Councilman Corey O’Connor, author of a new bill that would mandate paid sick days for all workers in the city, held nothing back at a gathering held outside of the Pittsburgh City Council chambers today in support of the legislation. More than 150 people from more than 15 allied groups packed the lobby to champion the bill’s introduction, and I was proud to be there representing Working America and our members who overwhelmingly support this legislation.
“No worker should have to make the choice between going to work sick or staying home without badly needed pay, and right now there are 50,000 Pittsburgh workers without paid sick time,” said Barney Oursler of Pittsburgh United, underlining why so many diverse groups have come together to support paid sick days.
Councilwomen Deborah Gross and Natalia Rudiak, who co-sponsored the bill and garnered support from all four women on the City Council, highlighted the disproportionate impact lack of paid sick days has on women in the workforce, many of whom are often the primary caregivers for their families and struggle to care for sick family members.
Several workers shared personal stories at the event, detailing the difficulties they face on their jobs when they get sick. I was struck by how similar their stories were to stories I often hear from Working America members when I canvass neighborhoods around Pittsburgh.
One worker—a waitress named Taylor—shared testimony that echoed Rachel’s story, another server I met recently. Like 77 percent of all service workers, she currently has no paid sick time. Too often, she has had to choose between serving food to the public while sick or staying home and losing wages that she needs to pay her rent. Lack of paid sick leave is particularly challenging for service workers, many of whom currently are only compensated at the hourly tipped minimum wage of $2.13 an hour.
Lack of access doesn’t just affect workers; it’s a public health concern with implications for the entire community. One parent in Greenfield told me how her child became ill because another child’s parent did not have paid sick days and was forced to send their child to school with the flu. The new proposed law would stipulate that paid sick days can be used to care for an ill family member, as well.
The proposed bill would also protect workers who already have paid sick leave from retaliation. Theresa, a career nurse, spoke during the event about a time she got sick and needed to take paid time off to protect ill patients with compromised immune systems in her unit. Even though she had accumulated the time, her employer tried to discipline her for missing too many consecutive days of work. Though Theresa fought back and was eventually cleared of wrongdoing, the message she received from her employer was clear: Don’t get sick when you’re scheduled to work. Her story is not unique. One of our members in the Brookline area once told me how her company had written her up for not giving at least 24 hours’ notice before using a paid sick day. That’s why the current bill before the Council would set the right tone and allow workers to use their earned sick time without fear of reprisal.
Today’s rally reminded me that, in the end, it’s the stories of people like Theresa and Taylor and Rachel—who face these difficult choices far too often—that drive home why we need to pass paid sick days in Pittsburgh. Everybody gets sick, and it’s not easy to simply lose a day or two of pay and still come out ahead at the end of the month. This bill is an important step in the right direction for Pittsburgh, and our members will continue to mobilize to make sure the City Council does the right thing by Pittsburgh’s working people.
Members of more than 15 local organizations came together on the steps of City Hall today and called on the Pittsburgh City Council to pass a law granting all Pittsburgh workers the chance to earn paid sick days.
While labor groups that fight year-round for workers’ rights were well represented at today’s event, it wasn’t just the usual suspects calling on the City Council to take action. Groups as diverse as the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood, Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network and the Women and Girls Foundation showed up to remind everyone this isn’t just a worker’s issue, it’s a public health issue.
Nearly 50,000 of our neighbors, friends and family members currently lack any paid sick time in Pittsburgh. That’s around 40 percent of our total workforce—50,000 people forced to make a choice between going to work sick or staying home and losing badly needed pay.
That’s a situation that definitely needs to change, according to Rachel, one of the attendees I met today. Rachel has worked in the service industry 22 years, the last 13 in Pittsburgh and the last eight at the same establishment. She is a member of the Restaurant Opportunity Coalition, an organization that is also supporting the paid sick days legislation.
No one wants to think about sick people handling their food. Food service workers don’t want to show up at work sick, either. In fact, it’s actually the rule at her restaurant that employees aren’t allowed to come to work sick. It says so right in the manual. But Rachel had this to say about her workplace: “Probably not a day goes by without at least one person showing up to work sick.”
So if no one wants it to happen and it’s even against the rules, why is it the case that people are showing up to work sick anyway?
Sadly, the answer is really simple. If you don’t have paid sick days, you can’t afford to take a day off work. So even though Rachel says her own boss is generally OK with people taking time off when they are sick, it doesn’t matter all that much when you have bills to pay at the end of the month.
Rachel related a time when she had an injured foot that required stitches. She was thankful her boss was OK with her taking some time off, but she went back to work a week earlier than she should have because she couldn’t afford not to.
No one should have to hobble around at a job that requires people to be on their feet for the entire shift because she has no other choice. No one should be required to stay home due to illness but left with no way to make up the lost pay. “It’s makes us feel like second class citizens who don’t matter. It’s like we’re expendable,” Rachel told me. Management has access to paid sick days. So do 60% of workers in Pittsburgh. So why shouldn’t everyone?
But even those who aren’t compelled by the moral argument to do the right thing to help someone else should take note of the fact that they’d really be helping themselves.
“I’d think everyone would like the peace of mind to go out to eat without being afraid of catching something,” Rachel says. She related instances where after one person came to work with the norovirus, a common stomach flu, almost every employee had gotten sick within a week. What are the odds that some customers got sick as well? At one past job, she even saw a sick line cook having to take regular breaks to run to the restroom due to illness, and being asked by the manager to stay and keep cooking despite the fact she was throwing up.
“Everyone deserves paid sick time,” Rachel says. “It’s even more critical for those working with food.”
Sadly, those working in the food service industry are among the least likely to have it. The same can be said for custodial workers, grocery workers and even home health care workers. These are the industries in which you least want someone showing up at work with a contagious illness. But the pressures of low wages and lack of paid sick time mean that these are the same industries in which you’re more likely to find it taking place.
And as Rachel told me, it’s time for all of that to change.
All Pittsburgh workers deserve the chance to earn paid sick time. We all stand to be happier and healthier as a result.
As the sun sets over Beckley, West Virginia, on a cold winter evening, the temperature drops a few more degrees, moving toward the low teens as a pair of feet in boots and Yaktrax crunches snow and ice underfoot on the way to the front door. Then a gloved hand reaches up to knock on the frame.
“Who is it?”
The voice inside seems a bit bewildered. The tone implies, “Who is it that is crazy enough to be out there knocking on my door in this weather?” To be fair, it’s a good question. But it would turn out that the weather was not the only reason the woman behind the door was confused at that sound.
“It’s Working America! Fighting for good jobs and to protect West Virginia workers!”
The door opens and the woman behind it introduces herself in the third person as “Ole Sue,” proud of the fact that everyone in the neighborhood knows her by that name. She speaks with our canvasser about just why we are out knocking on doors on a night like this. The state Legislature in Charleston is considering a so-called “right to work” bill that would be an attack on West Virginia workers, union and non-union alike. More importantly, they talk about why it is important that labor remains strong in the Mountain State.
Ole Sue tells our canvasser that her husband and her daughter have both died in the past few years. Her husband died of black lung. Now she lives alone. She says we don’t have to tell her why unions are important. She takes our pen and paper in hand and writes to her state senator, Dan Hall, telling him exactly why he needs to vote no on “right to work.”
Across town at almost the exact same time, another Working America canvasser comes upon a house with a huge sign proclaiming, “My Neighbor and I are HUGE Steeler Fans!” He smiles because he’s a Steelers fan, too. (By the way, this canvasser is me.)
That small connection helps start a warm conversation at the door. But when I tell the woman why I’m really at her door—to fight against “right to work”—the conversation takes a more serious turn. She asks me why I care enough about it to be out there in the snow and the cold.
I tell her about my own father, a West Virginia coal miner much of his life, who now works on the coal barges: “I know what a union means to him and to every miner.”
I tell her the story of when that was really driven home to me. When I was younger, my dad was out of work for a while and decided to go apply at a non-union mine in Kentucky. It was far from home and hard work, but my dad is the hardest worker I’ve ever known. Even today, having just turned 60, he can work circles around me. Even his days off were filled with work—on the house, on the car, in the yard. My point is that he has never, ever shied away from hard work or a tough job.
He came back from that non-union mine in less than a week. “That place is a death trap,” he said to me. “Someone is going to die in there …”
The woman nods, and I finish my father’s sentence: “… or when they get out.”
The woman has to pause for a moment, then says: “I think it’s terrible what they are trying to do. My husband, my father-in-law, and my brother-in-law all died from black lung in the last 10 years. Our miners go through too much to put up with this stuff coming from Charleston now.” She’s clearly been through a lot as well.
Even through all of that loss, she has remained strong and dignified. She knows that this isn’t about a so-called “right to work.” It’s about right and wrong. Stripping away the progress that’s been won through the blood, sweat and tears of West Virginia’s coal miners is just plain wrong. She knows deep down that her state senator needs to know this, too, if he doesn’t already. She knows all this, but she looks at the piece of paper and isn’t sure how to say it.
“That’s why I’m here,” I say. “Just tell him what you told me. They need to be reminded of what really goes on out here. Tell him what you’ve lost and that he needs to vote no so we don’t lose even more.”
She writes a beautiful letter; one of 13 I gather that night, but among the most meaningful I’ve ever brought back. We talk some more about coal miners and Pittsburgh Steelers football. But finally it’s time to move on because I know there are more people like her who know what this is all really about and whose voices need to be heard in Charleston.
Back at Ole Sue’s, another conversation is coming to an end that both sides are a little sad to see. “Do you know who the last person to come to my door was?” she asks our canvasser, as if to make it known why she was skeptical at first. “It was the police. Got a complaint and came pounding on my door. Years ago. No one comes to the door anymore. But I’m glad you did. And thank you for being out there.”
Ole Sue wrote a beautiful letter as well, one that the canvasser will never forget.
Two women. Two beautiful stories that need telling. Two doors that haven’t been knocked on in a very long time. Two letters to a state senator who had better take their meaning to heart.
The latest reports indicate that “right to work” is dead in the West Virginia legislature, but across the country we’re waging a grassroots battle. In Missouri, we’re urging our members to call their legislators and let them know that “right to work” is wrong. In New Mexico, we’re going door to door and informing voters about the union-busting and wage-lowering that Gov. Susana Martinez and her allies are pushing in Santa Fe under the guide of “worker freedom.” And in Illinois, our members are urging their state lawmakers to push back against the agenda of Bruce Rauner, possibly the most dangerously anti-worker governor in the country.
Wherever Working America is, we are lifting up the voices of those whose doors are too often go un-knocked.
What did you do this Mother’s Day? Chances are, you did something special to show your mother how much you appreciate the hard work she has done for you. Whether it was buying a gift, treating mom to a special outing or just taking the time to say thanks, you know how much it matters to honor the sacrifices your mother made to make your life better.
But here’s another interesting question to consider. What would our state legislators do if they wanted to show appreciation for mothers across our state and honor the sacrifices they’ve made for their families?
Would they slash funding for public schools where Pennsylvania’s mothers send their children? Would they flat-fund higher education while increasing funding for state prisons? Would they refuse to support healthcare and other social services that provide a safety net for Pennsylvania’s children and working families when they encounter a setback?
The answer to those questions should be obvious: No.
So what would a budget look like that would show appreciation for moms? On Thursday, May 9, Working America members presented Governor Corbett’s Pittsburgh office with a bouquet of paper flowers made from letters and petitions expressing the hopes that so many in our state have for a budget that would honor moms and provide support to all Pennsylvania families. Three mothers who are Working America members stepped forward to voice those hopes and dreams for a better budget in front of the governor’s office.
Benita Campbell, a Working America member who emceed the event, spoke of her dreams for her two sons. Both are working, but they are far from experiencing the American Dream. One of Benita’s sons is unable to afford healthcare. The other is barely able to afford healthcare, and cannot afford to live independently. After explaining the situations her sons face, Benita explained, “My Mother’s Day wishes for my sons are simple: prospects for family-sustaining jobs that provide affordable healthcare, independence, advancement, and fulfillment.” Investing in public education, keeping higher education affordable, expanding access to healthcare, and strengthening social services can help lay the foundation for an economy that provides our children with the opportunities they need and deserve.
Another member, Connie Cavara, is a mother of two grade school aged children. She has the seen the effects of budget cuts to our public schools and wants to see a budget that invest in an education system that will prepare her children for the future. “I am always trying to impress upon my kids that an education is their only chance for a future,” Connie said. She wanted the governor and our legislature to know that working moms can’t sacrifice even more than they already have to make this happen. Instead, we need to close corporate tax loopholes, like the Delaware loophole, and use the revenue to invest in our future.
Finally, member Julie Parker read aloud three of the hand-written letters from among the overflowing bouquet that Working America members gathered for the event. Each one outlined what a family-friendly budget would look like. It would fund our schools, healthcare and social services instead of preserving huge tax breaks for giant corporations that haven’t contributed their fair share to the future of our state.
Julie then delivered the Mother’s Day bouquet to an aide in the governor’s office. We hope they will serve as a reminder that it’s time for a state budget that shows appreciation for Pennsylvania’s mothers by investing in the future of all Pennsylvania families.
It felt like someone was playing an April Fool’s joke with the weather, but Working America members in Pittsburgh braved a cold, windy morning to tell Governor Tom Corbett to stop fooling around and accept the federal funds to expand Medicaid.
Tomorrow, Gov. Corbett will meet with U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius to discuss whether or not Pennsylvania will accept federal money provided for in the Affordable Care Act to expand Medicaid. Here in the Keystone State, those funds would expand coverage to more than 500,000 people and a $43 billion boost to our economy. By the numbers alone, it’s clear that only a fool would turn down this immense benefit for our state.
But the numbers don’t tell the most important stories—the stories of ordinary people in Pennsylvania who regularly go without healthcare or are forced to choose which of their family members will be covered due to the enormous costs involved. Several Working America and Pennsylvania Health Access Network members showed up to tell their stories in front of the governor’s office. For them and for all of our members, access to affordable, quality healthcare is a very personal matter.
Member Barb Linville of Ambridge told her story of coming to Pennsylvania in 2004. At the time, she was still looking for work and did not have private health insurance. Fortunately, she was able to obtain coverage through Pennsylvania’s Adult Basic program. This program allowed her to receive potentially life-saving care when a health issue presented itself soon after. Without this program, her family may have ended up in bankruptcy to cover the costs. Unfortunately, Gov. Corbett has since ended Adult Basic, leaving thousands of people like Barb uninsured. Expanding Medicaid would do a great deal to rectify this problem.
Another member, Shelagh Collins, spoke of her difficulty obtaining healthcare because she is currently unemployed. It’s a terrible catch-22: she has health conditions that need to be treated in order for her to be able to find regular work, but without work she is unable to afford that much-needed care. Expanding Medicaid would help people like Shelagh receive the care she needs so that she can once again be a fully productive member of the work force.
Reverend Sally Jo Snyder and the event’s emcee, Working America Field Director Kevin Brokt, hammered home the point that accepting federal funds to expand Medicaid makes sense not only for boosting our economy and improving public health, but also for fulfilling our basic moral obligation to one another.
At the event’s close, members stretched out a portion of an 800+ page petition signed by more than 9,000 Pennsylvanians urging Gov. Corbett to do the right thing and accept the federal funds after his meeting tomorrow. The message to Tom Corbett was loud and clear:
I had just finished explaining our plan to garner support for the Bring Jobs Home Act, a bill that would eliminate tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas and instead invest that money in tax breaks that create jobs here at home. The man at the door continued his response.
“I mean, it sounds like you’re tilting at windmills.”
I smile. I can certainly understand where he is coming from. But the smile has more to do with the particular reference he chose.
“Do you have any idea what I’m talking about? Do you know what quixotic means?”
Yes. Yes I do. Do you?
The term “quixotic” is a reference to the literary character of Don Quixote, the title character in the famous novel by Miguel de Cervantes. I was first introduced to the character via the movie version of the modern musical “Man of La Mancha.” Anyone who watches The Newsroom on HBO may also recall the character and the plot being referenced in that show’s first season finale.
So who is Don Quixote? Cervantes’ book tells the tale of a middle-aged lesser noble in Spain who is obsessed with tales of chivalry and romance that were popular at the time of the book’s writing in 1605. The age of knights and chivalry is long over, but Don Quixote finds some rusty old armor, an aged donkey and an unlikely squire to accompany him on an attempt to sally forth into the world to right all the wrongs and remedy all the injustices around him. He imagines himself a knight of old, his donkey a fabulous steed, the local inn a castle, and its serving girl the famed Lady Dulcinea to whom he will dedicate his heroic (mis)adventures.
The phrase “tilting at windmills” refers to one of his most (in)famous adventures. As he and his loyal squire Sancho come to the top of a hill they are faced with some massive windmills in the distance. Instead of windmills, Don Quixote sees giants that are terrorizing the land and must be slain. He straps on his helmet, raises his lance and charges (as fast as a donkey can charge) the giants he imagines in the distance. When his lance finally strikes, it runs through one of the blades of the windmill and Don Quixote is ignominiously caught up in its turning, going round and round. Sancho asks him if he now realizes they were windmills all along, to which Don Quixote replies that a sorcerer must have surely transformed the giants into windmills at the last second to rob him of his victory and glory.
That’s a long, roundabout way of saying that when someone tells you that your given task is “quixotic” and that you are “tilting at windmills” he isn’t usually giving you a compliment. He is saying, according to the English World Dictionary, that you are “preoccupied with an unrealistically optimistic or chivalrous approach to life” and that you are “impractically idealistic.”
The man continued.
“Outsourcing has been going on for years. Since before you were born, probably. Everyone knows about it. No one likes it, but those big companies aren’t going to let you pass this. Nothing passes the Senate. Toomey won’t vote yes no matter how many people sign up for this. I agree with you but you’re wasting your time.”
I listen patiently. I nod. But unlike Don Quixote I’m not an unrealistic optimist, even if I might occasionally be guilty of impractical idealism. “Maybe you’re right,” I tell him. “Maybe we can’t win on this one. Maybe all my walking up and down these hills going from door to door tonight won’t be enough to win this time. But if you agree with us and you think this is a bill that SHOULD pass, then it’s only a waste of a few seconds of your time to show that support even if we lose. What can it hurt?”
He laughs slightly, and sighs as an acknowledgment that I’m right. He becomes a member of Working America and signs a petition telling Senator Pat Toomey to Bring Jobs Home, as hundreds of others have before him.
Not long after, we knight-errants that make up the field teams across the country at Working America faced our own Knight of Mirrors, the enemy that ultimately vanquishes Don Quixote by forcing him to confront the reality of just how quixotic his whole enterprise is. Toomey voted against allowing the Bring Jobs Home Act to come to a vote in the Senate. It never even came to the floor of the House. The Bring Jobs Home Act failed to pass. The giants and windmills had won the day, just as the man I spoke with that night had predicted.
Defeats hurt, whether they consist of being tossed from your donkey by a windmill blade or whether they consist of watching a disappointing vote count come across C-Span. There are times when even the most passionate and idealistic of activists questions whether all the hard work is worth it. That night in August I had walked up and down steep hills all night and had been left with not only aching feet and sore legs but a desperate need for a shower after all that walking under a hot summer sun. And all for what?
But the story doesn’t end there. As Don Quixote says of knight-errants in the musical version, “each time he falls he shall rise again. And woe to the wicked!” Practical, realistic idealism acknowledges that we can’t win every battle. The war is never over. We lose some of the battles we fight, but we lose ALL of the battles when we stay home. When I left that man’s door that night, I had one parting thought to leave him:
“You know, I might be tilting at windmills. Maybe you’re right. But I’ll keep keep right on tilting til the windmills fall or I do.”
A few weeks later, I got a call from our office in Washington, D.C. Working America was opening up offices in Massachusetts, where Elizabeth Warren was challenging Scott Brown for the Senate. And they wanted me to go.
Talk about a knight-errant– Elizabeth Warren had charged after the giants on Wall Street after the economic meltdown demanding more protection for consumers and tighter regulations on the misdeeds that had caused the mess. Wall Street had kindly thanked her by blocking her for an appointment to the commission that would oversee the implementation of some of her ideas. And all those giant windmills were lined up against her because they did not want an idealistic knight-errant like Elizabeth Warren to have subpoena power in the United States Senate.
When I got that call, Scott Brown was a popular incumbent senator with the backing of the big money financial sector. He was up in the polls. Elizabeth Warren seemed a long shot. Scott Brown seemed like just the kind of windmill I’d like to take a tilt at. Elizabeth Warren never stopped fighting and neither did we.
I spent nearly a month in Massachusetts, knocking on doors and talking to voters and passing out information on the records of the candidates. We trekked on despite the rain from Hurricane Sandy and my first ever experience of a nor’easter. We showed people, one door at a time why Elizabeth Warren would fight for ordinary working families to bring good jobs home, to improve education and to reign in the corporate greed on Wall Street.
And on election night, we won.
And we’re still winning. Every week I see a new story about how Elizabeth Warren is acting as a champion of ordinary people in the Senate. Currently, she is taking to task those who are charged with regulating the misdoings of Wall Street for their assertion that some firms are just “too big to jail.” Senator Warren had some very powerful words for those regulators that had allowed financial giant HSBC off without a single criminal prosecution, despite that company’s laundering hundreds of millions of dollars for drug cartels:
“If you’re caught with an ounce of cocaine, the chances are good you’re going to jail. If it happens repeatedly, you may go to jail for the rest of your life. But evidently, if you launder nearly a billion dollars for drug cartels and violate our international sanctions, your company pays a fine and you go home and sleep in your own bed at night — every single individual associated with this — and I just think that’s fundamentally wrong.”
Yes. Yes, it is. But now we have one more knight-errant in the Senate to keep tilting at those giants until we fall or they do.
Election Night 2012 was a pretty good night. President Obama was re-elected and won both of the states I had worked in during the cycle. Elizabeth Warren won the U.S. Senate seat. This sparked a celebration not just among our Worcester, MA canvass team but among most of the other patrons at a fine local establishment that night. There were numerous other victories around the country in races where Working America endorsed and campaigned in support of various candidates.
The next day we had a staff party in the temporary office. On Thursday we all went home.
In my case, that meant a ten-hour drive back to Pittsburgh. I was glad to see the familiar sights of home. We had Friday off, and I took the weekend to rest and recover and reflect on all we had done. But on Monday it was back to work.
For many people, politics is something that happens every two or four years. They show up, they vote, and then they are relieved that all those damn commercials are finally off the air. But for those of us who are organizers and activists, we know that election night is just the beginning. Politicians will promise anything during an election. Only regular, sustained efforts to hold them accountable will bring real results. As former President Kennedy said of democracy, “We the people, are the boss and we will get the kind of government we demand and deserve.”
Recent history bears this out. I had talked to many progressives during the election of 2012 that lamented they didn’t get everything they wanted after the election of 2008. Many voters thought winning an election would mean getting everything they had wanted and been promised. When it didn’t work out that way, many disillusioned progressives sat out the 2010 elections, and we are still facing the ramifications of that resounding defeat. Here in Pennsylvania, for example, districts gerrymandered by the Republican-controlled state legislature meant that while Democrats received 50% of all votes for the U.S. House, Republicans won 13 out of 18 seats.
So we activists and organizers and canvassers know that the hard work only begins after election night. Even so, it can be awfully tough to be as excited for it. Elections have all the glory of professional sports with winners and losers and polls and tracking numbers. Balloons and bells and bunting. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
The Monday after the election we headed out to discuss the looming “fiscal cliff.” Tax policy. Budgets. We had the daunting task of pushing for an expiration of the Bush tax cuts for the top 2% in a Senate where it takes 60 votes to do anything. And on top of all that it was cold. And raining.
The Monday after the election I faced my least favorite kind of weather—temperature in the mid to upper thirties with a ceaseless downpour. Snow is actually much easier to deal with. You can brush it off your coat and hat and kick it off your boots. A cold downpour starts to seep through everything, especially when it was windy as it was that night. An umbrella can’t stop rain that is coming at you almost sideways.
But at the very first door I knocked on, I was reminded of why we were out there in the rain.
I met a woman who had recently lost her job to do a health condition. She had to apply for Social Security Disability just a few years before she could have retired, having worked her entire life in the same field. She was living with her daughter and doing her best to make ends meet. I listened as she explained her situation and realized that all those numbers in the budget mattered very much right here and now.
Our Senate faces a choice, I told her. There are some who want to drastically reduce the amount of money we spend on programs like Social Security. She said she’d heard about that. She had watched those Social Security deductions go out of her paycheck week after week, month after month and year after year. And now, when she needed the program she had paid for and been promised, our Congress was talking about saving money by cutting it dramatically.
My message to her was that it didn’t have to be that way. The major reason we’re talking about cutting budgets is because a minority in the Senate want to protect the Bush tax cuts for the top 2%. Those tax cuts were always supposed to be temporary. And they are only a matter of a few measly percentage points on income over a quarter-million dollars. What is more important? Protecting those tax cuts or keeping the promise of Social Security that each and every working family has paid for?
That was an easy question to answer. She wrote a letter to one of her senators on the budget issue. She became a member of Working America. And then she told me that she wished I’d come by a bit later, because her daughter would probably write a letter, too. I asked when she was expected home and told her we’d still be in the neighborhood at that time. I told her I would come back.
A little over a month later, our Working America team in Pittsburgh held an event to deliver her letter and dozens of others to Senator Casey’s Pittsburgh office. Several of our members turned out for the event and as I spoke about the reasons why these issues were so important, I noticed that the woman I had spoken with that cold, rainy November night was there with her daughter.
After the letter delivery, we had a member meeting back in the much warmer office. As we went around the room, each member talked about what had made them decide to not only join Working America but become active participants. When it finally came to the woman that I had recruited, I was eager to hear what she had to say.
She said that unlike most of the others in the room she had never been an activist. She hadn’t really even considered herself “political.” She paid attention during elections and voted but never really got involved. She felt she only knew a little about the issues we were discussing.
Our member coordinator asked her if all that was the case, why had she decided to become more active now?
She looked across the room at me and said something I will probably never forget. “He came back in the rain.”
It was true. I had. But what she might not know is that I almost hadn’t. It had been late in the shift. I was drenched to the bone and freezing cold. I had already met my goals for recruiting members and obtaining letters. On top of that, my partner and I were at the very bottom of our turf at that point, which meant going back would mean going up a very big hill. The van was so close. But I had told her I would go back.
A beat-up van pulls to a stop just up the road. A creaky screen door opens from the apartment at the end of the building. A young African-American girl runs out toward the van, barely hanging onto a large gym bag that was obviously not meant for such a pint-sized carrier. The driver of the van, a middle-aged white man with glasses and a beard, throws the passenger door to the van open and the little girl tosses the bag onto the floor before climbing in. The apartment door, which had banged shut in the meantime, creaks open again as the girl’s mother waves goodbye.
“Be good. Have fun,” she tells her daughter.
“I’ll have her back by eight,” the driver replies as the little girl shuts the van door and waves goodbye to her mom.
As the van pulls away and disappears around a turn up the street, the girl’s mother allows herself to slump against the door frame for just a moment. She lets go of a long sigh that betrays just how tired she is. She almost doesn’t notice me as I approach her door to introduce myself.
I ask her how she’s doing. I tell her I’m out in the community tonight with Working America to gather support for public education in Pennsylvania.
Even if you don’t live here, you probably know the story. Governor Tom Corbett and his allies in the legislature have cut nearly a billion dollars from public education, hiked tuition at state universities up to 40 percent, and pushed a voucher plan that will further gut public schools. I don’t have to tell this young mother.
“I know,” she says. She glances in the direction of the van’s departure. “My daughter does gymnastics after school. Loves it. They told us they’ll probably have to cut back next year.” She pauses a moment, perhaps considering just what that means. “I can’t afford to send her to a private dance studio. What’s she going to think when I tell her she just has to quit? What are any of our kids going to do after school when they cut all these programs?”
I can tell there’s another question she’s probably too proud to ask, which is, “What am I going to do when there’s no more gymnastics class?” She works all day. She obviously came home and made sure her daughter had dinner and did her homework and had everything ready for the gym. The long sigh as the van pulled away and the moment she allowed herself to rest against the door frame were the first moments she’d had to herself all day. I feel bad for interrupting it.
But she is more than eager to help. She signs up to become a member of our fight for Pennsylvania’s public schools. She writes out a letter by hand telling her state senator what she had just finished telling me. She asks him what she’s supposed to tell her daughter when she can’t send her to gymnastics anymore.
And then she thanks me. Wishes me luck. I can only thank her and tell her we’ll be doing all we can to make sure that’s a question she never has to answer.
As I walk away, I wonder if “all we can” will be enough and if it will be in time for this proud, tired woman and her energetic, hopeful little girl.
This is just one story that I have to share from my first week in training to be a field organizer for Working America. The office is an hour’s drive from where I’m currently living and I’ll probably have to move for the second time in a year to keep at it. But the people I’ve met and the stories I’ve heard in just my first week of training have convinced me that it’s the absolute right decision. I’ve spent too much time reading from books and pondering the possibilities. It’s time to get on the ground and join in the fight. And it’s a fight we absolutely have to win.
One street over from the mother and her little girl, I pass by building after building of empty apartments. Many have huge padlocks on doors decorated with the faded, tattered remains once brightly-colored utility shut off warnings and notices. Some of the windows are boarded up, but through the broken ones you can see the evidence of a place long abandoned. Paint peeling off the walls. Piles of trash on the floor. A broken stair. But this place was abandoned long before the apartments were empty.
I am surprised as the first door in a long time actually opens. A middle-aged white woman tells me her story.
She’s about to lose her job. Not because she’s lazy or incompetent or because she’s unwilling to work. She’s about to lose her job because she can no longer get to work.
It’s not just education that’s being cut here. They already cut back on mass transit. This small, previously middle-class community no longer has bus service.
“I don’t have a car,” she says. “Always took the bus to work.” She’s done things “the right way.” She never asked for a government handout. She worked at a low-wage job to support herself. It was enough for a small apartment and to pay the bills, but it wasn’t enough to buy a car – let alone afford the state mandated insurance payments on one on top of it. She’s been getting rides from friends or family when she can now, but she’s already missed work several times. Now her boss is saying she’s “unreliable.” She confesses she probably doesn’t have much time before she joins the ranks of the unemployed.
She, too, is very helpful. She signs onto our fight for education and good jobs and quality healthcare, even though she says she doesn’t believe it will change anything. She, too, writes a letter to her state senator. She, too, thanks me before I can thank her.
I’m touched as I walk away. I know this is a battle we have to fight even if we lose. I shudder at the thought of walking down this same street a month or a year from now and seeing a padlock on this woman’s door.
A few nights later, in a neighborhood consisting of streets lined with small suburban houses with well-kept front yards and even tiny little back yards where neighbors still gather together on front porches or out on their lawns, one could see the planted battle flags of the plutocracy in the “for sale” and “foreclosure” signs stamped into the yards of houses that are now empty. Fewer padlocks here, of course, and more spread out. Perhaps I should have done an accurate statistical tally. One in fifteen houses, maybe? Perhaps on the way to one in ten? After all, I talked with several people who had been laid off and were nearing the end of their unemployment benefits. No new jobs to be found, at least not jobs that could keep up with a house payment. And no, we’re not talking about people who went out and bought McMansions with loans they could never have paid back. We’re talking about very modest middle-class homes affordable on modest middle-class incomes. We’re talking the stuff of the old American Dream.
These people in the middle are waking up. Sure, there are some in those neighborhoods that have bought into Fox News and seem intent on punishing themselves and their neighbors with brutal budget cuts, all while worshiping the idle rich who dance across their television screens.
But most people in these middle-class neighborhoods realize they are getting screwed by the big corporations and the political power they wield. They know for a fact that they’re not lazy, that they’ve worked hard, that they’ve done all the things that they’re “supposed” to do. And yet many are just barely hanging on for dear life. Many are in danger of sliding down into those boarded up, vacant apartments just a mile or two away. And they voiced their support for those of us going door to door fighting for a quality public education for every Pennsylvanian. Their own kids and grandkids will be the ones who suffer if we lose it.
Just a little further west live the people who have fled these suburban, middle-class ghettos. In isolated communities with names like “Whispering Woods” you find winding streets lined with huge cookie-cutter mansions. It’s just a few miles from that neighborhood of abandoned apartments where you could film a post-apocalyptic movie without having to do much to dress the set. But it’s an entirely different world.
People with BMW’s parked in their driveways and huge plasma TV’s complain that government spends too much money. We all have to tighten our belts, they say. My kids go to private school. Why should I have to pay for public education? The unions have too much power. Teachers are overpaid. One person even went so far as to say, “Close the public schools. They’re worthless. The sooner we shut ‘em all down the better.”
If I could take one of them by the hand and walk up and down Juniper Street and Delaware Avenue where I began this diary, would they see? Would they really still demand more tax cuts if they were the ones who had to tell a little girl she had to give up gymnastics? Would they still demand drastic budget cuts if they had to tell that quickly aging single woman to walk five or ten miles to work alone?
There’s only one road leading out to the world of abandoned, padlocked apartments. There are only two leading into Whispering Woods. And now there are no bus stops in either. When will these people ever see each other face to face?
It’s our job to make the introductions. It’s our job to stand up and fight. It’s our job to head to the front lines and build support. It’s our job to bring communities back together again. It’s our job to take up a pen as a sword and a clipboard or iPad as a shield and to hold the line.
It’s our job to tell a little girl she can still take gymnastics.