As dozens of organizers and union members came together to celebrate the 2015 Oregon AFL-CIO Organizing Summit, they were joined by two unlikely leaders of the latest group of people organizing for good jobs and fair pay — licensed massage therapists (LMTs). Not many people think of massage therapists as activists, but they haven’t met Charlie Cavallo and Janet Weiser … yet!
Janet and Charlie are two Portland-based licensed massage therapists (LMTs), and their work is part of something exciting that is happening among the city’s massage therapists.
The pair is part of a growing team of LMTs who are standing up to make their jobs better. Despite years of training, many massage therapists face low pay, long hours and strenuous, physical work. Because of this, therapists have high rates of injuries, and many of them struggle to pay off large student debts with a meager paycheck.
These problems have grown all the worse with the spread of large massage franchise chains, which do even more to drive down standards in the industry.
Recognizing that working conditions will only get better if they organize, dozens of therapists have now come together to form the Massage Therapist Advocacy Group (MTAG).
“When I moved to Oregon in 2010 and started working for a popular spa, I felt pretty angry. I was working a lot and wasn’t happy with the pay and conditions, so I used to walk around saying to my co-workers, ’We need to have a union,’” said Charlie.
While few massage therapists have access to a traditional union with collective bargaining rights, the group has decided to go ahead and build a new kind of organization to raise standards and make their work lives better.
The pair participated in group discussions at the summit, and as the many groups of working people exchanged their stories, it became clearer just how much they all had in common. For Janet, participating in that group made a huge difference: “I felt inspired and welcomed by the group. We all face struggles surrounding our workplaces, and I felt that what was being said was actually being heard.”
That inspiration was felt by everyone who was there and heard about the MTAG’s plans to raise wages and standards for therapists. That work was a source of pride for Charlie, who said, “I was proud to be there with Working America, and I’m really happy that they are working with massage therapists to improve conditions and increase awareness.”
Tara Murphy – Portland, Oregon
“MIC CHECK!” a woman shouts.
“MIC CHECK!” the crowd shouts back in unison, passing the message to those who can’t hear it like a human microphone. I am standing in a line in the middle of the General Assembly meeting of Occupy Portland, surrounded by tents, tarps, and various protest signs waiting to make an announcement. It is 7:37 pm, and a throng of occupiers gather around a statue situated in between two parks in downtown Portland where they have set up camp. Outfitted in rain gear, mylar blankets, and sporting the occasional umbrella—though normally Portlanders scoff at such a thing—the group listens intently to each of the speakers, reacting with simple hand signals to indicate their approval, disapproval, or need for clarification.
Four days ago, this all started when 7,000 people marched through the streets of downtown Portland to stand in solidarity with New York’s Occupy Wall Street protests and send a strong message: we will no longer allow Wall Street and large corporations to destroy the American Dream and squeeze out working families. Chants of “This is what democracy looks like!” and “Whose streets? Our streets!” echoed off the towering white-columned Wells Fargo Bank building. The energy in the crowd was palpable; it was clear everyone was ready to have their voices heard. Since then, hundreds of protesters have been occupying an encampment in Chapman and Lownsdale Parks in downtown Portland.
As I walk through the encampment, I am struck by the positivity and general organization of it all, despite the rain, mud, and maze of tents and tarps. I am greeted by a man who wants to explain the mission of the occupation, and when I tell him I am there with Working America and want to help, he smiles broadly and leads me through the camp to an orange tent of organizers. It is not long before I am sporting an armband of orange duct tape to indicate that I have been recruited by the media team and I’m asked to make an announcement at the general assembly explaining Working America and asking how we can best help the group. A woman named Lena excitedly tells me that the general assembly meetings are rapidly becoming more and more efficient and organized, and directs me towards the middle of camp. We chat about how Working America talks about the very same issues that they are fighting for on a daily basis to our members, and while we might not all be able to put a tent up in the park, working families all over the country are cheering them on and standing up for real change. She offers me a meal, thanks me for coming, and I begin to sense the community that has developed in just a few days. Everyone here is bound by the common threads of their belief in the idea that we all deserve employment, to be able to go to the doctor when we are sick, have access to education, and retire with dignity. They took to the streets in New York, and now we are repeating that message here in Portland and all around the country.
Tags: Oregon, OWS, Portland
Michael Crabbe – Portland, Oregon
Tara Murphy, Working America (AFL-CIO) organized about 100 die hard supporters for the We Are Working America Petition-Signing Rally. The weather did not hamper people’s spirits but only energized them even more to fight for working class Americans and Oregonians.
We marched two blocks and joined the We Are One Rally in progress. The rally assembled all the major unions in and around Portland such as AFL-CIO,ILWU, AFSCME, OSEA, JOBS for JUSTICE, EWMC, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757, AFGE Local 2157, BCTGM Local 114, IBEW 48, IATSE 28, InlandBoatmen’s Union and dozens more.
KPOJ’s Carl Wolfson led the cheers and introduced representatives from many of the local unions including Tom Chambers from the local AFL-CIO, and William Adams from ILWU-International Secretary/Treasurer from San Francisco. The gathering attracted a wide cross section of people including, teachers, bakery workers, longshoremen, MoveOn.org, Oregon school employees, grain millers, RadicalWomen.org, United Steel Workers, Painters & Allied Trades, Union Stagehands and Wardrobe along with family friends and even a handful of children.
Chants of “W E A R E… U N I O N” echoed off the walls of downtown skyscrapers throughout the evening. The cloud cast dreary rain did little to hamper the fighting spirit of unity. It was clearly evident that nothing the likes of Wisconsin would happen in union strong Portland! Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker with the backing of the Koch Brothers are holding up contract negotiations for workers in Oregon at Georgia Pacific and the Wauna paper mill.
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.
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?
Russ Meyer — Portland, Oregon
My name is Russ Meyer. I live in Portland, Oregon with my wife Stephanie and my 4 year old son Wyatt.
I’m a college grad and have spent my career as marketing copywriter. I was laid off in October of 2008 and, aside from freelance or contract work wherever I can find it, I’ve been without consistent employment since. My wife stays at home with our son. And without an extension, we will lose unemployment insurance in a couple of months.
I never dreamed I would be without work for this long. I didn’t know the door that shut behind me that day would stay closed indefinitely. For many like me, getting back to the jobs and the income we had is a fantasy. Now we’re just trying to survive. We’ve come to grips with the reality that, for now, for today, we just have to find a way to get by.
We’re acutely aware of our situation. We know exactly which bills can’t get paid and exactly how much food and gas is going to cost this week. And we know exactly how far we can stretch our benefit amount. This isn’t about finally dipping into our savings. Those savings are long gone. It’s not about finally putting our pride aside to ask our family and friends for help. They’ve helped. They’re tapped out.
Unless you’ve been in our shoes, you can’t imagine the despair we feel knowing that we’ve reached the end of the line despite our best efforts.
We’ve learned we can do a hell of a lot with a little. Now is not the time to take that help away from us.
This morning, I sat down in my office and saw a letter from Sylvia, a member from Chillicothe. It almost moved me to tears, even though I’ve heard this story countless times. Here’s what she wrote to her Representative, Zack Space:
“I’m a cancer survivor and have been in the process of healing for 10 years. In the middle of the ordeal, my health insurance doubled and we were left with bills we either couldn’t pay or a premium we couldn’t pay. I am a nurse and believe me, I worked long hours to not have any insurance. We as Americans need health care!! I want you to support a public option. However, real reform means not taxing our health care benefits.”
This is a story we’ve seen in countless letters, and heard from countless members. It is extremely widespread. Middle class people who think they have insurance suddenly lose it, or find the rates become unaffordable, when they actually get sick. Any system that does that is broken, and needs to be fixed.
Health care reform isn’t about whether we think corporations or the government are worse. It isn’t about message points and 10 point plans and mountains of policy details. It is about Sylvia, because we’re all in Sylvia’s shoes. Even those of us fortunate enough to be in the middle class are one illness away from financial ruin. Our homes, our kid’s college … they’re all on the line because of a broken system that takes advantage of people when they’re sick, instead of protecting them.
Anyone who bothers to look at the health reform package knows that it will help protect everyone who works for a living. It helps keep special interests honest, and helps focus our hospitals on healing us, instead of just making money. An American Public Insurance option is a necessary part of that, because it will bargain for us and set the standard for others to follow. And if it doesn’t do that, people will choose not to use it.
But ultimately, this health care struggle is a whole lot bigger than any single bill, or any policy. We’re fighting to get the best possible bill for Sylvia, and all of us who are in her shoes.
Tags: Health Care, Ohio
by Rachael Townsend—Oregon
Yesterday I knocked on the door of a young woman. She invited me in. She’d just mopped the floor so I took off my shoes and joined her in her empty living room. All that was in the room was a rug and a mattress. She was sitting on the floor surrounded by her five young daughters. I asked her if she and her family had health insurance. She said no. Her husband was the only one working and his job does not provide benefits.
I looked at the children and was amazed at how happy and beautiful they were. Five little girls between the ages of 0-6. I said a prayer to myself, hoping that they continue to be healthy and happy because God forbid they ever need it—our safety net isn’t there.
Tags: children, Health Care
by Andrea Townsend—Oregon
Every time I go out canvassing I meet the very folks we are fighting for. Last night while we were in a low income neighborhood of Salem, Oregon. I knocked on one door of an apartment complex and a man came to the door. He was clearly very ill, trembling from the effects of Parkinson’s disease. When I told him we were fighting for health care for all Americans he invited me in.
After he signed up he told me that he has no health insurance and will have to wait two years to get Social Security for his disability.
This is unacceptable. All people need to have access to health care when they need it. It is wrong that our health care system forces the sick and disabled to wait years before they can get the care that they need. Two years is too long!
I am so glad that Working America exists because we get people involved directly in the fight for a system that works for us instead of against us.
Tags: Health Care, social security
by Andrea Townsend—Oregon
Last night I was having a hard time getting folks to take my clipboard. It was getting late, but one elderly man invited me into his home and offered me a seat at his kitchen table. He was in his sixties and explained to me that he’d just gotten out of the hospital after recovering from pneumonia, was on disability and can barely afford to pay for his prescriptions. “Thank you for doing this work,” he said as he slowly printed his name on the member sheet. I asked if he was registered to vote. He looked at me sadly and said “Hon, when I was about eighteen years old I went joyriding with some friends and ended up with a felony. So I can’t vote.”
“Sure you can!” I said and handed him a registration card. “In Oregon once you’ve served your time, you can register.”
I wish someone had told him 40+ years ago that he has the right to vote. But I am glad that I met him. The experience illustrated to me why we need to be out on the streets, letting folks know that they have the right to participate and to use their political power to make a difference in the world.
Tags: Health Care, taking action