Celebrating Juneteenth: Action Leads to Justice For SEIU 49 Members


Juneteenth commemorations are becoming more common around the country as Americans learn of and embrace the history of the holiday: June 19th, called “Juneteenth”, is the day that Black Americans celebrate the last of our enslaved ancestors being freed from slavery in 1865. But even as Juneteenth recognition becomes more mainstream, workplaces haven’t always been receptive, and have even pushed back against employees who wanted to recognize the holiday. 

Jamela Henderson, a Dental Assistant at Kaiser Permanente in Southwest Washington, wanted to commemorate Juneteenth last year by wearing a small lapel pin to work. Although wearing the pin to commemorate the holiday did not violate any policies, Jamela was told she would not be able to wear it. Perplexed and hurt, she decided to exercise her rights as a Union member and file a grievance. 

“As a longtime employee of Kaiser, it was important to me that they stand behind their values of diversity and inclusion,” she said. “As a child, I was taught to ‘stand up for something or you’ll fall for anything’. So, I stood up.”

Exactly a year after taking a stand, Jamela won her grievance; now she and other Kaiser employees in the Northwest will be able to commemorate Juneteeth at work, marking an important holiday celebrating the independence of Black Americans.  

“Standing up and voicing my concerns for the lack of inclusion has resulted in a victory for not only employees, but for patients in the communities that we serve,” said Jamela. “It’s important that as Black people, we can celebrate Juneteenth openly without repercussions. Our patients can now see that they are included, and that we hear and bear their feelings and concerns. I am proud to have spoken up to be a catalyst for this movement, and I’m glad to have support in the current climate of our nation.”

The connection between Juneteenth commemoration and Kaiser is especially significant in Oregon. According to JuneteenthOR.com, the first Juneteenth Oregon celebration dates back to 1945 when a beloved community member, Clara Peoples, introduced the Juneteenth tradition from Oklahoma to her co-workers at the Kaiser Shipyards in Portland. She later helped initiate the city’s annual citywide celebration in 1972. 

Acknowledging our country’s history is an important first step to healing and achieving racial justice. Being Union means that as workers we have the right to stand together and push for justice and equity in our workplaces, so we can build a stronger community together.

“I am proud that Kaiser Permanente has done the right thing,” said Jamela. “You have to be the change you want to see.”

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