Celebrating our resilience in the ongoing fight for economic, racial justice.
by April Sims
Washington will recognize Juneteenth as an official State holiday for the first time this year. This increased recognition of Freedom Day — long celebrated by Black Americans coast to coast — provides an opportunity for Black people to share our resilient history, the country’s history, with our broader community.
Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom and Black resilience. As a Black woman, Juneteenth for me is about celebrating freedom — past, present, and future — and remembering my ancestors. As a labor leader, Juneteenth offers an opportunity for me to share my family story and lift up the transformative power and potential of organized labor in the ongoing struggle for economic and racial justice.
My grandfather was a sharecropper in Louisiana. When he protested the practice of paying white farmers more for their cotton than Black farmers, he had to flee with his family to escape lynching. They fled to northern Louisiana to stay with relatives. There, my grandfather was told he was welcome to stay, so long as he kept his head down and his mouth shut. But my grandfather dreamt of a better life, not just for him, but for his children and his children’s children.
So he migrated to Washington, where he got a job at the Hanford nuclear plant in Pasco, and for the first time in his life, earned a fair day’s pay for a hard day’s work. He made enough to send for the family, but he still wasn’t free. In those days, Pasco was a sundown town, and it was no more safe than staying in Louisiana had been. So he moved the family to Seattle, where he got a job as a janitor at a department store represented by the Teamsters, and for the first time in his life, he had both the racial and economic justice that he had so fiercely sought. He found respect as a Black man, and respect as a worker.
Juneteenth commemorates the end of chattel slavery in the United States, a country formed in many ways by stolen labor on stolen land. Black labor built the country we live in; we’ve put in 400 years of sweat equity that continues today.
Almost 160 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was read out in Galveston, Texas, Black workers are unionized at higher rates than all other workers, active participants in organized labor’s fights for workers’ rights and recognition.
Black workers are at the core of our economy, performing many of the essential jobs supporting the services our communities rely on, particularly throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the same time, we’ve seen Black workers face heightened backlash and retaliation from employers for exercising their rights to organize, to be paid a fair wage, and to be safe at work.
Still, Black workers are leading inspiring organizing efforts here in Washington and across the U.S., even in the face of attempts to weaponize racism and xenophobia to divide working people and break worker solidarity.
We are seeing a resurgence of worker organizing across the United States. One thousand petitions for union recognition have been filed with the NLRB as of May 31; we haven’t hit that 1k mark this early in the year since 2010. The fight for economic justice and the fight for racial justice, twin struggles that drew my grandfather to Washington State, continue on.
On Juneteenth, we remember our ancestors’ resilience that lives within us today. The fight for freedom is not yet won. But on Freedom Day, we celebrate what we have overcome, and revel in the joy, community, and solidarity with one another that will always see us through.
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April Sims, of Tacoma, is secretary treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO. The WSLC is the largest labor organization in Washington State, representing the interests of more than 600 local unions and more than 550,000 rank-and-file union members. Learn more at wslc.org
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