This week more than 2,500 Philadelphia security officers ratified their first-ever citywide union contract.
What does it mean?
Effective on January 1, most officers will see their hourly wages increase from between $8 and $11 per hour to between $10.45 and $13 per hour by the contract's expiration in 2016. For the first time, full-time officers will receive employer-paid health care beginning in 2014. Officers also won sick days, job security, a uniform allowance, an official channel to solve problems on the job--and, importantly, the ability to negotiate further improvements in future contracts.
The officers--who protect commercial office buildings, universities, hospitals, and other facilities throughout Philadelphia--won big. So did their families and communities.
"Now that we'll get benefits," said Officer Ethel Smith, "I can finally afford to buy medicine when I get sick."
The victory comes at a time when workers--from Walmart to New York City to Michigan--are finally standing up to the small and selfish minority of very wealthy people who seek to rule our country's workplaces and our government with a fist--a fist full of dollars.
In that ongoing fight, there will be some good days and some bad days. The Philadelphia victory is a very good day.
But the victory is more than a one-day win in the war between the 99 percent and the one percent. This victory--a four-year contract--is a brick that will be placed in the rebuilt foundation of America's middle class.
During America's postwar years-- the Golden Age of America's middle class--unions were strong and wages were fair. A single income could raise a family in modest middle-class comfort.
To be sure, these were good times for ordinary Americans and good times for our economy. But there was at least one gigantic flaw--people of color were left out.
Shutting people of color out of the postwar American Dream had drastic consequences over time. It enabled the wealthy and powerful to divide hardworking Americans based on race.
Ronald Reagan saw his opportunity to divide and conquer. He invented his notorious "welfare queen" and used her strategically and effectively to convince many working class whites to think--and vote--against their economic interests.
But the racial division was not just along lines of black and white. Black-brown relations suffered too.
In 1980s Los Angeles, the wealthy real estate industry pursued a strategy of replacing SEIU African-American janitors with non-union Latino janitors. Blacks lost their jobs, janitorial wages plummeted, and resentment between the two communities festered.
The elite's widespread manipulation of race relations for economic gain caused America's middle-class foundation to crack.
What is now clear--as evidenced by President Obama's November 6 victory and worker protests happening almost every day--is that the vast majority of Americans want to live in a middle-class society again.
It's going to happen. Working through unions and our government, together we will rebuild that society, a society where ordinary Americans will again have access to healthy food, quality healthcare, decent housing, excellent education, and a dignified retirement.
But this time we will not make the mistake--and the injustice--of leaving people of color out. This time we will all rise together.
In Philadelphia we are already starting to see it. Some 79 percent of the security officers in Philadelphia are African-American. These 2,500 officers have united in 32BJ-SEIU with window washers, building engineers, food service workers, and janitors--most of whom are Latino. In Philadelphia, its surrounding suburbs, and Wilmington, Delaware, these workers are now 10,000 strong.
The 2000 census revealed that there are now more Latinos in the United States than African Americans. Blacks and Hispanics together constitute the majority population in America's five largest cities.
By moving past whatever stereotypes these two communities have of one another and joining together in diverse local unions, African Americans and Latinos can win greater political and economic power--and a longer lasting, stronger, and less vulnerable form of social justice.
The contract won by Philadelphia's security officers is an important step forward in America's 21st-century race relations.
That's good for everybody.