September begins with Labor Day, a celebration of the efforts of workers and labor activists throughout the years. Many of the rights we take for granted today are due to the advocacy of labor unions―giving us the eight-hour workday, weekends, greater safety measures, and more. Today, unions continue to be a stronghold for worker rights and protections.
Isabel, or Izzy, Dobbel is the Political Director at the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL), the umbrella organization which represents over 300 unions who in turn represent 500,000 workers in Chicago and Cook County. Women Employed partners with the CFL to pass legislation and fight for economic equity. Izzy, a Latina immigrant who has previously fought an uphill battle to get the pay and respect she deserves, has proven herself a powerful advocate for women in the workplace. WE connected with Izzy hot off a meeting on one of the issues CFL is working with Women Employed on―paid time off.
Share a little bit about your upbringing and early career experience and how that led to where you are now.
I was born in Venezuela, and my family immigrated here when I was one year old. We first moved to Mississippi for seven years, then to DeKalb, Illinois. So I grew up often being the only person of color, and especially the only Latine person, in my class. I grew up feeling like I didn’t fit in and that I had to prove I was “good enough” to be here.
But in Mississippi, I learned a lot from my mother and her ability to do community service out of our home. She would regularly help folks apply for their documentation status at our kitchen table. We were just coming out of that process, and she was always making sure that whoever has to do something after us, it’s a little bit easier. I think that’s a lot of where my inspiration came from as a kid: just trying to make people’s lives a little more livable.
Moving to DeKalb, I continued to be one of the only Latine people in my class. On one hand, I was glad for the opportunities I had, but it was also an uphill battle. I dealt with unwelcome comments and questions about my background, but I still carried on with my dedication to fight for the generation after me.
Later, I attended Northwestern University, where I was active in student government and political campaigns. I really love the idea of making big changes by just changing a few sentences on a document―how it can really make the difference for something like somebody’s family getting healthcare. I’ve been doing campaigns since 2017, both locally and nationally, as well as working in county and state government. And now I’m with the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL) doing labor advocacy and fighting for working people every day. And what makes it so fulfilling is the fact that I get to continue to carry on making sure that life is a little more livable for every working person — as it should be. We all deserve the right to have a good job with good benefits and shouldn’t be put in these impossible situations.
Share a little bit more about how you were first introduced to WE and how you’ve worked with us.
I was first introduced to WE when I was working with the Governor and Lt. Governor, and I scheduled a lunch with Lt. Governor Stratton and Women Employed’s staff to discuss your new Women’s Entrepreneurship Hub, (WE HUB). That’s where I got to meet Starr De Los Santos, WE’s Senior Coalition Manager, officially.
But the first time I officially worked with you all was during my fellowship with the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA). I was one of their Trabajadoras Fellows, and when I was planning a panel for Latina Equal Pay Day, Starr was the first person I called. I knew we’d have so many great things to share about the struggle to advocate for what you’re worth. It’s really hard to have these conversations as an immigrant especially. The narrative is, “They might take it back, so you better just be happy with what you’ve got and just be thankful to be here.”
And now I get to continue working with WE in my new role (as Political Director at Chicago Federation of Labor) on things like the Equal Pay Chicago Coalition and policy. And Women Employed has come through every single time.
Beyond your governmental experience, what was your first introduction to working with unions and organizations like CFL?
I had a political internship with UFCW Local 881 that then put me on Senator Julie Morrison’s re-election race. I was a full-time field organizer with union pay. I remember thinking, “This is the best gig I ever had!” But my fellowship with the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA) was how I got to get more accustomed to working with the CFL.
LCLAA is one of the CFL’s affiliates, and so they’d have CFL leadership come speak sometimes. A lot of people get introduced to Labor through family, but I had no connections in my family to Labor. Through the fellowship with LCLAA, I soon realized LCLAA Chicago Metro IS my Labor family. I am deeply thankful for the mentorship and support that I have received from the chapter. They are still some of my closest partners in the work. But it’s always something that I’ve really supported. I had a lot of friends whose families were in unions growing up. So in that fellowship, we were talking about how to close the pay gap, and do you know the number one way to close the pay gap? It (on an individual level) is to join a union. Because joining a union brings you up to pay level on the contract, and we all get paid what our hard work has earned.
And that’s a fight that I get to continue at CFL while also advocating for other worker policies.
Share a little more about how, in today’s climate particularly, unions are relevant for women of color, especially Black, Latina/x and low-paid women. How are they helping level the playing field?
Oh, my gosh, unions play a huge role in that. And a lot of women of color are the best organizers and are leading the charge to getting more of these work sites unionized. A good example is Starbucks Workers United in Chicago. A lot of the folks who work at Starbucks are women, nonbinary people, and queer folks and people of color. And they’re the next frontier of pushing this massive corporation to actually take care of their people. And that’s been a huge initiative.
If you have a union, by contract women are paid the same as the men. The latest article I read said that, across industries, women in unions are paid 98 percent what men are. And that final two percent is because we’re still working on making sure that women have access to the new highest-paying trade jobs. So that’s an ongoing effort.
How is collaboration between unions and advocacy organizations like Women Employed especially important and useful?
We work with Women Employed all the time. You know, if you have a union, you have such incredible benefits. Our mission is to raise the floor and raise the standards for everyone. So that includes things like raising the minimum wage and paid time off (PTO). A lot of union workers have more PTO than the city or state requires, but we are still fighting for all workers.
We’re working with Women Employed to benefit every person: part-time, full-time, and otherwise — not just for the folks that are under a CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement: a written legal contract between an employer and a union representing the employees). I’ve been with the CFL for about a year now, and I feel like almost every piece of policy-related work we do, we end up tagging in Women Employed at some point.
What are some ways that unions have empowered you, specifically as an immigrant and a Latina woman?
So, when I say the number one way to close the pay gap is to join a union, I mean it, because I lived it.
At one point, I was in a workplace that, compared to other workplaces, was paying me $15,000 — $20,000 less than other people in my same position. I was performing very well at my job, and I remember speaking with my supervisor on multiple occasions about a raise, and being told no each time, no matter the data, performance evaluations, or reasoning I brought.
Eventually I was like, “You know what? I feel the pay gap, I see the pay gap, I live the pay gap. I’m not going to lose any more money here. I have to go.” And so I went to another opportunity that was a $20,000 pay increase. I then interviewed for this role (at CFL) and have now been promoted, recognized for my work, I’ve been trusted, and I’m also a dues-paying member of a union. And now I’m being compensated and valued for the talent that I truly bring.
The difference was nearly a forty percent increase in pay from the role I left that did not value me. But it took a lot of guts, right? It takes a lot of guts to leave. What if I end up getting paid even less? I’m very thankful for my choice and for every opportunity, and I’m also super thankful to be working for unions now.
I also love to highlight the CFL. We have visionary leaders here and a lot of the senior staff are women. I have been mentored by them and learn from them every single day — they are my village. They’re creating space for all of us to continue to fight for working people. I have so much admiration for the women in the organization, and the ones that I’ve gotten to meet along the way.
WE’s theme for our 50th Anniversary (this year) has been Smashing the Status Quo. How do you feel like you’re smashing the status quo for yourself or in your career? What kind of impact do you hope to make?
My role with CFL is Political Director, and I’ve been doing political work for about seven years. I feel very driven by the work and dedicated to it. But politics is historically a world that is run and gatekept by men, especially white men. So it feels very empowering to be able to do this work and fight for working people. I don’t know many other young Latina women who have these opportunities. I’m incredibly thankful for them, and want to see more women and women of color in these roles. I’m excited that hopefully I will open some new doors for the next generation of women like me.