Meet Three Students Who Are Making a Difference

More students are graduating and entering the workforce than at any time since the baby boomers—but, for workers under 35, the unemployment rate is more than twice what it is for older workers. It’s a really serious challenge.

While many students use up every dollar and every hour to get a degree, tuition is increasing, wages are staying stagnant, and workers’ rights are disappearing, even as corporations make record profits.

That’s why we’ve launched the new Working America Student Workers Coalition. We want to provide students the opportunity to act collectively on issues related to economic equality for students and workers. Through this new coalition, students will learn valuable skills from professional organizers, learn about their rights in the workplace, and build a bigger, more diverse, and more inclusive labor movement.

In Denver, three student leaders are working to make this project a reality. Here’s what they had to say.

Erica Beegle
I have never had a problem finding work, but all of my jobs have been low paying, high turnover, no benefits, and most often been in the service industry. I’ve been the victim of wage theft; I’ve been paid below minimum wage; I’ve regularly had unreasonable scheduling demands, including long shifts with no breaks.
I know this is exceedingly common in food service. Employers often view workers like us as disposable. With so many people having experience in the industry, and a poor economy, employers will always be able to find someone who is willing to put up with their exploitation. I know this is not the only industry this happens in. In any low wage job, the attitude is similar. I know how hard it is to keep faith in a better future while struggling.
I’m really excited to be a part of the Working America Student Workers Coalition, so I can learn about the rights workers have and spread the word to others. I’m excited to learn organizing skills and gain leadership experience while focusing on issues that really matter to me: the minimum wage, wage theft, disrespect, sexism and racism in the workforce, and economic inequality. Right now is a particularly important time to get involved; our generation has an opportunity to change these outdated systems and attitudes. It is my hope that through our group, we all become more empowered workers, organizers and leaders—and that we can share those skills with all who will listen.

Chris Faller
I moved to Colorado seven years ago from England. Prior to moving to this country I was a union organizer—a branch worker for the social services in Manchester, with UNISON; then as a temporary worker’s union rep, with PCS. Since coming to the U.S., it’s been hard to do this kind of work for represent worker’s rights. Seven years is a long time to feel politically isolated and inactive. I teach part-time at a community college, as an Adjunct, here in Colorado, and I’ve seen real hostility to worker organizing—including people losing their jobs. A colleague from my Masters of Social Work (MSW) program invited me to help set up the Working America Student Workers Coalition.

At last, I have a chance to renew what feels like my calling—to work with young like-minded people, who are working part-time or full-time to put themselves through college. At last, I have a chance to advocate on their behalf and help others share their stories of low employment status, oppressive working hours and/or conditions, low wages and a feeling that they don’t have rights on the job. These issues unite virtually every student—here in Colorado and on the global stage.

I’m excited that this coalition is here to provide leadership, support, advocacy, community organization, and a way to impact legislation. I want to take this effort from Colorado and fight for student workers—and all workers—across the country.

I no longer feel politically isolated. I am working with like-minded individuals who continually inspire me in their dedication to workers, their sense of humanity and equality; their leadership and willingness to put others before themselves; in their aspirations and vision for a better future for workers; and, of course, their drive to build the Working America Student Workers Coalition.

Edgar Acosta
We face troubling times as students, saddled with debt and uncertainty of the job market after we graduate. The Working America Student Workers Coalition is an opportunity for great minds to come together and build a much-needed student movement. I’m glad I was given this opportunity to gain experience in the labor movement and share it with other students. I didn’t imagine that we could get this far in such little time and build a student club that focuses on workers’ rights and other issues affecting students. Our officers and members have diverse and backgrounds and a wide range of skills—it’s a great foundation for advocating for students’ and workers’ rights. I hope we can educate our fellow students, train leaders and foster an informed, engaged student worker base. I want to see students be prepared to take action and understand that there really is power in numbers!

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Low Wage Workers Celebrate a Special Anniversary at the White House

Edgar became involved with Working America during our work on an Anti-Wage Theft campaign on Auraria Campus. He is a father, a husband, a part time student, an intern,  and a valet attendant.  He has since developed into a spokesperson on behalf of low wage workers everywhere.

In April, the Department of Labor facilitated a series of minimum wage round tables across the country. In Denver, Edgar’s participation and story struck the hearts of those who attended. He explained the difficult choices he is forced to make as a low wage worker, providing the only source of income for his family while his wife is on unpaid maternity leave caring for their newborn baby. He would love to be able to invest in his daughter’s future, but said it’s tough with his current income.

After this event in Denver, Edgar was invited to participate in the celebration for the  75th anniversary of the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act and a Senate committee hearing addressing the effects of raising the federal minimum wage in Washington D.C..

At this event, Edgar and three other participants were chosen out of close to 20 low wage workers to tell their stories to Acting Secretary of Labor Seth Harris and other top economic advisors. Vice President Biden spoke on behalf of raising the minimum wage with Edgar and other workers filling in the stage behind him: “The people behind me have an incredible amount of self-respect. They deserve to be paid in a way that reflects the dignity that they exude.”

President Obama has suggested that the federal minimum wage be increased to $9.00 an hour. A bill by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) would increase the federal minimum wage to $10.55 an hour.

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“I Would Be Able to Save For Her Future”: A Minimum Wage Story from Denver

The challenges of surviving on minimum wage are unfortunately too common.

Many workers who earn minimum wage are providing for not only themselves but also for families. Some are students trying to increase their odds in the job market while taking on mountains of debt. Some have to work more than one job to make ends meet.

Those who we have met while talking about the difficulties of living on minimum wage are hard workers; some are extremely qualified in terms of today’s labor market, and almost all of them are determined to help change the system.

We met Edgar while organizing on a local college campus around the issue of wage theft. He had been personally affected by wage theft, working as a valet attendant and getting paid just above minimum wage. A month ago, Edgar was getting paid an hourly rate below the state-mandated minimum wage, but he was lucky enough to get a promotion because of his hard work. Edgar gets sixty percent of his income from tips, and works in the busy Lower Downtown district of Denver, but unfortunately has very little say about what days he works, and makes significantly fewer tips when working on a slow week day.

His company makes almost $10,000 in profits every month.

Edgar is a student. He is majoring in Social Work, and is hoping to land a job as a counselor. He is set to graduate in a few short semesters. He has been lucky to get some loans and scholarships, but with the rising cost of tuition and supplies, he often feels buried by the burden. He is carefully balancing both school and work, in order to succeed at both.

Edgar is also a husband, and the father of a newborn baby girl. His wife is staying home to care for their baby and is not receiving any paid maternal leave. They have been fortunate enough to receive help from Medicaid to cover health expenses.

Since Edgar’s benefits at his job are so poor, he has chosen to pay for the health insurance that the college offers. In order to be able to do this, he must fulfill a certain number of class credits, which dictates how much additional time he will have to spend away from his family. Because of his low-wage status, Edgar and his wife are using their savings to pay for basic expenses.

Recently Working America participated in a low-wage roundtable hosted by the U.S. Department of Labor. Representatives from the Department of Labor were on a tour of a few different cities around the country to get input on President Obama’s proposed increase to $9/hour, and find testimonies as to how this would impact the lives of Americans. Edgar went to represent Working America and others who are in similar situations.

“If I were able to get paid just a few dollars more, I would be able to save money for a house and a car. I would not have to spend as much time away from my family,” Edgar told us, “I would be able to save for my daughter’s future, and make sure that she has a fair shot in life.”

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Bringing Change to Colorado: One Conversation at a Time

The legislative session in Colorado is now three weeks in, and all of our newly and not-so-newly elected officials are running around the capital trying to make their marks. What does that mean for Denver’s Community Action Team? We get a chance to do what we do best: strengthen our movement to hold our politicians accountable and stand up for working families across the state.

Many of our activists have never had the opportunity to be involved with an organization like Working America. Some became interested only after an organizer knocked on their door to talk about issues affecting the middle class. A few were actually former organizers that felt impacted by the work they were doing and the folks they got a chance to interact with. In each case, a small, moving conversation touched on a personal note for each of our activists, and inspired each person to take a step forward towards making a difference.

Fast forward to now and we have a group of diverse, smart, passionate, hardworking activists who can rely on each other and the organization to the keep the movement going. We are young, old, professional, retired, unemployed, parents, students, and everything in between. It is understood that it is not the differences that keep us coming back month after month, but our common bonds and experiences. Most importantly, we all agree on the same goals: to help strengthen the middle class in whatever ways that we can.

While the friendships and sense of community are powerful in themselves, our Community Action Team realized that if we really want to feel empowered and pass that empowerment onto our communities, we needed to challenge ourselves to become leaders. At our meeting in January, Working America facilitated an Organizing 101 training to give our activists the tools necessary to organize our individual communities. We developed a training that highlighted the power to fight with people versus that of money or weapons. We discussed having that very first conversation that might inspire someone to get involved, and some of the best practices for making those conversations effective. Part of the training was a fun interactive skit where we demonstrated the power of cooperative leadership. It illustrated what we want our leadership model to be; one where everyone relies on one another to build stability, motivation, creativity, and accountability and coordination keeps it together.  We ended by agreeing to practice having those conversations by gathering petition signatures for an upcoming labor bill.

One member, Dave, is well on his way to becoming a leader of his own community. “My attitude is one of finding the infinite value and worth of every person and creature. That said, however, I repeat my sincere thanks to the whole team. I was deeply inspired by each and every team member. And, mostly, by the special magic of the simple fact that ordinary working people have once again come together to act out the promise of our common humanity. This simple fact of coming together elevates and inspires us all–and, we must hold on to and protect our common efforts.”

To get involved in the Denver Community Action Team, contact Alice Gardner at (303) 935-9300 or email [email protected].

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Two Colorado Stories That Politicians Considering the “Fiscal Cliff” Need to Hear

Since the day after the election, Working America’s Denver team have been talking to working families all over the state of Colorado about the so called “fiscal cliff” and the impact that it will have on the workers of this state. We have heard countless, heartbreaking stories from individuals who depend on programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and don’t want to see them used as a bargaining chip so that the wealthiest two percent can keep their tax break. These are two such stories.

Hannah suffers from a rare disease called severe fibromyalgia. This disease causes debilitating pain all throughout the body. Doctors know little about the cause and there is no cure. Because of this, Hannah is unable to work and recently moved back in with her parents. This disease has caused her to also suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which makes her day-to-day activities even harder on top of her pain. The medications that her various doctors have prescribed her help moderately with the pain, but are not able to arrest symptoms completely and cause unwanted side-effects like drowsiness and challenges to her short term memory and fine motor abilities.

Hannah has hit a dead end in the search for a Rheumatologist to help her find an adequate solution to her problem. She has been dropped as a patient four times within the last year because her doctors no longer want to accept patients on Medicaid, which is the only way Hannah and her family can afford care.

Jan, a Working America activist, is Hannah’s mother and primary caregiver. Her schedule and livelihood revolve around Hannah’s in many cases. Jan receives no compensation or support services for being Hannah’s caregiver. “I have other added fiduciary duties that I must perform to meet for Hannah’s needs.  Often I do my own case work as well.  What is offered to Hannah is sorely inefficient and often puts more demands on me than if I just did it myself in the first place.”

Elise is a physical therapist in Denver who works at a local hospital. She was able to contrast the services provided by non-profit organizations, like her hospital, and private healthcare providers. She said the main reason that patients get denied or dropped from services is because these professionals do not get reimbursed or compensated as well through Medicaid as they do through private or other insurance plans, and often times lose money.

Elise also explains the frustration that comes with other factors strictly controlled by Medicare, like the amount of care and time a patient is eligible for, barring the health care providers from maximizing their abilities and knowledge. While it is obvious these government-controlled payment structures are lacking in some areas, Elise still agrees that more Americans are able to receive care with them than without them.

If more money is cut from these programs, less money would be available to reimburse the clinicians, resulting in less care for the sick and suffering. And while often thrown in the middle of the Medicare/Medicaid debate, health care providers are workers too contributing to the same economy. “I believe a lot of good people who want to serve others often become healthcare providers, but we’re also human and want to be compensated for the care we provide and the education we’ve worked hard for.”

These are only a few stories of hard working individuals majorly affected by a vital program that has already faced dramatic cuts in funding. If our politicians, who were elected to represent all of us, decide to compromise and cut funding further for programs that keep many afloat, we all suffer. From the health care providers to their patients, these are services we depend on to maintain a strong population.

On Monday, December 10, our team took Jan and Elise’s stories – and hundreds of others in the form of hand written letters  - to both Senator Michael Bennet’s and Senator Mark Udall’s offices.

If you have a story of your own, or would like to get involved in holding our politicians in Colorado accountable, please send it to Alice Gardner at [email protected].

Not Your Typical Taco Tuesday: Organizing Young Workers in Colorado

In the age of Citizen’s United, it’s easy for a young voter to feel small and overshadowed. While politicians shake our hands and tell us they care about the average American, we know better – that all too often, they are listening more intently to the pocketbooks of the wealthiest than the issues that affect young people in this country.

Between our role in the presidential map and our several crucial House races, it’s no surprise that Colorado will help decide the outcome of the 2012 election. On the traditional political red-blue color wheel, our state is often a confusing shade of purple. Every week there is another national political figure stopping by Colorado with hopes of tugging the minds of the voters one way or the other.  Even so, issues facing young workers in our state – job creation, access to education, and corporate accountability – continue to fall by the wayside.

In Denver, young Working America members have set out on a path to bust the myths about our generation and show that we are hard workers and successful students who care about the issues and – above all – vote.

Every month, a small but growing number of young Working America members get together over $1 tacos to discuss the most effective ways to organize our community and our generation. There’s a common understanding that while we love Taco Tuesday just like any other 20-something, we do not fit the stereotype of apathetic youth.

Mike Rael and his wife Christine are two of the members of this group. They have offered their home tp host house parties to socialize and educate their neighbors, and they are eager to go door-to-door talking about the most important issues.

Mike puts our shared experience eloquently. “Working In the corporate world, I have come to notice that nearly all of my colleagues are summarily dissatisfied with not only the political system but also with their careers,” he says, “The common thread, as I see it, is corporate dominance over our politics.”

“Nowadays we middle-class Americans go to the office to work more for less and when we come home are asked to settle for home loans instead of home ownership, settle for student debt instead of quality education and a fair wage.  All the while corporate America continues to enrich itself…”

“Since I can’t afford to buy a politician to represent my interests, I choose to fight. I choose to throw my passion and abilities behind an organization and millions of other Americans that share my concerns. I choose to join Working America and millions of others in the fight to restore the middle class because ‘united we stand but divided we beg!’”

Perhaps this year, the election will not be all about money but instead about reminders. Reminders that young people care about who decides our future. Reminders that working men and women, no matter how many jobs they have to work, will continue to stand up and speak up – until the politicians decide to sit down and listen.

To get involved in our growing community of young workers in the Denver area, contact me at [email protected] or (303) 935-9300.

Photo by denverjeffrey on Flickr

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Colorado Shows the Importance of Keeping Jobs at Home

This year, the Colorado legislature had an opportunity to pass a common sense piece of legislation which would have ensured that our tax dollars (when used on State Contracts) were being used to hire workers from Colorado. In short, a large portion of our tax payers’ money has been, and will continue, going to out of state companies instead of being reinvested at home. SB-1, the Hire Colorado First Act, would have helped to ease the damage. Our canvassers talked to thousands of Coloradoans during the legislative session, many of them concerned construction workers, who value the importance of re-investing in our own community by keeping our jobs at home.

Sadly, in a party line vote, a majority of our lawmakers sided with big businesses over us, and sent a clear message that they believe profit is more important than the voice of the people.

In a few short weeks, Congress will vote on the Bring Jobs Home Act, which would end the tax breaks for outsourcing and turn them into incentives to bring jobs home. Right now, workers are battling damaging loopholes that create tax breaks for some of the world’s largest corporations to ship jobs overseas. The passage of this bill would be a giant step for the workers and unemployed that are the engine of our economy. The Bring Jobs Home Act provides an opportunity for our lawmakers to pass a real job creation bill, and make a difference that will last.

Colorado has lost nearly 26,000 jobs due to imports or offshoring. Colorado’s unemployment rate has doubled since 2007. Numbers are similarly disturbing across the nation. These facts no doubt correlate, but now it’s time to ask our legislators the tough questions: Will you take this opportunity to fight for the people who elected you? Do you work for us, or the big multi-national corporations?

“I have been out of work for 18 months,” Said Mark Moore, a Working America member from Denver, Colorado. “I have a house and two dogs to take care of. The thought of losing either seems like something we shouldn’t have to worry about in America.” Unfortunately, the numbers speak for themselves and many workers are facing problems like this, and worse.

A 2009 study by economists Alan Blinder and Alan Krueger estimated that one in four U.S. jobs is vulnerable to offshoring. If every one of those one-in-fours voted against the corrupt, money hungry legislators, the future would shine for those who represent the heart and soul of working America. We need politicians who will help the backbone of America, and not break it.

Tiffany Weber, Working America Field Manager may have said it best: “The only way we’re going to win is with strength in numbers. We need to get all of our voices together to pressure our politicians into standing up for the people and not just their greedy corporate sponsors.”

From taxi drivers and travel agents to cooks and health care providers, we are the 99%.

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