As one era was beginning, another reached a critical milestone. Mere weeks after Dyana Forester was elected president of the Metro Washington Council, Washington D.C.’s fight for $15 came to an end as the minimum wage was boosted to $15 per hour on July 1.
On the same day, Washington DC also became the sixth place in the nation to implement a paid family leave policy offering employees of DC businesses up to eight weeks of paid parental leave, six weeks of paid leave to care for sick family members and two weeks of paid leave for personal medical reasons.
The two milestones were not lost on Forester who, over the course of an 18 year career as an organizer and advocate in the labor community, has fought countless battles to improve the rights of workers.
Labor 411 recently spoke to the longtime UFCW member.
Labor 411: Congratulations on the DC fight for $15 and paid family leave victories. How does it feel to get there?
Dyana Forester: Those were two campaigns I worked on for a very long time, so I’m very excited about that. We started to fight for a minimum wage increase and paid sick leave when we were leading up a campaign for the large retail accountability act. It got voted down, but on the same day it got voted down, almost every councilman introduced a bill to increase minimum wage. Paid medical leave was of course crazy every step of the way.
411: The fight for $15 is universal or it should be. What impact do you hope this legislation will have in the D.C. area specifically?
DF: At the time I worked for UFCW, I think us like other unions realized that it was important for us to change the way we organize and really engage in legislative fights that did not just improve our ability to collectively bargain, but also improve the quality of life for all workers. Often unions are seen as a self interest group and not part of a bigger community, so we engage in these campaigns around paid sick leave, paid family medical leave and raising the minimum wage because it does improve the quality of life for all of our communities, but it also allows our members to negotiate up. We were able to raise the floor for workers in Virginia because Maryland and DC had a minimum wage increase and a large portion of the members that were a part of the union were Maryland and DC.
Especially during the time of COVID, for the first time, you have businesses and the union saying the same thing: that if workers go to work sick, they are likely to get the customer sick and it’s a broader health issue. We’re saying that together where before it was us pushing this narrative to legislators to help them understand that if people go to work sick, they’re going to get the consumer sick and that it’s a health hazard.
411: What are some of the other key issues that the D.C. Metro Council faces both during the pandemic and as we eventually emerge from it?
DF: We know there’s going to be a backlash because of the economy. We have to protect our workers from budget cuts and threats across the jurisdiction. I think also there’s a need for labor to have a unified response to the racial tension around Black Lives Matter and police brutality and it’s going to be a hard conversation that we need to have. We should identify what our role is because during times like this, we need to vote, but also during times like this, people feel like their voice doesn’t matter or they’re scared to vote. So we have to figure out how to engage and push our people to get involved in local elections, but also figure out how we support our national elections.
411: Tell us about your own journey into organized labor. How did it begin?
DF: I did not traditionally come to labor from the shop floor. I came to labor as a person who worked at a child care center and wanted better working conditions for my childcare center and then I got involved in organizing because I ended up getting my church to come down to a civil rights rally. I really just got involved because I wanted the world to be a better place for my daughter. It wasn’t really that deep. I need to have my children not experience injustice. I need them to have equal opportunity and any chance I saw to be able to do that, I would always step up and volunteer. I sat on the local school restructuring team when they were trying to close D.C. public schools. When Walmart was coming to the district, I made sure my community had some clear demands about how they would hold the company accountable to not treat our community the same way they had historically treated other communities. So I do think I have the political experience, the community organizing experience and leadership experience to move the council forward.
411: Is that part of what prompted your desire to seek the presidency of the DC Council?
DF: I had been around the labor council as an advocate, as a union member and as an organizer and I have seen the value that the council brought by uniting us. I also historically have seen challenges. When I worked for Jobs with Justice, I saw the support of local labor councils throughout the southern region and I saw there were challenges with having an established president or executive director, people who have been in the position for more than 15-20 years where the position really becomes about the personality. And then when you have change in leadership, there are challenges, growing pains, and it’s not about one leadership being better than the other. I think it’s just change and there’s tension.
So looking around the table and looking at the experience that I brought, because I am young, I do have relationships with both generations. I feel like I’m the gap between both generations where I respect the voice of people who have been doing this work longer than I have and I can engage them, but I also value the idea and the energy that people younger than me bring to the table. I think that right now in our moment, we need someone who values that. I along with other unions that supported me believed we needed to revitalize our labor movement, so when we looked around to say who can do this, I was the answer at that time.
411: Once you were elected, what was the first item on your to-do list?
DF: The first thing on my to-do list was to maintain the level of momentum that we had going into the election. It was the first contested race and we had a large number of delegates turn out and I wanted to make sure that we would be able to keep the momentum going throughout my presidency and for the future of the labor council. We know our unions are going to hit some rough times and the money we invest in the council is going to be even more needed, but also looked at. Are we getting the bang for our buck, the investment we’re making in this council with our union dues are we getting the support we need to fight for our members?
So I’ve been making sure that I’m hearing directly from affiliates, keeping them engaged in the process and also creating tasks forces around the immediate things we’ve been trying to figure out: how do we respond to COVID as a labor movement, how do we respond to this tension around Black Lives Matter and how do we respond to elections with all of these things going on.
411: You mentioned a daughter earlier. How aware are your children of the work you do on behalf of organized labor?
DF: I have two daughters. My oldest daughter is 22 years old, and when she went away to college to Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and she had a job in D.C., she was making the D.C. minimum wage. So then when she went to VCU, she got a part-time job, and she said “Mom, thank you for fighting for minimum wage.”
My youngest daughter, Dylan, I tell everybody she’s definitely going to be the president of something, I would say of the United States. She has very high standards and values. She started a Dump Trump club at school. She’s 12 years old now, so she only knew Obama and the potential of Hilary Clinton being president. I was a delegate at the convention and every night she would have me Facetime her so she could see who was coming on the stage. She is very much politically aware and she has a lot of fire beneath her. I’ll be working for her some day. We’ll all be working for her some day.
411: Could I get your thoughts on Labor 411 and the importance of people making smart consumer choices to support ethical companies
DF: I love Labor 411. I look forward to the directory every time you guys print it. We’re more conscious about buying local, supporting black businesses and supporting labor businesses because I work in the industry, but I will tell people want something they can pick up and go. They want that checklist especially. How many people say they buy only made in the USA stuff? Most people don’t even understand why they do it but it’s rhetoric they take on over and over again. So we’ll go a little more beyond buying made in the U.S. I definitely was exposed to it because I was working on the Walmart campaign for so many years.