And Still I Rise: Giving Workers a Voice Through Organizing

Editor’s note: The White House Summit on Worker Voice will provide a historic opportunity to bring together a diverse group of leaders – including workers, employers, unions, organizers and other advocates and experts — to explore ways to ensure that middle class Americans are sharing in the benefits of the broad-based economic growth that they are helping to create. The conversation will include both seasoned and emerging leaders from across the country who are taking action in their communities to lift up workers’ voices.

Leading up to the White House Summit on Worker Voice, I had the chance to sit down with two women who are making an impact in their communities as part of the And Still I Rise initiative, which  melds labor rights and civil rights to expand opportunities for black workers through organizing efforts:

Talisa Hardin is the chief nurse representative with National Nurses United and lives in Chicago, Illinois. She started her career at a non-union hospital but in 2006 took a position at the burn unit at UCMC, a union-represented hospital.

Wilna Destin works as a housekeeper and is part of UNITE HERE Local 737 in Orlando, Florida. She moved to Florida from Haiti looking for a better life. Yet years after moving there, she was only making $8.70 an hour. She learned about UNITE HERE Local 737, a union that organizes housekeepers and food and beverage workers at Disney World to fight for better work contracts.

The following is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation:

What led you to become an organizer?

Talisa Hardin Talisa

Wilna: I see how the company uses the housekeepers and how they don’t have a voice. That’s why I took my responsibility to help them organize so they can know this is what they are doing. They can have pride in it.

Talisa: My original organizing victory was a victory at the hospital where I work. We were already a unionized hospital but we decided that we needed a new union. And so that was probably my first and of course, my most rewarding victory, where we got a brand new union, one that I am proud to be a part of. With that union I have worked on multiple campaigns unionizing nurses and giving nurses a voice in their profession.

What does it mean for you and your co-workers to have a voice at work?

Talisa: As a nurse what it means to have a voice where we work is to have a voice in how we care for our patients. The most important thing is that we usually work for big corporations and they’re run by policies and by things that we have no control over most of the time. So at any time when you can control how you can take care of people, you know that is what you want to do because ultimately, the people who actually give the care are the people who actually know the most about giving the care. And so we should actually be the ones that should be making decisions about how we do that, and so anytime we can give ourselves a voice to do that, then we’re doing the right thing.

Wilna Destin Wilna

Wilna: Having a voice at work means having power. This is unity. When we unite we can do a lot of things.

And what are some of the tangible benefits you’ve seen come about from your organizing efforts?

Talisa: There are many policies that bother us, specifically with nursing and with health care. So every day we are fighting for a policy or fighting to have the ability to give better care to our patients. Right now at my hospital, we are very excited; we are fighting for an attendance policy that doesn’t make nurses come to work sick. It looks like we’re making very good headway with that so that’s probably one of the biggest things that we’re working on right now.

Wilna: We have a lot of victories because we were organized decently and we have negotiations. We have higher wages than before and we have better insurance. Before the housekeepers would make about $8.75, now a housekeeper starts at $10. This is a big win. Big time.

What would that extra money mean to you and the people you work with?

Wilna: It means a lot to me. For my kids they can eat better, they can go to a better school, we can move to a better neighborhood. That’s a lot for us.

What role would you say that women, and black women in particular, play in organizing in an organizing campaign?

Talisa: The role that women play in organizing campaigns, especially in the field of nursing, is that nursing is a predominantly female field of work. In the past, nurses haven’t had that much of a voice partly because they’re women. It’s easy for a woman to fall into a role of being subservient and actually not looking out for their own needs before looking out for the needs of others. It’s a common thing in nursing; that’s what we do. We take care of others and all of the time we forget about our own needs. Organizing and being unionized actually has women stand up and fight for themselves. While I’m taking care of a patient, I realize, as a woman, I also need to take care of my family and I also have to take care of myself. When you give yourself a voice the nursing profession has grown because of this. For as long as we are willing to stand up for ourselves as women, then we will continue to grow. When we stop doing that, then the profession fails and we fail as women, and that pushes us and we will do better in the long run because of that.

What’s the greatest lesson you can teach your kids as you organize and you are a role model for them?

Wilna: My daughter is 12 years old and I raised her and taught her to be proud just like her mommy. You don’t need to be afraid because you’re black or Haitian. At school you’re just supposed to do what you’re supposed to do and stay positive and no matter what. Be proud of that. You’re going to see your life and future so other kids are going to see how you act.

What does it mean to you that the White House is hosting the Summit on Worker Voice?

Wilna: When I see that and I receive texts and emails that the White House is trying to do something about it, I say “Wow, this is true!” and I want them to know that America is a place where everybody should feel comfortable at work whether you’re white or black.

Talisa: I think what it really means to me is that hopefully the White House and everybody is paying attention to the fact that America runs off workers. That America doesn’t work if the workers don’t work and that at some point, we have to figure out how to make sure that the workers are treated fairly everywhere so America will continue to work.

For more updates on the Worker Voice Summit make sure to follow us on Twitter, and tune into the livestream on Wednesday, Oct. 7.

  1. Refreshing the Conversation: Understanding Work-Family Challenges Facing Women of Color
  2. Fighting for Worker Rights in Mississippi
  3. Working Together, Reversing Trends
  4. Speak Up, Make Change
  5. My Story Shows How Sticking Together Works

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