On International Workers' Day, Valarie Long and David Huerta Reflect on Brown/Black Unity and a Growing Movement

05/01/2015 01:52 pm ET | Updated May 01, 2016

As working people around the world today mark International Workers Day, I offer you reflections from SEIU leaders on the front lines of uniting the largely African American security workforce with the largely Latino janitorial workforce at time when America's 10 largest cities are majority minority:

Valarie Long, SEIU International Executive Vice President, Property Services Division; and
David Huerta, President of United Service Workers West, California.

An hourly wage of $4.25 an hour in a major American city. That was the going rate for janitors. But in which decade? The 1940s? Maybe as late as the 1950s? No--as recently as 1990 a group of janitors in Los Angeles earned $4.25 and dared to imagine lifting their pay and lifting their families out of poverty.

This May 1, the exact same day that working people around the world take to the streets to mark International Workers' Day, the wage for some private sector L.A. janitors will reach $15.20 an hour.

It's been a long road to get here. It was 25 years ago that janitors started to fight for what's right by coming together in a union. These mostly Latino janitors reached across racial, religious and ethnic differences to build a broad coalition of local leaders.

It will be 25 years to the day on June 15 that they marched together in Century City, sparking an emblematic wave of "Justice for Janitors" protests. The unprecedented, strong show of solidarity for janitors in Los Angeles was completely peaceful. But suddenly, the police brutally clubbed them. Images of the attack circulated around the world, galvanizing public opinion. It was a foreshadow of what we see in the streets of Baltimore and other cities that--even to this day--face violence fueled by racial and economic inequities.

Janitors and their supporters stuck together. They won good jobs that not only provide regular raises, but full family healthcare, paid sick days, paid vacation and regular work schedules.

It also set the stage for a second wave of history making. In the largest organizing moment since the Civil Rights movement west of the Mississippi, the African Americans community came together to raise standards and create a pathway to $15 an hour for security officers. These workers stood up to the same property owners and police officers who had faced off with janitors.

Those two pivotal moments for Latinos and African Americans sparked the modern movement for $15 an hour and union rights. But raising wages and benefits isn't just about money. It's about creating a better future for the children we love and for the communities we are a part of.

When 23,000 Los Angeles Unified School District employees won a groundbreaking victory of $15 an hour last year, a custodian named Raul who previously worked three jobs said what mattered most was "the time that money could buy with my son." And SEIU is pioneering a program in four L.A. Area schools that will offer students wrap around services such as tutoring, health care and counseling.

Now, as the Fight for $15 and union rights heats up in 2015, janitors across the country are reaching out in the same spirit. In Boston, Like L.A.'s janitors and security officers, they already earn good and wages and benefits thanks to their union contract. Yet they supported adjunct professors who work side-by-side with them at Northeastern University in a successful effort to win the right to unite in a union. Northeastern's adjuncts are now negotiating a first contract, one that should lift these people with PhDs out of poverty, too.

The efforts to raise wages in cities nationwide are setting new standards for lifting up all kinds of working people--fast food workers, airport baggage handlers, laundry workers, family child care providers and home care professionals.

But we are far from finished with our work on intersecting issues of economic, racial and social justice. As we link our arms and our hearts across racial and cultural differences, we will not be deterred by acts of violence against our communities or intimidation by employers who steal wages from the most vulnerable among us. The L.A. janitors and security officers weren't intimidated and we won't be either.

What black and brown workers did back then was nothing short of remarkable and they gave us all hope. That's why we are not going to stop until we win a path to citizenship for hard working immigrant families. We will not stop until the police in Los Angeles and across the country show they understand that black lives truly matter. We will not stop until all communities unite in solving problems of pollution, unjust exploitation of our environment, and income inequality. We will not stop until all working people from all walks of life get the pay, dignity and the respect they deserve.

On International Workers' Day here in America, we raise our voices to raise America to higher values and higher standards. We are calling for a raise in wages, for comprehensive immigration reform, for relief from the disproportionate impacts from climate change in our communities and for structural reforms that will ensure that black lives and that all lives matter equally. Together, we can change things - we've done it before, and we can do it again.