By Erica Iheme
I am a daughter of Alabama, born and raised. Before coming to JMA, I spent 17 years working as an organizer across the country before coming back home to take what I learned back to my community.
I saw my work and the work of many strong leaders in Alabama culminate last month, when Jobs to Move America and New Flyer–the largest bus manufacturer in North America–signed a groundbreaking community benefits agreement for workers in California and Alabama. This partnership is JMA’s first multi-state community benefits agreement and the first CBA for Alabama.
In that time I was away, the South became the new Rust Belt as an influx of global corporations set up shop there. We formed the Alabama Coalition of Community Benefits around the idea that these corporations coming to town need to do right by workers and communities so everyone can thrive. That’s why our partnership with New Flyer is so significant—it shows there’s a way to create a just, fair, equitable workplace with good jobs that can sustain families.
But there is still work to do in a region where the legacy of slavery and segregation continues to oppress workers and communities. Despite the manufacturing boom, Alabama still ranks among the states with the highest poverty rates, and this poverty is felt most by Black workers. I think of this on Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the day enslaved people in Texas learned they were free (a full two years after the Emancipation Proclamation). My people may be “free,” but the structures of slavery still very much exist in modern-day society, both in the South and outside it.
In 2022, people are having to work two to three jobs at once and are still not making ends meet. There’s no reason why you should spend all your time away from your family like slaves did in the fields just to come home, go to sleep, and start over—and then end up with no wealth to show for that labor. That is not freedom.
What does it look like for people like me to really be free in America? To me, being free is knowing that when things happen to me that they’re not happening to me because I’m a Black woman. Being free to me means having a safe home and resources to maintain our lives and not suffer. Being free is being able to have my children educated. Being free is not having to choose between going to work to provide for my family or staying home to take care of my sick child.
What we need to be free are jobs that allow us to live full lives and show up for our communities. Although it seems like there are job openings everywhere, the country has a lack of good jobs—ones that not only pay a livable wage, but have safe working conditions, high-quality training programs and opportunities for advancement, and that hire from groups that face barriers to employment. This includes Black workers and also brown workers, workers who speak English as a second language, LGBTQ+ workers, and other groups who have been historically oppressed.
At JMA, we’ve built a multiracial team of organizers, policy experts, and researchers—along with the advocates on our board and coalitions—that are fighting for these kinds of good jobs in communities across the country. Here in Alabama, our coalition is continuing to build the relationships and have the conversations that it’ll take to achieve our goal of bringing our community—and everybody—one step closer to freedom.
We have a lot of work to do in our country in the next decade, from fighting the worst effects of climate change to updating our aging infrastructure, but we must center the workers in all of this. We particularly need to center Black workers, whose unpaid labor built this country.
I’ve been thinking my whole life about what it would take to make Alabama a better place for its citizens. I’ve been thinking about it, dreaming about it, writing about it, and yet many have written off the South as a place that could never change. Our agreement with New Flyer shows that change is possible, and it’s just the beginning. Despite 400 years of oppression and disappointment, I’m still hopeful.