This is What a Union Victory Looks Like

Ed Note: This is part of SEIU's Just Work series, which offers a voice to working people who might not otherwise be heard.

Last weekend, I joined with 1500 of my colleagues to sign the first ever union contract for private security officers in Washington, D.C. It was a big deal. Even the Washington Post wrote about our win -- how we secured a significant hourly pay increase, minimum annual raises, paid sick leave, extensive employer-paid healthcare, and other job benefits.

But for a single working mom like me and for my colleagues -- working parents, part-time college students, recent immigrants, and native Washingtonians (born and raised on the other side of the Capitol)--the news coverage doesn't begin to explain what this union victory really means.

For those of us who work, sometimes late into the night, guarding some of D.C.'s most famous buildings -- like Watergate, the National Press Club, National Geographic, and NPR Headquarters -- this union victory is life transforming.

Over the past year, I've worked an average of 70-plus hours a week to provide for myself, my mom, and my three-year old son. Before the contract, I received no employer-paid health insurance, but at $12 per hour, I earned too much for government benefits. As a result, I had to work a second job at K-Mart during the evenings and weekends just so that I could cover my family's medical bills.

Barely afloat, I was beginning to see my dreams slip away. I had to put my college classes and my goals of becoming a social worker on hold because I didn't have the money or the time. Despite all the hustle to pay the bills, I was still racking up debt -- spending more time worrying about how to pay off my interest than on saving up for college classes or even a down payment. And the worst for me was that despite sacrificing all this time and effort to provide for my son TJ, I was lucky if I spent more than an hour a day with him.

A couple months ago, when these union contract negotiations kept getting delayed, I really felt like I was hitting a brick wall. I had no idea how I was going to break out of survival mode and my daily worries over breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Then we won this union contract.

The contract's 50-cent hourly raise increase is a movement in the right direction, but it's the healthcare benefits and paid sick leave that are really going to change our lives. From my rough calculations, I think the new healthcare benefits are going to save me around $200 per month. This means I can drop the second job. And the sick pay means I can take my son to the doctor without risking my job. It means I can finally focus on being the mom that my son needs, the mom I want to be.

But it's more than the numbers that makes this victory valuable. The assurance that someone has got my back on the job and that I've got a voice in my future compensation is priceless. It's restored my sense of hope. Now, with one victory under my belt, I feel confident that if I keep working hard, I'll be able to build a better future, give my son a better education, move into a nicer part of town, and end this cycle of debt and poverty. Maybe next contract, we'll get family paid health insurance. Maybe I'll find time to go back to school. And maybe I'll be able to start saving for a down payment on a house.

My colleagues and I have been changed forever by this experience. Of course, we know there's a lot more work to do to fix the economic and social problems that keep workers like me stuck in "survival mode." At the same time we were settling our contract, I heard that hundreds of security officers who protect Kaiser Permanente facilities in the Bay area were striking against their employer Inter-Con Security Systems. Despite their peaceful attempts to form a union, Inter-Con has met every effort with fierce opposition and job site harassment.

I know first hand that the road to justice is long, but let our success in Washington, D.C. serve as a model for what can happen when a united group of workers come together to stand up for their rights. This weekend, 1500 of us caught a glimpse of the America we can create if we keep working together, from the bottom to the top, to build a better future for all.

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