The St Louis Jobs with Justice (JwJ) Workers’ Rights Board recently honored co-chairs Joan Suarez and the Rev. Martin Rafanan for their decade of leadership building the St. Louis Workers’ Rights Board. The board also recognized the board’s new leadership of the Rev. W. Audrey Hollis and Ruth Ehresman as in-coming co-chairs.
Suarez, a founding co-chair of the St Louis Workers Rights Board (WRB), was joined by the Rev. Rafanan 10 years ago.
Suarez, who also serves as chair of Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates (MIRA), will continue as a member of the WRB Steering Committee and a Missouri JwJ Community Co-Chair.
The Rev. Rafanan is moving into a full-time staff role at Missouri JwJ, coordinating the statewide “Champions Project”
which organizes opinion leaders like WRB members throughout the state.
Ehresman is a veteran policy advocate highly respected for her work on health care and state budget issues. She has worked in both staff and volunteer leadership roles with Citizens for Missouri’s Children, the Missouri Budget Project and Metropolitan Congregations United for St Louis, and currently works with Vision for Children at Risk.
The Rev. Hollis is currently an associate pastor at Greater St Mark Family Church in North St Louis County. She also served as a Bellefontaine Neighbors alderman and is a former member of AFGE Local 3354, where she first came to know Missouri JwJ.
JwJ has established WRBs around the country to provide a legal framework to support workers and economic justice issues. These boards, made up of community leaders, religious leaders, academics and elected officials, are now located in 20 cities and have a proven track record as effective locally-based vehicles to address the concerns of workers and their communities.
Under Suarez and the Rev. Rafanan’s leadership, the St Louis Workers’ Rights Board has been key to many powerful victories for local workers and their families, including:
- Angelica Laundries – In 2004, the WRB convened a high profile community-led public hearing co-hosted by television’s Judge Greg Mathis about alarming safety issues at Angelica Laundries, a national industry leader headquartered in St Louis. The publicity generated by the hearing and
subsequent report was key to Angelica’s workers throughout the country winning a historic organizing effort and first contract.
- Living wage sit-in at Washington University – In 2005, a 19-day sit-in won groundbreaking wage increases and access to health care for hundreds of service workers at Washington University. The WRB played several important roles, including maintaining a 24-hour prayer vigil outside this sit-in when security threatened to remove them and mediating an ultimate resolution with the university administration.
- Mine Workers and Peabody Energy – In 2013, as the United Mine Workers waged a months-long, ultimately victorious battle with Peabody Energy to keep retiree health coverage for ailing miners and their families, WRB members led prayers at each rally and were arrested with miners to draw attention to their plight. The WRB anchored a candlelight vigil of hundreds of supporters outside the federal courthouse as the miners waged the legal battle for accountability.
- Fight for $15 and a union – As fast food workers in St. Louis and across the country have waged their fight for a living wage and the right to form a union without retaliation, the Rev. Rafanan developed an expansive program by which community leaders and clergy escort workers back to their first shift after one-day strikes. This “walk back” program has become a vital piece to the national movement for a new union for fast food workers.