Labor and community unity makes all of us stronger


OLYMPIA (Feb. 22, 2017) — Monday, Feb. 20 was a wet and dreary day. Or so it seemed it would be.

Instead, roughly 1,200 people gathered to celebrate our collective power — ordinary people fighting for racial equity, economic justice, immigrant rights, LGBTQ rights, quality education from early learning through higher education, reproductive rights, labor rights, environmental protection, indigenous people’s rights, and more!

Our AFT Washington members came from as far north as Bellingham and as far south as, well, Olympia! I rode to Olympia on a bus with several Washington Federation of State Employees brothers and Planned Parenthood sisters. As we filled the Capitol steps my hope and inspiration grew.

After welcoming words from a diverse group of community leaders, Reps. Gerry Pollet (D-Seattle), Sharon Tomiko-Santos (D-Seattle) and Lillian Ortiz-Self (D-Mukilteo), and Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal shared words of inspiration and a commitment to equity in education. Then we heard the stories of people’s struggles and victories, the love and support they received that carried them through, and the aspirations they have for their future.

In the middle of it all we formed a human chain from the Capitol building to the Temple of Justice, symbolism that needs no explanation.

This rally represented something quite different for AFT Washington and I think it offers great promise as related to the notion of Unity with Community. We have a saying in AFT — community is the new density — which reflects the fact that union density has declined, but that we have the opportunity to build power in alliance with community, and thereby lift all boats.

When we share the same values, the same aspirations and the same needs with community, however we might define that, we build an alliance to achieve a thriving democracy with economic security, rich public education at all levels, solid worker and environmental protections, full equity for LGBTQ people, quality healthcare and reproductive rights, and more.

As inspired as I was, it was impossible to ignore the absence of union colors among the crowd. WFSE and SEIU Local 925 were there with us in force, but our numbers were relatively small. Imagine if labor’s presence in the crowd was impossible to ignore, and the demonstration of labor’s commitment to allyship — or, as I heard recently, becoming accomplices, not just allies — with community organizations was undeniable, and knowing that our allies will have our backs when needed, too. Imagine the force we would be!

I know there are challenges to achieving solidarity. We face those within labor and we certainly face them when trying to act on the common ground we share with community groups. Our views may not line up entirely, or we may experience very different impacts of a single policy decision. For example, one of my sons was just sharing the impact on his wallet of Sound Transit 3 with my other son, who is in Laborers Local 440 and will remain fully employed for quite a few years because of ST3!

Many unions and community groups have been working on building these alliances to increase our power, and I applaud those efforts. The Equity Rally was a reminder, though, that we have a ways to go and we need to prioritize keeping front and center the goal of that Labor and Community alliance.

We have so much at stake right now — executive orders, federal legislation, a Supreme Court appointment, the threat of tax breaks for the rich and increases for the poor, and an upside-down tax system in our state. With everything we do, we need to ask ourselves, “How can we amplify our effort by opening up the tent and being more inclusive?”


Karen Strickland is president of AFT Washington, which represents about 6,500 members including faculty and professional staff from community and technical colleges and pre-K through 12 classified employees. Learn more at wa.aft.org.

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