This article was first posted at Labor Notes.
If you’ve attended a Fight for $15 rally or a Black Lives Matter protest in Chicago recently, chances are you’ve seen members of Future Fighters.
Their T-shirts proudly proclaim that they are “a movement of young leaders actively fighting against income inequality, racial profiling, police brutality, and homelessness; while engaging and educating other young workers who are taking direct action to unite and rebuild our communities.”
It’s a promising example of how union members can organize to support the growing movement for police accountability. The Future Fighters — young members of Service Employees Healthcare Illinois-Indiana (SEIU HCII) — are building a bridge between their union’s struggle for economic justice and their community’s struggle for racial justice.
Reaching young members
When Lakesia Collins, a young nursing home worker and steward in HCII, was first approached by an SEIU International representative about organizing a group focused on the needs of local members aged 35 and under, she was excited by the prospect — but not sure where to start.
“At first we didn’t know what we wanted to do,” said Collins. “Then Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin happened, and we said, ‘Enough is enough.’ We wanted to do more than just protest in the street, so we came up with a Know Your Rights training to offer in both the community and the union.”
The first training became part of Millennial Takeback, a half-day mini-conference the new group organized in 2015. The event featured food, music, and workshops on how the union could confront police brutality, income inequality, and the underfunding of public programs in members’ communities.
The conference was a big success, drawing about 70 participants. Many people found the Know Your Rights training especially useful.
“We talked about how to de-escalate a situation with law enforcement, how the judicial system works against minorities in our community, how children see these situations,” said Shawndra Robinson, an 11-year homecare worker who co-founded Future Fighters with Collins before joining the union’s staff
The group now offers workshops every two to three months, on such topics as the rights of protesters, racist and classist stereotyping, and the role of unions in the civil rights movement. The founders estimate at least 500 union and community members have participated so far.
“That could be me”
To recruit young members to trainings and community protests, Future Fighters activists talk one on one with co-workers in their divisions and speak at new-hire orientations.
That’s how Ozzmon Dumas, a housekeeper at a nursing home, got involved. “I was not really sure what the union was about until my union steward, Lakesia Collins, spoke to me about some of the things they were doing,” Dumas said.
The first Future Fighters event he attended was a Black Lives Matter rally in downtown Chicago. The union’s young-member program quickly became significant for him.
“Look at the ages of the people who have been shot and have been beaten,” he said. “They are young and they are Black. When you see someone on the news that looks just like you, getting beat on for no reason, you are always going to look at it like, ‘That could be me any time. That could be my brother. That could be my son in the future.’
“The Future Fighters became an outlet for me. I wanted to do something rather than sitting there and waiting for things to happen.”
To bridge the demographic gap inside their union, the Future Fighters have invited members who live in the surrounding suburbs to join the trainings too.
“It can be hard to talk to members from white communities in higher-income jobs, but we are opening up the space to have those conversations,” said Collins. “We are able to come to common ground, to recognize that there is some urgency to fight for racial justice.”
But changing the perspectives of white members is only a secondary goal. The group’s primary focus is making the union relevant to members like Dumas.
The Future Fighters have also recruited to the trainings community members from outside the union. “We target our union members, but we felt like if we limited it to our members, we were cutting ourselves short,” said Robinson. “At the end of the day, we all need each other to keep this movement going.”
The group places a high priority on collaborating with community groups that are already working on police brutality and mass incarceration.
When an annual conference of police chiefs was held in Chicago last October, the Future Fighters hosted at their union hall a counter-conference called “I Shocked the Sheriff.” The coalition organizing the event included Black Youth Project 100 and Assata’s Daughters, which organizes young Black women ages 6-17.
It peaked with a day of action, where activists including Future Fighters bound themselves together with chains and PVC pipe, shutting down intersections and walkways surrounding the police event. The action drew attention to their demand that city governments cut back police funding and reallocate funds to programs that benefit Black communities. Sixty-six protesters were arrested.
Now the Future Fighters leaders are working to organize a Freedom School for teens. This extracurricular school will teach skills like how to write a resume, interview for a job, and complete a college application. It will also provide a space for attendees to discuss issues like feeling disconnected from the curriculum at school, or seeing their parents struggle to get by on multiple jobs.
The organizers are drawing inspiration from history. In the ’60s, civil rights activists in the South organized Freedom Schools to prepare middle and high school students to participate in politics. The Black Panther Party’s Liberation School taught Black history and politics, and also offered breakfast, lunch, and health screenings.
Collins sees the combination of education and mobilization as a strategy not only for recruiting young members to be more active in the union, but also for moving the union to get more active on community issues.
“We need a plan for racial justice in every union,” she said, “especially if you are fighting for economic justice — because you have to tackle them both, not one at a time.”
Chris Brooks is a labor journalist and organizer. He currently works as the field director at the NewsGuild of New York.