In a three-part series, we will publish short, one-on-one interviews with each speaker. Below is "Nowhere near enough: Part 2 of the State of Women's Rights" with Laphonza Butler, president of the Service Employees International Union United Long Term Care Workers (SEIU ULTCW), interviewed by Elizabeth Urena, media relations assistant at ACLU SoCal.
ACLU of Southern California: What inspired you to go into community organizing and ultimately, labor unions?
Laphonza Butler: I watched my mother take up every job that she could to make sure that my two brothers and I had an opportunity to pursue our dreams. To know that up until her 60th birthday, she had never had health insurance, to know that she worked minimum wage jobs with little to no training and to see how she was treated in those jobs inspired me. So when I graduated college, I found SEIU—or SEIU found me—and it has really been an adventure in seeking justice ever since. So, I would say the person that inspires me is my mother.
ACLU SoCal: How did SEIU find you?
LB: In 1998, SEIU started to recruit organizers from historically black colleges. My frame of reference for social justice, as I grew up in the Deep South, had always been the Civil Rights movement. I was a sophomore at Jackson State when one of the recruiters visited our political science class, that was my first exposure to the labor movement, and that’s how they found me.
ACLU SoCal: Wage discrimination hurts everyone, but particularly working moms and women of color. California just raised its minimum wage to nine dollars an hour. Do you think that’s enough?
LB: No, it’s not enough. My own mother was one of those working moms, and I know a lot of the members of my union are moms and women of color working multiple jobs to make ends meet. The cost of living is increasing, and wages are continuing to be stagnant.
I don’t even think the president’s “10.10” is enough. There needs to be a bold proposal for a wage that lifts families out of poverty. We’re seeing the fast food workers fight for $15. Let’s try to figure out where wages would be if we had set a minimum wage with inflation back when we first passed the minimum wage. But somewhere there has got to be a bold statement.
Look at what’s happening in Seattle, the city of SeaTac, where a ballot initiative passed for a $15 an hour minimum wage for SeaTac. Now, Seattle’s newly elected mayor has a wage commission planning a $15 dollar an hour minimum wage. You see a lot of things happening around the country and we’ve got to figure out how to get that momentum to our state.
We live in a country where politics rule the day, and everything is the art of negotiation. I wish the Left would start a little higher and actually work with business, with the Republicans and with all of the fabric that makes America to figure out a living wage. I’m inspired by the $15 an hour movement found in cities across the country, but I think we all know in California that $9 an hour is nowhere near enough.
ACLU SoCal: What do you consider to be the biggest obstacle to achieving racial and gender equality in the workplace?
LB: I think a lack of courage is an obstacle. When we find the courage, as a nation, to demand better is when we will start to perform better. The heroes of the Civil Rights movement and the women’s movement had the courage to demand a different conversation in our country. I think it is up to this generation to find the courage to pick up that that mantle and continue to demand. It’s only when we go silent when discrimination is allowed.
ACLU SoCal: How do you think we can make the women’s movement more connected to women of color?
LB: We have to be conscious of those voices and those experiences, and frankly it starts withwomen of color; they need to raise their voices. So often, white women with some degree of privilege start the conversation. Look at Maria Shriver and how she is talking about women across the country, online and in movies, and I think it’s great. But women of color need to raise their voices as well. We’ve got to be intentional about including the voices and stories of women of color working within the movement as a whole.