A Conversation with Jennifer Esteen, Vice President of organizing for SEIU 1021- Part 2
Jennifer Esteen led a movement to save 41 permanent beds from being taken away from mentally ill people.to share her powerful story as a Black, masculine of center, gay woman who started organizing in her role as a registered nurse working with mentally ill and homeless people in San Francisco. She
Jennifer moved to the East Bay in 2003 from New Orleans and has lived in Ashland, CA with her wife and children since 2015. She is a dedicated public servant, social justice advocate and a former psychiatric nurse for the San Francisco Department of Public Health. In December 2019, Jennifer was selected to serve as Vice President of Organizing for SEIU 1021.
Transcribed from a recorded conversation between Seth Pinckney, Member Coordinator Action Builder, and Jennifer Esteen, VP Organizing SEIU 1021
Part 2 - Check out Part 1
Seth: As a black person, and I think you told me you identify as a black, masculine of center woman, who works in labor, I didn't grow up knowing too much about how unions work. I can’t always say I’ve seen myself reflected in what the media represents as union members either. This formed an idea for me that unions were made for middle class white men. However, as we both know, black folks have a powerful history of coming together to better our rights as workers. I would love your perspective on that and how you help activate more black and brown people to join the labor movement.
Jennifer: The beauty of the labor movement is that it has often been led by black and brown people. We think about the farm workers' struggle, which was all about fair wages, was achieved 100 percent by way of the labor movement. I think one of the things we need to do is fight to remove Right to Work from state law, because it's actually a conundrum to say ‘right to work’. What it means is the right to be ripped off. Black and brown workers don't get access to collective bargaining, which means that they can’t fight for fair wages. When workers get to sit at the table and bargain a contract as a union, they legally become equal to their employer sitting at that table.
Seth: That’s a striking statement. I think the message that unions are protected under federal law, and when you join with your fellow workers as a union, your boss is legally obligated to listen, is not shared widely enough.
Jennifer: That's exactly right. Legally obligated. There are many laws, whether you're a public employee or an employee working for a private institution. When you have the power of a union behind you, you have the power of the law on your side that says you are protected, you have rights, and you can't just be fired because somebody was in a bad mood today. Making sure black and brown people can get organized into unions and gain those protections is important.
At the SEIU, we've been pushing for a $15 minimum wage. But in a place like California, it feels like $15 can't go far enough. But if you're in a place like Louisiana, which is where I grew up, I was a college graduate making $5 an hour. When I finally got a job paying $7.50, I thought that I had hit the jackpot!
Seth: I’m not sure we talked about this, but I didn't know you're from Louisiana. My Mom's from Shreveport, Louisiana.
Jennifer: I’m from New Orleans. The poverty and racism I experienced was raw and in your face, but that’s where I’m from. Don’t get me wrong, Mardi Gras, the weather; it's great to visit! And it was even great growing up there. My kids are a big reason I chose to leave New Orleans. It's scary raising black boys. I have a 15 year old son who worries about being dark skinned and what might happen to him every single day. He worries about his own safety. To see my son and witness his sadness and his tears, his true fear; I can't say that having a union gives you safety and security and protection from racism. But as a member of a group that is bigger than any one person and as a member of a group that recognizes we have so much more in common when we think, unions enable us to focus on fighting against the people who are stealing and hoarding wealth.
Racism is a function of greed. So by gathering people together and forming unions, you have an opportunity to cross barriers. It doesn't matter who you are, how you identify; union members have all sorts of different political views and religious beliefs. But at the end of the day, they make a fair wage and they can support their families.
Seth: Thanks so much for sharing that story. With regard to the security of a union, I have a background in technology and workforce development, and we know jobs are changing. With these changes, I think it becomes even more important that we respect workers. There's value beyond obviously just the job. You know, at the same time there’s something very personal that comes with being a worker. Workers are powerful.
Jennifer: Yes, workers are powerful. At SEIU we're pushing for gig workers. We were able to lobby for a state law called AB-5, which is a law that says contractors are employees. The law demands that all drivers for Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and all these other companies are considered employees. It makes sure that they get paid a fair wage and that they get paid for their time while they're waiting for a rider to come to their cars, and that they be given something so basic like medical coverage and that the company that they work for be liable if some terrible tragedy should occur while they're working on the job. You know, if I got hurt on the job, I would be covered by workman's comp. But a driver for Uber doesn't have that same protection. And that's simply not fair.
Seth: No, no. It’s not fair at all. We just had MLK Day, and his final push within the Civil Rights Movement was talking about labor and labor rights. And that's really, in my opinion, what got him into the most trouble. I think about MLK and folks my age, I consider myself an old millennial, or younger that don't have the education about our rights as workers. As far as there is, and should be, dignity of work. In today’s working culture you can't even catch your breath for wanting to maintain a decent standard of living.
Jennifer: Yeah, I was having the exact same conversation this morning. It seems like being able to relax is now this new kind of privilege. Capitalism has us so fooled into thinking that we have to be productive at every moment of the day and that we have to keep working, keep working, keep hustling. That to be able to take a break is a special kind of privilege that you have to pay for. If I'm going to relax, I'm not going to be able to earn money. How can anyone relax when you’re constantly struggling, and having to work two and three jobs? There were many years where I was a single parent. I'm so glad that I can reflect on it because fortunately, I'm partnered now and we're able to cobble our little pennies together. But when I was a single parent, I worked two or three jobs. This is in addition to working as a registered nurse. In order to provide for my children and myself, I had to work three jobs!
Seth: While I’ve worked many jobs myself, I can't imagine what that would be like as a single mom. The whole idea of having the rights and dignity that come with a union, and then I think about people I know that work in places where you don't even get a chance to use the restroom. How degrading is that?
Jennifer: That's exactly right. And, you know, it's interesting when you think about the value of work, the dignity of having a moment. At SEIU we are also pushing to organize adjunct professors. Sometimes people who work in education might be perceived as upper class because they have a Master's degree or a PhD. They are holding, what seems like, a prestigious position at some lovely university, all while earning $12,000 a year, teaching four or five classes across several campuses. And because of that same prestige, we sometimes find it more difficult to organize adjunct professors because they often believe the lie told by the institution, which is that they are not a “worker” because they have education.
So right, they are different from a worker, even though they still need two and three jobs to survive. For example, I know adjuncts driving for Lyft at night and teaching in classes in the day. But they are told that they are not workers. This highlights our need to organize. There are so many weapons used to divide us and discourage us from protecting our own interests.
Seth: As someone who has worked for an academic institution, I've seen this firsthand. It's not good for education and it's definitely not good for students. I agree with what you’re saying, dignity of work is not defined by pedigree or degree type. My last question is about leadership development. As an organizer with experience, what advice do you have for people that are coming in, taking on leadership roles, or maybe who are currently volunteers and are interested in how they can grow as organizers?
Jennifer: You know, I think that one of the things that I keep reminding myself is that this is hard work. It is often unpaid labor, and organizing people is difficult. And we have to do it anyway. And it sometimes feels like it's never the right moment. But every little thing you do, whether it's a phone call to a friend to encourage them to come out to an action or sign a petition, we must stay close to and support one another.
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