Toi Waddles: The Fight for a Living Wage
By Dianne Anderson
Local pre-school teacher Toi Waddles is American born, but her family’s inside joke is that she’s not African American at all.
“They say I’m Jamaican,” she said. ” I’ve got too many jobs.”
She is also a full-time college student working on her degree in psychology, a stepmom of four kids under the age of five, and a foster mom to a five-month-old baby.
But much of her energy over the past year has been a crusade to mobilize fellow workers for fair wages. She is a community labor organizer and member of Teamsters Local 1932.
For the past year, Waddles has fought through a lot of opposition to help establish a union for her peers, who happen to be mostly women of color. Spanning 38 schools, the workers now can receive better benefits at the San Bernadino County Preschool Services Department with the move to union coverage.
Part of her motivation through the fight is knowing that she comes from a long line of union workers. Her mother is a member of a union in Los Angeles city, and her father is a member of a union in Los Angeles County. She said she didn’t just stumble upon the concept. She understands workers’ rights.
“I’m born and bred union, that’s all I grew up with,” she said.
In the fight of the brotherhood and the sisterhood, there was a lot of opposition, but she said being blackballed from management and getting the cold shoulder over the past year was no surprise.
Before the union, she was cool with the in-crowd.
“People in the administration would smile, laugh and agree with me and talk with me. The minute I unionized, I was the black sheep,” she said.
Waddles, a teacher at Fontana Citrus Head Start, helped organize 500 people throughout the preschool services department, including support and staff. She said the hardest part was that initially her coworkers were terrified at the thought that they might lose their jobs.
“I said if you don’t trust me with anything else, trust me with this. You will not go hungry, they will feed you. They will clothe you, they will make sure you’re good,” she said.
Organizing is now over, and the contractual part continues, which she said takes a while to nail down the details.
Earlier this year, she was in a car accident. She’s fine now, but it was the Teamsters that came to her rescue with basic needs, even though she worked nearly a decade in preschool services, starting at 19 as a temp worker. She said she received more support from the union than her employers.
“I had known my employers for years,” she said. “It’s kind of like I broke the bro code. I wasn’t supposed to go outside of the family.”
Mario Vasquez, the spokesperson for Teamsters Local 1932, said change comes from union organizing, even beyond the union membership. The political impact can’t be underestimated.
“It’s about making community efforts to engage and take control of their lives by fighting for a better version of tomorrow,” he said.
On the whole, the latest addition is part of a Teamsters family that has over 1.4 million members nationwide. The preschool workers now join over 273,000 public employees represented nationwide through the Teamsters Public Services Division.
There are some other concerns about what lies ahead for the unions, which have seen a sharp decline from the 1980s and early 1990s. He said that over the years, big money groups, and anti-public sector, public employee groups have joined together to weaken the ability of people to band together in a union and fight for better wages, benefits or the ability to earn a living with fair wages.
Outreach, training members and volunteer organizers, pairing up veteran organizers with newcomers to guide them along a plan of action are all important to union development.
Through the organizing efforts of Toi Waddles, he said they were able to bring together 500 preschool service department workers from across the county, preschool teachers, aides, and custodians. It continues to be an uphill battle, but he said ultimately labor organizing is the right of every American.
Back in the 1980’s, the workforce was at about 20% unions, which he said the steady decline is now more along the lines of 8-9% union density, buoyed by public sector unions, which makes the recent Supreme Court case Janus v. AFSCME ruling next year all the more critical.
“It was designed to be a public sector union attack, in hopes of killing off labor completely,” he said.
Locally, he said they are still negotiating the contracts, but the preschool department workers will now be able to raise their families in the best way possible with the power of the union.
For people tasked with caring for society’s most vulnerable — the children — he said the workers are making poverty wages.
“These people are getting paid to care, and they’re not getting paid much. It’s appalling that the majority of these women are women of color and they’re not getting what they deserve,” he said