Want to Empower Women of Color? Support Unions

Demonstrators protest to demand an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour on April 14, 2016, in Miami.
Photo: Joe Raedle (Getty Images)

During Women’s History Month, we’re reminded that there was a time when women were silent in our government, homes and workplaces. Fast-forward to present day, and it seems like women are raising their voices louder than ever in Donald Trump’s America. We’re speaking out to protect our health care plans, keep immigrant mothers with their children and fight legislation like the disastrous GOP tax bill that further disenfranchises our households.

Now, more than ever, it’s critical that women raise our voices as we prepare for one of our greatest battles for equality. We must fight back against billionaire political ideologues who want to use the Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 31 case, being considered by the Supreme Court, to limit the power that women gain as union members.


Research shows that women, especially women of color, have more opportunities for upward mobility when a union represents us. According to the National Women’s Law Center, women in unions earn an average of $970 per week—30 percent more than their nonunion counterparts. Among full-time workers, black women who are union members typically make 23 percent more than black women who are nonunion workers. Women are also more likely to have access to health care, sick leave and retirement benefits as union members.

The Janus case and other attacks on working people also hinder our ability to improve service-oriented occupations, such as those in early education and home care. These jobs, dominated by women of color, continue to be the most underpaid jobs in our country, despite being in high demand.

The ability to join together in a union doesn’t just improve your job. It improves your life. Joining the Service Employees International Union changed my life by empowering me to be an advocate for myself and the patients I serve as a telemetry technician. There was a time in my life when I wouldn’t have been able to talk to CEOs, chief financial officers, elected officials and other people in power without feeling intimidated.

I was raised in South Central Los Angeles in what many would consider an unstable environment. My parents passed away when I was a teen, and my life grew even more challenging when I became a teen mom. Today my life is totally different, largely thanks to my union.


Deborah Hill is another working mother whose life changed as a union member. She used to work “from dawn ’til dusk” as an Alabama industrial laundry facility and was constantly stressed out about missing valuable time with her children before joining her union. Joining Workers United SEIU Local 310 provided Hill—who is now president of her local—with a steady schedule and the ability to take family vacations and create priceless memories with her children.

Being part of a union also empowers women to improve their communities. Just ask Maricarmen Macias, a child care provider in Chicago, who is fighting for immigrant, racial, social and economic justice as a part of United Working Families.


Macias has spent the past 35 years in the Windy City, but she still remembers the fears and hopes she had when she immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico at the age of 18. With support from her union, she’s giving back to her community by helping organize trainings for undocumented workers on immigrant rights and citizenship.

Our stories only offer a glimpse of why now, more than ever, it’s imperative that women continue to fight for our right to stand together in unions. President Donald Trump and other leaders want women to quietly work and live without rights. We’re not going back in time to those days. No matter what any elected official or court case says, we’re going to stick together in our union to have a strong voice on the job and in our communities. After all, we’re no strangers to fighting.


Tanisa Smith-Symes is a member of SEIU Local 1107.

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