Marvel E. Smith is an organizer with the state's largest union, the Service Employees International Union, Local 503. Articulate about why unions matter in the workplace, Smith worked her way up from being a home health aid; now she organizes others in her former industry. She spoke with The Skanner News about the need for health workers to have health insurance.
The Skanner News: Can you start out talking about why you do what you do?
Marvel E. Smith: I am an organizer. I work with folks in public sectors like child care providers or nonprofit employees in Oregon. I do a variety of work. I work for the state, with ODOT, and university workers to help people make a change in their workplace. To provide people who live with low wages — the most vulnerable population in our state. We need to be able to help them to be able to get up and get better pay, get health insurance where there's no health insurance, and also to give them a voice so they can stand up for positive things in their workplace.
TSN: Why should young people who are considering their careers think about union jobs?
MS: Well first I think that we want to encourage them to look for union jobs because they are better paying jobs, normally. Why I say better paying, because without the unions you won't be able to sit down with the bosses and have a democratic voice to be able to actually talk about what you'd like to see in the workplace. Say for instance you haven't got a raise for five or six years, to be able to sit down and say, hey, we haven't had a raise, so we're going to do collective bargaining, and we're giving them an opportunity to push up for fair wages. So, for many workers who haven't had a raise in years, it's going to make a huge difference in their lives.
And so when I say union I say—a voice. A democratic voice so that you can make the changes to better yourself to be able to feed your family.
TSN: Talk about what it is to be a union organizer. How do you do it?
MS: The skills that I have – first of all, I was actually a home health worker and a child care worker, and I was a member of the union first. So I got a chance to be right there front and center to see things happening. And I saw folks like myself coming to the table to make things better for us.
So say for instance in home care, when I was working in the field we didn't have any health insurance at all. We were struggling financially trying to go to the doctor so we could be healthy enough to work — and you know when you don't have any health insurance and you get sick, you just go to work sick. There's nothing you can so about it.
We came together and talked to the union about the fact that we needed health care and we didn't have health care. Our wages were very low at that time, I think it was like $9.20, something like that. And we were talking about we needed health care and we also needed to be able to get a living wage.
And so as an organizer — we bargain with the employer; we sit around the table and tell him what we want and why we want it, and why we feel that we should have this. And so we bargain back and forth, and actually what happened was, with our union, they were able to provide us with raise – from $9.20 up to $10.25 – and also be able to get medical, dental and vision for home care workers. And home care workers are supposed to take care of the elderly.
So the reason why I'm working right now is to empower people who never thought they had the power to make a change. From a negative to a positive, to be able to build communities up so that we can be able to feed our families. To be able to take care of our children. So our children can see a positive way to go by working in a workforce that gives back to them. This is the reason why I do what I do.
So many times people of color think that they cannot make it in the society that we live in. But I am here to tell you, you can make it by getting into the right resources, fighting for ones that can talk to you about how you can change your life by getting a union job, and also just by coming in and – if you need some help being able to articulate the workplace, if you don't have a union in your workplace and you would like to get one, I guarantee you if you come in and talk to us at SEIU Local 503, we'll be able to help you through that process to make your workplace a better place for you.
TSN: Is there a place online where young people can go where you recommend to find out more about being in a union?
Smith: First of all I would encourage them to go to our website at www.seiu503.org and see what workplaces are in our unions. That's one way. Another way, if you have someone right now who wants to find out more about forming a union in the workplace, I would encourage them to contact us. And I'll give you my information and they can contact me personally, and then we can go from there. I am firstname.lastname@example.org 971-230-4952.