This is Chris’s story

Chris Pennock is a Working America member here in Minnesota, and he’s had a unique few months.

He agreed to sit on the Workforce Partnership Group, which was set up to examine how the city of Minneapolis can best make sure everyone has paid time off when they are sick. Business people, labor groups and workers served on the partnership, and Chris represented everyday working people like you and me.

After weeks of listening sessions, studies and testimony, the group recently released a strong set of proposals to tackle this urgent problem in our city. Now, it’s up to us to make sure the word gets out so that elected leaders on the City Council act with urgency to follow their lead.

Check out Chris’s video and share it with your friends to help make this happen.

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This comment from Chris jumped out at me.

“I am a low-wage worker who hasn’t had sick time in 10 years. Whatever it is — a foodborne illness, the flu — I have to decide what’s more important to me. I have to decide whether I want to pay my bills or take care of myself. And that is something we heard so many times from people.”

Right now, people are having to choose between paying the bills and taking care of themselves or their loved ones. That’s not who we are as Minnesotans, and by acting together, we can change this policy.

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Word on the Street: Fighting for a responsible budget

Catherine Balsamo — Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

  • Attempts to privatize education with the public’s money.
  • The elimination of accessible healthcare programs for low-income folks.
  • Efforts to sell off one of the key resources keeping our budget afloat and providing our state with good, family-sustaining jobs: our wine and spirit stores.
  • The proposed choking of state funding for all types of education, from Head Start to higher ed., kindergarten to high school, state colleges to community colleges.
  • The planned slashing of funding for programs assisting seniors and folks with disabilities, as well as folks who are at risk of losing their homes.

Many of these losses, which would be outrageous and painful to anyone who isn’t a millionaire (or who has children, family or friends who aren’t millionaires), would be done in Pennsylvania to finance $1.8 billion dollars worth of tax loopholes and tax breaks for corporations in Pennsylvania… or to give corporations even more of our state’s wealth.

Since corporations are currently making record profits by laying off employees and overworking the ones who are left, does giving Pennsylvania taxpayers’ money to corporations make any sense, especially when we would have to sacrifice educational quality and public services to afford to do so?

Working Americans know that this is crazy: that this makes no economic sense, and could be devastating to our state, economy, communities, families, and future. And Working Americans are more than willing to take action to preserve their public education, quality jobs, access to healthcare, and ability to retire securely.
Working Americans also demand, loud and clear, that corporate accountability finally replace corporate welfare.

The Rally for a Responsible Budget in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, May 3rd clearly illustrated the will, ethics, work ethic, strength, and sound judgment of folks across the state, as thousands of Pennsylvanians woke up in the wee hours of the morning to bus across the state and demonstrate to our elected officials that we must have a budget that encourages quality public education and family-sustaining jobs, instead of one that decimates these essentials to finance corporate gimmes.

Despite the overbearing sacrifices that working Americans are being asked to make to finance the richest of the rich, we hear this plan referred to as “shared sacrifice.” One Working America member from the Pittsburgh area noted, “The little guy keeps being asked to do more and more,” while corporations are getting breaks! Another member, a resident of Johnstown, recently pointed out that “you’ve got to work 3x harder to support your family” these days. Considering that, should our state budget ask the little guy to finance corporate tax breaks? This doesn’t sound too much like “shared sacrifice.”

At the Rally for a Responsible Budget, Working America organizers and eager rally attendees teamed up to demonstrate – simply, clearly, with a dash of humor – what this “shared sacrifice” request is truly asking for.

Harrisburg budget rally

Above is a photo illustrating what Pennsylvania’s proposed “shared sacrifice” plan involves.
Obviously, the guy grinning and cuddling up with moneybags as big bills pop out of his hat is the person in the photo who really needs a tax break. And, clearly, the woman standing next to him should be the one financing it by sacrificing her education, wages, public services, and/or job.

This photo is just one of many like it, with rally attendees eager to highlight the juxtaposition they’re experiencing between their sacrifices and corporate “sacrifices.”

Rally for a Responsible Budget

Accompanying these illuminating depictions of an out-of-whack budget plan, Working America members and rally attendees contributed in innumerable other ways to preserve and enhance our public education and family-sustaining jobs, instead of allowing them to be squashed by the corporate agenda. Three Working America members and a Working America member coordinator took the time to speak with the staff of a state representative: thanking them for standing with their constituents by demanding a responsible budget, expressing the value of our public wine and spirit stores and contributions these stores make to our economy and state budget, and urging the representative to support public education by preventing devastating defunding from a potential taxpayer-funded school voucher program. Members shared their insight, which grabbed the attention of the representative’s staff and clearly provoked genuine thought.
Working America members continued to contribute throughout the day by providing “I AM WORKING AMERICA” signs for fellow attendees, by providing energy and enthusiasm that uplifts the movement, by (literally) waving the Working America flag (see the photo above), and even by fixing the Working America camera.

It is so clear how meaningful a fair economy for working families is to the members who attended: despite the 13-hour day, time in the hot sun, and two extensive bus rides, everyone consistently contributed, and everyone was genuinely friendly, helpful, dedicated, and glad to be there.

“It’s an educated, healthy workforce that makes the country work,” a long-time Working America member-activist noted a few days before the rally. Members participating in the Pennsylvania budget rally furthered Working America’s contributions to ensuring Pennsylvania has an educated and healthy workforce. And by continuing to act, Working America members will get our state, and our country, back to working for working families.

Word on the Street: Rallying for a fair budget

Todd Foose – Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

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The rain held off until the ride home. Mostly sunny skies had slowly darkened until the clouds overhead let loose with heavy downpours of rain. We pulled off the road into a Pennsylvania Turnpike service plaza not far from the small town of Bedford. The short trip from the van to the rest area left most of us soaked. But inside, the mood was anything but dreary.

The plaza was packed with people in brightly colored shirts. Groups decked out in bright golds and purples and blues and reds and greens were milling about. There was a buzz about the entire place and even complete strangers were willing to say hello, hold a door or lend a hand.

“I haven’t seen this many union people in one place since my last family reunion!”

This spontaneous reaction from one of our Working America field managers drew warm smiles from all around.

“You must have had a good family!” one woman replied. Several others nodded or voiced their own approval.

It was here, at a small service plaza just outside a small Pennsylvania town that I realized the Rally for a Responsible Budget had been a success. Hours later and more than a hundred miles away, people faced with long drives home in less than ideal weather were still energized by a spirit of unity that had been on full display on the steps of the State Capitol on a sunny afternoon.

And what a display it was. No one who attended will ever forget those bright gold and purple and red and green and blue shirts flocking to the Capitol grounds. When our group from Working America’s Pittsburgh office arrived, we could already hear several excited groups chanting in unison from more than a block away and the rally was still an hour away from starting.

Special thanks should be given to the men and women in the bright orange shirts worn by event staff and organizers. Foot traffic seemed to move smoothly about the entire area and there were clear paths up and down the Capitol’s front steps even at the height of the rally. Thousands of people from all over the state were able to make their way to the registration and information tents before receiving a packaged lunch.

By one o’clock, the golds and purples and reds and blues and greens had coalesced on the Capitol steps. Each color, of course, represented an individual union, local, or organization. In an impressive display of unity, dozens of labor groups were represented. SEIU. UMWA. AFSCME. USW. PSEA. AFT. AFL-CIO. One capitol police officer would remark afterward that it was the largest gathering he had seen at the Capitol in ten years on the job. Five thousand strong had come from all over Pennsylvania to stand united and demand a responsible budget that does not break the backs of working families.

The event’s speakers drove this point home. Richard Jennings, of AFSCME 13, pointed out that: “Governor Corbett’s budget is NOT about ‘shared’ sacrifice – it’s about OUR sacrifice!” Massive budget cuts have asked ordinary, hardworking Pennsylvanians to sacrifice their jobs, their benefits and their pensions. Huge cuts to education in particular have asked parents and children to sacrifice the one thing that is most essential to paving the way toward a brighter future. Tuition at public universities is set to skyrocket. Mass transit cuts mean more people will lose their jobs because they can no longer get to work.

These are the sacrifices that the governor’s budget demands from ordinary, working Pennsylvanians. The governor’s budget demands the most from those who are least able to give it. It takes away from those who are most in need. At the same time, the governor’s budget doesn’t ask those who could most afford to pitch in to sacrifice at all.

While the governor asks children to give up important programs that nurture their creativity, teach them valuable skills like teamwork and keep them engaged in constructive activities, he has refused to ask gas drilling companies poised to make billions off the state’s natural resources to pay their fair share. While the governor asks children to deal with bigger classes and less personal attention, he refuses to ask big corporations who do business in Pennsylvania to pay the same state taxes paid by the rest of us.

As I listened to Connie Perez, a state hospital worker, talk about the impact of the cuts on her family, I couldn’t help but remember the stories I’d already been hearing while going door to door. Her son may not be able to finish college at Temple due to tuition hikes, just like two young men I had spoken to the night before on the other side of the state.

As I listened to Alan Redding, a municipal worker, talk about the way the cuts to sports and arts programs will affect his teenage daughter, I was reminded of the young girl who had brought out her violin to show me as I spoke with her mother about public education. I remembered the disheartened tone of her voice as she told her mom that her school’s orchestra leader had told them they probably wouldn’t be continuing the following year. And I could see clearly the pained face of another young mother who asked me how she was supposed to tell her daughter that she wouldn’t be able to do gymnastics anymore.

What could I say to her? What could anyone? What could Governor Corbett or any of our representatives say to these parents and workers and children? Would any of them be able to speak to these ordinary men and women all over the state face to face and tell them that they had to make these painful sacrifices so that Wal-Mart could continue to exploit tax loopholes, run to Delaware and get out of paying any taxes at all?

Could any one of them drive out to the areas now abandoned by mass transit and tell a worker that he has to give up his job so that the companies making billions of dollars off of gas drilling can continue to pay no severance taxes?

Is that shared sacrifice?

The governor and those in the state house who support his budget may not want to make that kind of trip out to see the people they represent face to face in that way. And so on Tuesday, the people of Pennsylvania took a trip, many over hundreds of miles, and paid a visit to them.

The message was loud and clear coming from five thousand strong: We Are One! We demand a responsible budget that asks for sacrifices from those who can most afford to make them before it demands hardworking Pennsylvanians give up their jobs or their children’s education. We demand to be heard. And we want our representatives to know that if they don’t listen to us this time we have one more message: We’ll be back!

Word on the Street: Canvassing with Rep. Diane Russell

Silas Paul Archambault — Working America Field Organizer

Our first day canvassing in the downtown Peninsula of Portland, Maine. In my two months with Working America, I had been to several far-flung locations such as Waterville, Rockland, Augusta, Camden, and Hampton (NH). Finally, I had the chance to organize people in my ‘hood. For the first two hours, I had a great time talking with several people knowledgeable about the issues and keen to join the cause. Then, I came to an apartment that, unbeknownst to me, contained a boisterous and articulate resident, just waiting for my arrival: Representative Diane Russell.

“You are from Working America?” she asked, almost as soon as she opened the door.

“Yes!” I replied, matching her enthusiasm. Then, an idea “Would you like to come canvass with me?”

“Of course!” She replied without missing a beat. “I love you guys.”

Within minutes, Diane and I were back out on the street, seeking out her constituents. Almost everyone we talked to signed down.

“Working America is a great member-based organization, which allows non-unionized people to stand with our union brothers and sisters. These are issues that affect us all.”

Diane proves to be an even stronger advocate for Working America than I thought myself to be. In between doors I learned that, like myself, Diane had found herself in the labor struggle with the attacks on organized labor in recent months. Diane traveled to Wisconsin to stand in solidarity with public union members, and realized first hand that the fight was coming to Maine. She shared this news, as well as the pending legislation undermining labor protections, with her constituents every step of the way. Well-connected and media savvy, she was even one of the first people to post about the guerilla light projection of the labor mural onto the state house.

While eliciting letters from new Working America members, I often cite the need for a strong advocate for working families in our legislature. In a state led by a governor who seems to think pro-business means anti-labor, we have a strong and supported Representative in Diane Russell. She understands the needs of Maine working families, and speaks to the critical role of Working America and the AFL-CIO in protecting worker’s rights and advancing economic justice in the state of Maine. Though Diane and I parted ways for the evening, she assured me we will be working side by side in the months to come.

Word on the Street: We Are One, even in the rain

Jihad Seifullah — Columbus, Ohio

As flooding rain poured down just as it poured the night that Dr. King gave his powerful “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech, Working America showed up to remember King’s legacy and to stand with working families here in Ohio and across the country. Today, the very rights that Dr. King stood for, including the right to bargain for a better life, are being threatened.

Twenty-seven activists stood together on this day. This included Working America members and staff, Teamsters, and community members. We held up signs that said I Am Working America, We Are One, as well as the I Am _______ hand written signs. We also had a few Working America flags. As pedestrians passed us by on the street we were able to get many of them to take action through the I Am Working America petition. More than 300 people stopped and put their name down to say that I am Working America. About half a dozen people took time to join us by taking individual pictures holding up the I Am _____ signs.


Working America member Michelle Remy talks to an NPR reporter

Word on the Street: Defunding Public Schools in the Name of “Choice”

Kim McMurray – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Politicians are always talking about the importance of education. They make grand statements like, “Education is the backbone of our nation.” “Children are our future.” “Schools should be palaces.” These make wonderful sound bites, but the truth of the matter is that our education system is in disarray. Public schools are overburdened and underfunded. Teachers are given little to no support in the classroom and are vilified in the media. Every year, public school teachers and expected to do more with less and suddenly, it’s as if every third grade teacher got into the profession to make a quick buck.

Pennsylvania politicians aren’t making it any easier. Some Senators in Harrisburg want to make the problem even worse by sinking billions of dollars into a tax-payer funded voucher scheme. Hiding behind a mantra of “school choice,” these vouchers would further defund our public schools and things we know make education better, like small class sizes, access to books and computers, safe schools, and good teachers.

Working America members understand this and are taking a stand against tax-payer funded school vouchers. Philadelphia member KB said, “Providing quality education programs will lead to successful, productive citizens who will be a benefit to our state and the nation. School vouchers have not been proven to be successful and, in fact, take resources from community-based schools.”

Willow Grove member Edwin said “The public schools need all the support they can get, and the Governor’s budget would not only cut that support by reducing general education funding, but would also weaken it by spending money on school vouchers.”

Let’s start at the beginning. Under a three year system, low-income students could receive a voucher for up to $9,000 to go a different school. The first myth is that the families would get to choose where to send their children with the vouchers. In fact, no school would be mandated to accept a single voucher student. Since $9,000 won’t get you into many of the private schools in the state (Philadelphia Friends is over $30,000 each year), families will be left with a handful of parochial schools. Often times, these schools are not equipped to handle children with learning disabilities or who require special services. The choice is left up to the schools which families are left waiting for an acceptance letter.

The second myth is that vouchers actually improve education. In study after study, in city after city, voucher students do not test any better than their public school counterparts. The Pennsylvania Senators supporting vouchers managed to get around this annoying fact by not requiring that students who accept vouchers take state tests to determine if the system is working. Nope, let’s just take away money from public schools and hope for the best.

Last, while the politicians are saying that this plan won’t cost tax-payers a thing, they are merely passing on the buck to the local municipalities. Because the vast majority of students will stay in the public schools (most likely, when the plan is fully implemented, most of the vouchers will go to low-income students already enrolled in parochial schools), the local districts will have to make up for the loss of state funding somehow. They will do this through raising property and school taxes.

We need to rethink our priorities in Pennsylvania. If we want to have a future, a backbone for our nation, than public education needs to be on top.

Word on the Street: Working Three Jobs, Waiting to Be Laid Off

Jihad Seifullah — Columbus, Ohio

Even before taking office, Ohio’s Governor Kasich made his attacks on working families clear: he announced his opposition to working people having a voice on the job, and to standards that maintain good wages and quality construction for building projects. He is currently cramming RobsOhio (aka Jobs Ohio) through the Ohio legislature, an initiative that would create a slippery extra-governmental entity to dole out corporate welfare while avoiding disclosure rules… a corporate lobbyists dream. At the same time, he has openly threatened anyone opposing his agenda, saying “If you’re not on the bus, we will run over you with the bus. And I’m not kidding.”

Governor Kasich is deliberately creating a highly partisan climate of fear for working people in the state, and we are seeing that reflected in our conversations in the community. As he has said, if you speak up, he will run you over. We have seen a significant number of workers who are upset about Governor Kasich’s agenda, but don’t want to discuss it publicly out of fear of retaliation. Here’s one particularly stark example: just the other evening I was speaking with a civil engineer who was very displeased with the agenda that Governor Kasich is moving forward. In fact, it’s very likely that he may be laid off due to Kasich’s decision to send $400 million for rail infrastructure and jobs back to the federal government of which had previously been approved for Ohio. To add salt to the wound, the member also mentioned that he is currently working three jobs. He said “I’m a civil engineer and I have to work three jobs, did you hear me…I’m a civil engineer.” This worker, like many others, prefers to remain anonymous because of the threats that have been made.

So we’ll make the point for them: the middle class is under attack and it is eroding away. Governor Kasich is helping that process along by fostering corporate cronyism while lowering living standards for working families in Ohio. He has threatened anyone who stands up to him. When it is too dangerous to stand up alone, it is all the more important for all of us to stand up together.

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Word on the Street: “Without a Job, I Don’t Have a Purpose”

Chase Brandau — Twin Cities, Minnesota

That is what Working America member Gretchen of Hopkins, MN told me this week. She was describing how her life has changed since she had lost her job almost two years ago. Gretchen used to work as a cook at a public school, but was laid-off due to budget cutbacks. Now she is forced to rent out rooms in her house and survive on a $119/week unemployment check, which is set to expire in three months. What she has been through this last two years, echoes what millions of Americans are also suffering through and Gretchen knows this.

What is amazing about Gretchen, is that she has decided to take action by sharing her story with the rest of Minnesota today. She had the courage to take center stage at the Minnesota AFL-CIO’s Legislative Agenda press conference and tell her story to a room full of strangers, cameras and reporters.

She had never done anything like this before today. Wouldn’t even consider herself an activist. But today, she decided to become one, because she understood how many others out there do not have a voice right now and she doesn’t want to sit on the sidelines any longer.

This is what Working America is achieving. By reaching the people who feel they do not have a voice and giving them the opportunities to be heard. That is what allows people like Gretchen to take that step from being a victim to being an activist.

“I’m just the common person that needs to be heard,” she said. “I’m not the only one that is going through this. All I need is a job to get back on my feet.”

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Word on the Street: Week 99

Russ Meyer — Portland, Oregon

I’ve finally arrived. End of the line. My last benefit check comes next week. The finality of it is chilling. With no job, my house teetering at the edge of foreclosure and with no prospects to speak of, I could easily fall into a white hot panic right now. But as an inspirational poster once told me: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the control of it.” So I must have control. I’ve got to be the rock climber on that poster.

Between anxiety attacks, I’ve been thinking. Big questions. What am I doing with my life? Mentally and emotionally speaking, have I become a ward of the state? Is now the time to reinvent myself? Should I follow my passions? Do I have passions anymore? Has being unemployed for over two years diminished my self image and my capacity for hope so significantly that I’m just a zombie now? Partly, yes. Sadly, the fear and the anxiety have taken a toll. I’m chronically depressed. I second guess myself all the time. And in interviews, I feel like I’m asking for a handout. The list of side effects goes on. But is this psychological deformation reversible? I hope so. It has to be. I cannot let my worth and my identity be prescribed to me anymore. In a cruel way week 99 is helping me see that.

I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid. I wanted a job that is harder to get than almost any other job. And yet, I believed it was 100% plausible. How did I go from that optimistic, fascinated little nerd to a frightened statistic? Because I grew up? Certainly, yes. My world view was pretty narrow back then. Accepting the fact that I had a level of naivete, what else is to blame?

Money. As in, I had to make some. And in doing so, I started working toward other peoples’ goals. Seemed like the right thing to do, but now I see how messed up it is. Someone had a dream, they made it happen and then they hired me to maintain it. The Myers-Briggs tells me my personality type (INTP) should have a problem with that. And it does. I’ve SO had enough of this. My life has got to change. Remember in The Shawshank Redemption when they pulled back the Raquel Welch poster to reveal the tunnel Andy Dufresne had dug with a spoon?

Well, I’ve got plenty of spoons. I’ve just got to keep digging. Stay tuned.

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Word on the Street: The Speaker Advances Down the Hall…

Russ Meyer — Portland, Oregon

We straightened up (not really knowing what to do but what we were already doing). Two secret service officers entered, followed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Two officers remained outside. From that point everything happened very fast: Introductions, thanks all around for being there, and away we went. We filed out in front of hundred of lights and lenses, and we told our stories. Not unique stories, just ours.

We, the “faces of the unemployed” were there to make it real for the country, to try to make people understand what it means to be at the very end of a rope. For the millions of people unemployed right now, for those about to lose their benefits, we told our story in hopes that we were telling a part of theirs.

Strangely, in making it real for others, it became real to me for the first time. Not the being unemployed part—that’s been very real for more than two years. It was that Washington, D.C. is a real place, run by real people (“real” being a relative term, but anyway). This democratic process, having seemed abstracted to me, in an instant moved in very close. And I’ll tell you, it’s something to feel that for the first time.

I was surprised to hear such forthright conversations going on between Labor Secretary, Hilda Solis and Sen. Tom Harkin. Solis recited the practical benefits of serving the needs of the unemployed over the wants of the richest 2% of Americans. Tom Harkin maligned the whole idea of the filibuster and the progressive legislation that’s fallen prey to it. So how’s that different from what I expected? Well, I suppose I expected to hear half answers to half questions. I expected to hear what I always here—essentially nothing.

My point (there is one!) is this: We still have a voice. We are the “constituency,” a single body with the power to change minds and policy. Even as we continue to search for work and wait with baited breath and dwindling bank accounts for a deal to be struck in Congress, it’s not too late for one human to let other humans know what they feel is right. We never know exactly where the tipping point will be.

Perhaps the time for doing things in this country because they should be done is over. That all depends. Who’s saying otherwise?

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