GUEST COLUMN: Unions provide pathway for Latinos

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Unions provide pathway for Latinos

The Gazette, October 30, 2015

By: Josette Jaramillo and Betty Jo Aragon

Growing up in Pueblo in two Latino households, we both learned the value of hard work at an early age. Our parents and grandparents worked in the fields and toiled in the steel mill, while trying to make ends meet for their large families. They worked hard, played by the rules, and though we lived humbly, we managed to get by.

But even with a booming economy, hard work alone wasn’t enough to secure our little slice of the American dream. Only when working people spoke up together did they gain fair wages, protections if they got hurt on the job, and a pension so that if they put in the work, they could retire with dignity. Through their unions, one generation of our family members were able to sustain their families and give us an opportunity to not only get by, but get ahead.

Today, that opportunity seems further and further out of reach for the vast majority of Coloradoans, especially for people of color. As Latinas, we know this to be particularly true among our community. Latinos are the most vulnerable workers in the country, with the lowest wages and poorest health coverage of any other group, even though we are working harder and putting in longer hours than ever before. We’re told this is a result of a changing, unforgiving economy, but the problem is who is driving the economy. CEOs and corporations have manipulated the rules to favor themselves, weaken unions, and leave working families behind.

Since 2007, during the height of the Great Recession, the median income in our state has dropped $4,400. And yet, some of the most well-off Coloradoans have done better than fine. Between 2009 and 2012, the top 1 percent of earners in Colorado took home nearly half of the wealth generated in the state, while employers denied more pay to their workers or even cut salaries.

Latinos, feeling the effects of this out-of-balance economy, are turning to a tried and true method of increasing our hard-earned share of the American dream: we’re joining labor unions, and in record numbers, according to a recent report by the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement.

And why shouldn’t we come together and speak up for ourselves? When Latinos are members of a union, our median weekly income increases by 38 percent, and we are 29 percent more likely to have an employee-sponsored health policy or retirement plan. And regardless of race or ethnicity, the evidence is clear that when unions are strong, the American middle class is strong.

Many hardworking Latinos in Colorado are turning to our union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). In Pueblo, hundreds of Latinos – some of whom thought they would never be part of a union – are joining after learning through conversations with other members how strong we can be together, and how, through our union, we can be better advocates for the communities we serve.

As we organize, corporate CEOs and wealthy special interests are yet again trying to manipulate the rules in their favor, this time using the Supreme Court in a case called Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. This case could make it harder for ordinary working people to stand up together for safe workplaces, improvements at work, and wages and benefits that can sustain a family.

We’re not going to be silenced by the CEOs and corporations that want to run this country unchallenged. Just as our parents and our grandparents fought for us through their unions, we intend to give our children and grandchildren the opportunity to grow up in country where one’s work is rewarded, not exploited. Unions are still the answer.

Josette Jaramillo and Betty Jo Aragon are president and vice president of AFSCME Council 76.