In The Future We Need: Organizing for a Better Democracy in the Twenty-First Century, Erica Smiley and Sarita Gupta suggest ways to evolve collective bargaining, not just for the workplace, but for social justice for communities and beyond. In this excerpt, Rubynell Walker-Barbee, a Black woman impacted when unemployment benefits were suddenly denied to school workers in Georgia, shares her story. She and her fellow service workers had to cope with a real-life economic nightmare. But they persisted and not only organized a union, but rolled back unfair legislation.
It was like a tornado had hit us. Here we all were, ready to end the school session thinking that, if nothing else, we were going to get unemployment while we waited to be rehired in the next semester. It was never all that much, just enough to help some of the women keep their lights on until they were called back. But come to find out, Mark Butler, the head of the Georgia Department of Labor at the time, decided we weren’t going to get unemployment benefits anymore. We had no choice but to do something. And we had to do it together.
I grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with 10 sisters and five brothers. I was smack in the middle. My parents migrated there from Mississippi, a town called Okolona near Tupelo. We were a close family. My mom stayed at home, and my dad worked at restaurants and swept houses. He did the best he could. He was sick a lot because he had been shot before. He’d come up hard. His mother died when they were all babies, and there were 11 of them. His sister, who was 13 at the time, took on raising them. I don’t know how she did it. And I really don’t know how my parents did it either, raising all of us. I would never have known it if we were struggling though. We always had nice clothes. We always had food. My mother would always say, “God will provide.” And that’s the way we lived.
I started working when I was 12. I had a full-time babysitting job watching my younger cousins. I would leave school by four o’clock and keep the kids until midnight, three little girls. To this day, I don’t know how well it paid because back then the money went to my parents. My cousin’s parents didn’t pay me directly. All income was shared. It went to my parents. It wasn’t my money. By the time I was 16, I had a job as a receptionist at city hall. And from there I went on to become a payroll clerk for the school system. I did that from 9th to 12th grade when I finished school. That’s just how it was. We all worked, come to think of it. And we all contributed. Maybe that’s how we survived. We took care of each other. Anyway, after I finished school, I wanted to travel and see what the world had to offer. I’ve lived in Nevada, California, Indiana, all over. I’ve always felt that before I let a city bury me, I’d rather move on to somewhere else. I eventually moved back to Michigan to take care of my mother when she had heart failure. I was there for nearly 13 years caring for her. She passed away in 2005. And by February 2006, I’d moved here to Atlanta.
I had a sister in Atlanta, so I thought I’d try it out next. A friend of mine was in the military, and I took on watching her sons who were 11 and maybe 13. There were actually supposed to be three of them, but one of the boys was killed just before I got there. I guess you could say they were troubled kids. They probably just needed a little counseling or something. When I was with them, it was one of the first times I started thinking about the phrase “no child left behind” because they had so clearly been left behind. When they got in trouble at school, they were disciplined and eventually sent to an alternative school. No one thought to work with them or help them. I was always getting called into the school because one of them was being punished. I would talk to the principal, but I couldn’t get any help. And I didn’t want to stress their mother out because she was off in Iraq with the military. The youngest boy, he’s in prison now. And like I said, he’s been left behind.
I guess I’ve seen a lot of children left behind if I really think on it. I had a nephew that was shot. He was 22. And another nephew was diabetic. He couldn’t get the help he needed and kind of let himself go. He was also young. I had one nephew who was a notorious homebody. Once, he was at home waiting on his mother to finish cooking Sunday dinner. They say some of his friends came and got him because someone was fighting, but it was he who lost his life that day. So many Black boys gone too soon. So many children left behind.
I just don’t think our system is set up correctly. People are going through all kinds of things. Some people are able to get out of it. Some people aren’t. Growing up, I knew we were poor and that I had to work to get what we needed. But I had people in my life who were able to help me get to those goals. Some people need a little bit more attention. Some tragedies keep a person wrapped up in the trauma. That guy begging under the bridge, you don’t know what he’s been through. Some people need help to get out. It takes a village. And our system isn’t always designed to help them survive the trauma they’ve had.
Still, as always, I keep it moving. I started working in food service at Morehouse College after I retired. I like working, and I like to keep busy. I became a manager at the Chick-fil-A on campus. I enjoyed the work. I was close to a lot of the students who came through, my grandson being one of them. He graduated with a 3.8 grade point average and recently got married. I’m so proud of my grandchildren.
However, that is not all I saw while working there. I worked hard. But when it came time to reward me with a raise, they offered me two cents.
What in the world did they think I was going to do with just two more pennies? They brought me into the office, sat me down, and told me, “You’ve been here for three years. You’ve been doing a great job. We really appreciate you. We’re going to give you a raise of $0.02.” That’s no reward.
Then I started asking around and realized that some people I worked with weren’t even making the minimum wage. They were working the grill in these hot conditions, and they weren’t getting paid fairly. And when you got things straight with one general manager, you got a new one. The company was always changing general managers. I think I had three general managers over the course of a year at one point. I started getting more involved with my co-workers after that.
Now, remember, I come from Michigan. There was always a union you could join. I’ve been a member of several unions over the course of my working life. So, despite the different rules in Georgia, I started organizing. We organized with the SEIU and won a collective bargaining agreement with our employer that laid out policies in a clear fashion, including how and when to apply wage increases. We all had copies of the contract and kept the little booklets in our pockets in case the next general manager was confused. Our workplace now had rules, and together we could enforce them.
It didn’t solve everything, though. For example, unemployment was a part of the job. At the end of the school year, our managers would give us our layoff note and our unemployment number at the same time. It’s not like we had the option of getting paid over 12 months instead of nine like some teachers do. And to be frank, unemployment doesn’t exactly pay. It just keeps you from going under. But this came with the job. It was the business model—hang out for a couple months with no pay, then come back. That’s what we were told to expect. That’s why we were so shocked when it was taken away. It broke my heart to hear some of the stories. I was lucky. I had retirement and savings, and I was not responsible for feeding anyone but me. But some of the women there were caring for children all by themselves. It was a disaster, almost like a tornado had hit. People were losing their homes, their vehicles, their ability to put food on the table and pay for their prescriptions. We paid unemployment insurance, but we can’t access the benefits? Yet again the system showed its cracks and tried to leave us behind.
And it wasn’t just us at Morehouse. Food service workers throughout the state were struggling—union and nonunion. We knew the only way to fix it was to come together. We started to meet around the city and in the West End. Churches would take offerings for the women struggling the most, and we would have dinner at the meetings so everyone could eat. We started to organize ourselves to confront legislators and different agency representatives at the state level. We held a rally outside our worksites. We even went directly to Mark Butler’s house and saw how he and his family were enjoying their time comfortably while our families suffered. I guess we hit someone’s nerve because the governor overturned Butler’s decision. School workers got $8 million back in unemployment benefits. It felt like we’d gotten backpay after our wages had been stolen. It was a huge victory!
But again, it did not fix the whole problem. The trauma you experience doesn’t simply end after the trauma is over. It takes a lot more than that to keep all of us from being left behind. When a tornado hits, you might lose your home, your pictures, all of the things that have made you who you are. And now that’s gone. For many women, after the tornado of losing unemployment, that was all gone. They’re still traumatized. They still need help.
And the business model is still the same. Annual unemployment comes with your annual layoff notice. That’s why our union is so important. We need these jobs to be good, family-sustaining jobs. None of us can do this by ourselves. We might get on each other’s nerves sometimes, just like any family might, but we have to stick together. Only together can we hold our employers accountable to the rules and policies to which we all agreed. It’s so few wealthy employers, and so many of us who work. They’re not just going to volunteer to pay us more money out of the goodness of their heart. We have to make them do it. If the manager calls one of us in, we can ask someone to go with us to ensure everything is done by the booklet. We can negotiate more hours before they hire people on a temporary basis. And if our unemployment is taken away, you better believe we’ll be ready to fight for it.
This excerpt from The Future We Need: Organizing for a Better Democracy in the Twenty-First Century by Erica Smiley and Sarita Gupta, Cornell University Press (2022), appears with permission of authors and publisher.