Editor's note: My Turn is an occasional forum for voices in the Midlands community. This piece comes from a Columbia member of Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
I work at an industrial laundry, and until a year or so ago I barely knew what a union at your workplace means. Today, I want to share with my neighbors what I have learned. You are going to like it.
Like many others, when I heard the word "union" I thought of factories and mines, in strikes, pictures of crowds picketing. Also, I figured it was just a Northern thing.
When I was hired at my current job, they told me that there was a union. That surprised me: A laundry here in Columbia is unionized? That didn't match the idea we were sold about unions.
When I started working, one of the managers told me that everything a union does, you can do by yourself. I believed him, silly me. A few months into the job I attended a quick union orientation and I read the handbook they gave me. I wanted to know what my fee money was being used for. It opened my eyes. I started to pay attention.
The first thing I noticed is a union benefits all workers in a workplace, whether you’re a dues-paying member or not. The contract covers us all, and the union members decide what to negotiate. I definitely wanted to have my voice heard.
Another big difference is that the relationship of employee to employer is on an equal basis. This is very different from other experiences we have all had where you are at the employer's will. Without a union, you can be fired for no reason; management can hold wages down or give raises to favorite employees. What I've seen in my union shop is that we hold the employer accountable. There are guidelines and protocols to solve grievances and labor disputes.
This balanced relationship is best shown in our contract — negotiated at a table where managers and working people sit down as equals — which sets how both employees and employer are expected to behave — professionally. It stipulates our duties, as well as the employer’s.
Our contract also gives us the security and stability we all need by stating clearly the reasons for which an employee can be fired. And I can tell you; I've seen wrong righted at my own workplace. I've seen people wrongly fired getting their jobs back, back pay included.
And, of course, our negotiated contract allows us to earn a good living while having a life. For example, we have affordable health insurance that actually covers us when we get sick. With a union at our workplace, working people have a voice, have the power that translates into being treated fairly.
And I'm also grateful at a personal level. Back in the day, I thought I was having a future of heels and suits thanks to my degree in social work. I wanted to help others, but my life fell apart and my career dreams shuttered.
I thought that all my work to get my degree and my dreams of helping others to improve their lives were going to be a vague memory. However, I got a second chance through my union. I recently became a shop steward, and I love it. I take it very seriously; I value all my coworkers' voice and opinions. I'm using my social work knowledge to help my colleagues and make sure we are heard.
I'm proud of sharing a voice with millions of union members at Workers United, SEIU, and I'm ready to celebrate this Labor Day with our sisters and brothers from the Fight For $15 who are trying to get a fair pay and a union in the fast-food industry. Now that you know what unions really mean, what are you waiting for to have yours at your workplace? If we are to have equality, if we are to have fairness, if we are to live better lives, America needs unions.
April Brown is an employee of Angelica in Columbia, SC.