On a chilly spring afternoon, I sit down in my desk chair and log onto Zoom. A small ding (a sound that I’ve become all too familiar with since the start of the pandemic) lets me know that my interviewee has joined.
The words “Cari Rivera, 1199” appear on my dimly lit screen, only to be replaced a minute later by the small face of a woman with dark hair and big rectangular classes. Behind her is a purple wall and a clean, seemingly empty room.
We greet each other and I thank her for her time and commitment to the interview. She smiles a toothy smile and laughs nervously. She tells me that she hopes she can help and that she’s not so great with interviews. I give a small chuckle in return, doing my best to hide the extreme relief I feel in talking to someone who’s just as nervous as I am.
Massachusetts resident Cari Rivera is the vice president of SEIU 1199, a labor union in the northeast that represents those involved in the healthcare industry. I interpret her role as vice president as being a strong, brave hero of the working class who fights for the oppressed and is always willing to stick it to the man. While acknowledging that this advocacy is a major component of the job, Rivera described her work in more technical terms. “I oversee a team of four workers. Our advocacy is ensuring that our contract is not violated and that we are empowering the workers to have a voice at their workplace.” She gives this information nonchalantly as if every job in the world requires extreme commitment to class fairness and equality.
Though Rivera now seems like a natural with the worker advocacy she does with 1199, she did not always expect to end up working in a field so focused on equity and representation. Rivera was working as an administrative assistant for Boston Medical Center when she found out about 1199 and planned to be in similar, office job roles for most of her career. After she and some of her colleagues started working with the union to resolve issues around attendance, a representative noticed Rivera’s ability to take charge and her natural gift for leadership. He offered her the opportunity to become a delegate for 1199.
Rivera was nervous to take the position, but she accepted, particularly excited by her new commitment to represent workers for fair and equitable wages. Having struggled as an underrepresented worker in the past, she loved that the work she was doing felt like it was truly meaningful, had a real purpose and helped others. This passion for doing good continued to motivate her as she advanced within the company and it continues to be her favorite part of the job. “Workers hold the power,” she explains, her voice strong with motivation. “They’re the frontline staff. They should be part of making decisions.” Rivera is proud to do everything she can to contribute to giving workers voices and power within their jobs.
Despite sounding heroic and inspiring, Rivera’s work is not always easy. There are moments when the workers she represents get into conflicts with their bosses and it can be easy to feel defeated when bosses shut down demands for fair wages. Furthermore, union work is extremely tied to class and politics, an association that can make Rivera feel personally isolated from her job. She sometimes finds that she has to put her professional life ahead of her personal ideals and opinions.
These challenges may sound intimidating, but for Rivera, they’re just an added bonus of the job. “You have to make a decision coming in that you should be open-minded to understand the why and understand that there is always room for change. You might be the person who enters this organization and says ‘let’s try something new.’” Rivera describes this potential for growth and change as one of the most exciting parts of working for 1199. In a field where it’s so crucial to listen to other people and support new ideas, she is glad to face these challenges and make changes.
In addition to loving the personal growth she experiences with 1199, Rivera is proud of the many larger contributions she’s made such as helping to enact policies that give workers more paid time off when they are sick and creating more opportunities for family leave. Most notably, Rivera and her organization were crucial in the Fight for 15; a movement to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour that will go into full effect in Massachusetts in 2023. Rivera describes being part of these movements as exciting which is evident as her face lights up as she tells me about her accomplishments. But despite the pride she feels in these accomplishments, Rivera refuses to play too much of a hero role. “My current role is really uplifting, but I’m not always going to have all the answers. I’m learning every day as well.” She gives a small chuckle and adds, “We’re all humans.”
With that last remark, she laughs and reverses our roles by asking me about my interest in journalism. Her humility and kindness are once again shining through. Rivera is right; we are all humans. But as she signs out of the meeting I can’t help but think that her constant support for others, her extreme devotion to equity, and her extreme compassion set her apart from the rest.