Black women make America run. This has been the case since our arrival on this continent and remains true in 2020. When I think about all the ways our genius, creativity, hope, and hard work have contributed to this country, even when we have been denied freedom and opportunity, I am humbled and inspired. We are truly awesome!
As we celebrate Labor Day and recognize the power and achievements of working people, we must also pay tribute to the vital role Black women workers play in our society. As we know, Black women are more likely to feel the impact of the pandemic—more than 1 in 3 of us are on the frontlines in jobs such as personal care aides, retail workers, cleaners, and nursing assistants. But we still suffer from unequal pay, even as we risk our lives in healthcare and service jobs. Now more than ever, it is important to honor the labor and work of Black women.
Our BlackHer Shero of the week is Valarie Long, executive vice president of SEIU (Service Employees International Union), a union representing about 2 million workers across healthcare, the public sector, and property services. Long leads the union’s leadership development work and formally served as executive vice president of the Property Services division which represents the union’s members employed as janitors, security officers, airport, food service, laundry, and maintenance workers around the country.
Before we talk about your work, can you tell me how you got involved in unions and the labor movement?
I was young and in my first job for the state of Ohio. I was a data entry operator, going to college during the day and working at night. An organizer at my workplace talked to me about the union and I liked what I heard. I joined; this was with CWA (the Communications Workers of America). I eventually took a leave of absence to organize state workers. Once that ended, I didn’t want to go back to data entry. Later, I landed in Cincinnati, working for SEIU. That was in February 1986 and I never left!
What do you do at SEIU and how does the union fight for a vision of a just society?
I’m the Executive Vice President responsible for leadership development programs and our Together We Rise Department that helps our local unions survive and thrive. I started out as an organizer and I still consider myself one. I organized office workers in the 1980s, was on the Justice for Janitors campaign in Atlanta and DC in the late 1980s and 1990s. I have been a trustee at troubled local unions, worked on education projects, been an assistant to the president, and I ran a Local for many years and later merged it into a larger Local to give our members more collective power.
SEIU’s vision speaks to my heart. Many of our members are women of color who have toiled for years taking care of others, protecting and caring for property and people in the service and care industries. In our vision, we talk about believing and fighting for a just, more equal, society. One where work is valued and workers are respected. One that has communities that thrive and where we build a better, more equal world for future generations. The Labor Movement is about improving the lives of the generation to come and working people are the heroes and sheroes on the front lines of that movement.
Why are unions so important for Black women?
Black women are the backbone of so much, and the labor movement is no different. We are on the frontlines fighting a pandemic, our current economic crisis, white supremacy, and state-sanctioned violence. We are fighting for health care, decent schools, and fair justice systems. We speak out as leaders in our communities, churches, and schools. Black women have organized and used our voices to gather in unity and fight collectively. That is the very definition of a union—fighting collectively and building power.
Who are some of the labor leaders (past and/or present) that inspire you?
Folks that aren’t in history books yet. Hazel Ingram, who died in 2018, was a janitor in New York. Her grandmother was a slave, and her family moved North during the Great Migration. She was active in the union and worked for 65 years. She died at 95 and up until the end, she was getting arrested, signing up workers to join the union, and fighting alongside them. I am honored to have met and marched with her. I always felt inspired. She died working. Part of why she never stopped was economic. But she also didn’t want to give it up. I will always feel privileged to have fought for justice alongside her.
Given the state of where we are in the country, I can’t resist asking you a political question. What’s at stake for working people, especially Black women, in this presidential election?
There is so much at stake for all of us. Police are killing Black men and women. Unchecked racism has been released; it was always present but had been tempered by some semblance of decency. Our freedom and our democracy are at stake. Black women are committed in unimaginable ways to turning it around, not just in November. We need to win and hold elected officials accountable up and down the ticket. It won’t end just by electing Biden and Harris, we need to dismantle and eliminate structural racism once and for all. Black women are uniquely positioned to lead and help the country out of this morass it is in right now.
What are you excited about right now?
Kamala Harris’ nomination! I love that my grandchildren and Black, Brown, and multiracial children can see what’s possible. I also believe Joe Biden is setting up the future first female President of the United States. A woman of color! Totally excited.
We made a mistake thinking Obama was our great hope. We didn’t keep the pressure on for the policies that working families need. I believe the movement learned that lesson and can build power and leverage it to make a better society. I think we have the right vision for a multiracial society and that makes me hopeful and excited. There’s no sense in being cynical or throwing our hands up. We’re part of the arc of history that continues to build a better world for our children and grandchildren, just like our mothers and grandmothers did.
People are fed up with division. In the current protests, we are seeing a multiracial movement. It’s not just Black folks demonstrating for our lives, it’s also our allies and people coming together for a better, more equal world.
Seeing ordinary people uniting and taking such extraordinary action is exciting and necessary to take back this country.
Let me ask you the miracle question. You go to sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow and it’s September 2021 and a miracle has occurred for Black women. What happened?
The biggest miracle is power. You don’t just pray for it; you build it and take it from those who would keep you from having it. Miracles happen when we demand things and get the justice we deserve. So, this is a miracle we will have worked for, seeing power and going for it. Black women are so equipped for this moment, to take the mantle of leadership and move us forward. We are relentless. We have overcome so much throughout history. We were built for this.
Yes, we were!