Look at photos from any of the “Fight for $15” protests around the U.S. and chances are, you’ll see women of color — black women in particular — on the front lines of the campaign for a higher minimum wage. And it makes sense: Black women take home 64 cents for every dollar earned by white men.
A new report from the Institute for Policy Studies focuses on black women in advocacy leadership roles around the country and recognizes their contributions to the labor movement. The report also promotes expanding opportunities for black female organizers to lead campaigns.
“We all have experiences and stories of folks of color — particularly black folks — who have spoken up about experiences of racism only then to be ostracized from their local unions or from the labor movement in general,” says Jennifer Epps-Addison, who is profiled for her work as executive director of Milwaukee-based Wisconsin Jobs Now. “And I think you compound that with going back to the civil rights movement where women often see themselves as doers and helpers, but not necessarily as leaders.”
A survey of women found that only 27 percent of respondents believed that their unions were investing sufficient resources in organizing black women workers. Despite this, when women of color run in union elections where they comprise the majority of the workforce, they win 89 percent of the time.
Epps-Addison says that she was honored to have been included in the report, especially since she is profiled alongside some of her mentors like Valerie Ervin and Karen Lewis from the Chicago Teachers Union. She was surprised to read how parallel everyone’s stories were. “No matter what age or generation we came from, there were similarities both of inspiration and struggle to be our full selves and to fully access the power of this movement,” says Epps-Addison.
Jennifer Epps-Addison, of Milwaukee, is featured on the cover of the Institute for Policy Studies’ “And Still I RIse: Black Women Labor Leaders’ Voices, Power, Promise.”
In 2014, she and the workers of Wisconsin Jobs Now helped to pass a living wage ordinance in Milwaukee despite a preemptive attempt at the state level to quash it and a veto by the county executive. Workers were also able to get minimum wage advisory referenda on the ballot in 13 jurisdictions — all of which passed with an average of 67 percent of the vote — even though Wisconsin is a “Triple-R” state (Republicans control both houses of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion).
“As a black woman I feel like to do this type of work — primarily organizing black and Latino workers — I have a heightened level of accountability to the people that I’m organizing,” says Epps-Addison.
Her organization has launched a local leadership development program called Get MORE (Movement Organizing Resistance Empowerment) to help its members become better organizers in the workplace, but also to teach them about how the political landscape impacts their daily lives. She says that the program prepares people for leadership roles ranging from block captain to labor leader to church board member.
“For a long time we’ve talked about the fact that labor needs to diversify itself particularly at the top of its ranks,” adds Epps-Addison. “I think the only way we can do that is to be incredibly intentional about development. Not to just say we’re going to develop you by having you go to our conference, but actually giving you the tools to win local elections, run for local executive boards and to engage on a national level in a meaningful way.”
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Alexis Stephens was Next City’s 2014-2015 equitable cities fellow. She’s written about housing, pop culture, global music subcultures, and more for publications like Shelterforce, Rolling Stone, SPIN, and MTV Iggy. She has a B.A. in urban studies from Barnard College and an M.S. in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania.