A testament to Virginia’s Black union members

June 16, 2021 12:01 am

Virginia’s state flag flies in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

By Julius Reynolds

Almost exactly 108 years ago, a convention was held for workers in Alexandria. It was June 1913, and for the first time, the Virginia Federation of Labor allowed Black workers to join. Many of the oldest, all-White organizations in attendance left the convention in fury. The federation chose to dissolve the delegation of Black workers.

Fast forward a century. Despite the immense obstacles that racism has created for us, Black workers have never stopped persevering, organizing and leading in Virginia. Those of us working in public service and home care have united in our union, SEIU Virginia 512, to grow an unstoppable, multiracial labor movement.

Like those Black delegates who attended the 1913 convention, I am an essential worker, a Virginian, and a Black labor leader. For over 20 years, I’ve provided front-line services to Loudoun County, one of the largest and richest counties in the state, without a say in my wages, benefits, or working conditions. Finally, essential county workers like me are on the cusp of winning a seat at the table through meaningful collective bargaining — rights which were outlawed until just last month. When this victory happens in a matter of weeks or months, it will be a testament to the decades-long struggle of workers — especially Black workers. Today, I’m asking readers to honor essential workers and commit to the fight for racial justice by pushing for every Virginian’s right to a union job and strong collective bargaining.

Virginia Explained: The growing debate (and divide) on right to work

With Juneteenth approaching, this month feels especially significant. From moments like that convention, when racism succeeded in dividing the working class, to our current so-called “right to work” legislation established by anti-Black politicians during the Jim Crow era, Virginians are met with so many examples of how White supremacy is deeply and intentionally intertwined with the degradation of workers. Black union members have never given up. We know that united, we will win for every member of Virginia’s working class.

Julius Reynolds and fellow union members talk at a leadership conference. (SEIU Virginia 512)

Collective bargaining for public sector employees like me and my colleagues, many of whom are Black, brown, or API, marks a new era. Still, ugly vestiges of anti-worker policy from across the South that are rooted in racism remain all around us. In 2019, Virginia was ranked the worst state in the entire country for workers. “Right to work,” or as I like to say, “right to work for less,” lives on. At our current pace, we won’t hit a $15 minimum wage for another five years. Virginia’s home care workers, who are majority women of color, risk their safety each day yet still do not have health care. They need collective bargaining rights.

This past year, we saw frontline Black, brown, and immigrant workers put their lives on the line to keep Virginia afloat. We witnessed powerful uprisings for racial justice sweep this nation. Worker justice and racial justice are deeply connected.

We must reckon with the shameful history that undergirds all current attempts to weaken workers’ rights in our commonwealth. Then, we must get to work. There is major progress to be made at the local, state and federal level. Every city, county, and school board in Virginia should pass a meaningful collective bargaining ordinance for public sector workers. State politicians should support essential home care workers as they begin their push for a real voice on the job. There is a responsibility for everyone to stand with workers and grow this movement.

The time to start is now.

Julius Reynolds is a juvenile probation officer and the Loudoun County Chair of SEIU Virginia 512.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Guest Column
Guest Column

Views of guest columnists are their own. To submit an op-ed for consideration, contact Commentary Editor Samantha Willis at [email protected].