSCME, Council 31 care most about is increasing their power at the expense of working people, especially people like me. Research by the Economic Policy Institute and the Institute for Policy Studies shows that attacks on public-sector unions disproportionately hurt the wellbeing and life prospects of black women — and of their families.

Whatever their flaws, and no human institution is perfect, labor unions continue to defend the interests of working- and middle-class workers of all races. This week has been devastating but today is not the end, it is a rallying cry to continue organizing and resisting. We must stand up and fight back!