Black history is inseparable from the history of the labor movement and the history of SEIU Local 721. From the beginning, the fight for worker rights in the United States has been led, shaped and won by Black activists – from household names, to influential labor, civic and religious leaders, to millions of every day people determined to secure their rights. This Black History Month, we’ll be spotlighting some of those who have made SEIU Local 721 the leader in the fight for economic and racial justice that it is today.
It all started with an untucked shirt.
The year was 2012, and there was a new manager over the LAX custodial department where Saundra Dixon has worked since 2007. Previously, custodians could wear their uniforms however they liked but this new manager issued an edict: all shirts had to be tucked in.
Today, Dixon is an SEIU 721 Executive Board Member, but back then she wasn’t very well-versed in union activities. Still, she knew there was a way to fight back.
“This manager came in like a tyrant and even though it seems small, as women we’re constantly bending and lifting and doing all kinds of things, and not all of us were comfortable tucking in our uniform,” she said. “It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it affected our work and I knew our union could help with this.”
So, she did some research, looked up her contract, and started moving a petition. She teamed up with Worksite Organizer Manny Tavarez, who helped her put together a campaign around the dress code, including headwear. In true SEIU 721 fashion, they fought and won.
That campaign helped launch her into the union leader she is now. “Winning that made me hungry to keep doing things,” she said laughing during a recent interview. “I found my calling is to be a Union Steward. I’m a humanitarian and I just love people and helping them know their rights and find their voices.”
For Dixon, part of that fight is for equal rights and making sure people of color have the respect, recognition, and opportunities that everyone else has.
“I feel like Black History IS the Labor Movement. They go hand-in-hand,” said Dixon. “Dr. King was killed while he was standing alongside striking sanitation workers in Memphis. Even though not everyone relates to Malcom X, he was for the Labor Movement also.”
Her first exposure to a union was at SEIU Local 1877, with legendary labor giant Mike Garcia, but it was at LAX where she really started getting involved and growing as a leader under guidance from Tarvarez. That leadership has taken her all the way to the Executive Board, where she’s serving her first term after being encouraged to run by SEIU 721 President David Green and Vice President Simboa Wright.
“I was really honored to be nominated and I’m learning so much,” she said. “Since I’ve been in this union I’ve learned how to speak better, I’ve gained confidence, and it’s really pushed me out of my comfort zone. That’s another reason why I encourage people to get involved – the experiences you have are about more than just work.”
Dixon says her motivation comes partly from seeing the next generation, like her goddaughter Trisha, embrace union membership and keep the movement growing. She also sees her union work as a way to honor her late mother, who would have turned 100 years old on March 3, 2023.
“She taught me to be strong. She taught me to be proud, and she taught me to fight for what’s right,” Dixon said. “So that’s what I’m doing and I’ll continue to do.”