Patrick McCarthy is a Working America member from Cincinnati.
Waking before the dawn and departing at sunrise on the morning of Wednesday, May 1st, a contingent of Working America members left from Cincinnati to drive two hours to the Capitol in Columbus, determined to make a difference in the fight for workers’ rights and the formation of the 2013 Kasich Budget. Some of us had canvassed with Working America during the crucial 2012 election season, working to get progressive legislation passed and progressive candidates elected. On the first of May – a day to honor workers’ rights – we fought yet again on behalf of workers and marginalized people. Standing in solidarity with union members, we met with our state representatives and their aides.
Upon arrival, our group met up with our Columbus counterparts for the Legislative Conference at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Columbus. The morning session would help prepare us for the day of lobbying and rallying ahead. At the conference, several speakers – including Cincinnati-area state Sen. Eric Kearney – talked about the budgetary injustices proposed by Gov. John Kasich and his allies in the Ohio state government:
His plans to hand over rewards to the oil and gas lobbies without getting fair tax revenue in return;
The separation of the Medicaid expansion provision from budgetary discussions, an expansion that would have been completely funded by the federal government for the next 3 years and expand coverage to over 275,000 Ohioans who would not otherwise get the care they deserve;
Afterwards, we were prepared for our meetings with legislators, then headed to the Ohio Statehouse.
On the corner of State and High streets right across from the Ohio Senate building, a sizable crowd gathered to speak out on the important issues. Three people at the rally let us know how some legislators were proposing an attacks on workers’ rights, and how it would affect them personally. The first, an electrician, spoke at length on how so-called “right to work” legislation serves only to push the company bottom line for additional profit at the expense of Ohioan livelihoods. Tracy, a firefighter from Youngstown, decried the disturbing results of so-called “right to work” in states where it has been enacted: 36% higher workplace mortality rates and damaged workplace safety due to the inability of workers to voice their concerns. Jim, a steelworker from Canton, noted how “right to work” states saw lowered wages, decreased household income, increased poverty, and a 15% increase in infant mortality.
At the offices of Ohio senators, we delivered hundreds of hand-written letters from the many Working America members who wrote to have their voices heard. We met with aides to Senators to tell them how we felt about issues like Medicaid, taxes and workers’ right to organize.
I told one aide my own story of health care. My girlfriend’s mother – a working-class independent – was finally able to get adequate care and medication for her broken leg after a week in the hospital by finally getting onto Medicaid. In addition, Medicaid allowed her to afford physical therapy for her decades-long back pain that she was not able to afford on private insurance.
In addition, I explained how, due to fears of medical costs, I had delaying examination for several years for recurring chest pains. Then, despite being in-network, my insurance company refused to cover my basic preventative care and attempted to charge me $6,500 afterwards. To this, the aide simply shrugged and mentioned how healthcare is simply expensive and that, similar to eating at an expensive restaurant, I can simply go elsewhere for cheaper treatment. In other words, instead of paying for food, I am paying to live, so tough luck. Although leaving feeling slighted, the experience informed me as to the callousness of some those who were meant to represent me and could otherwise take a stand to make a difference as public servants.
In contrast, Rep. Denise Driehaus spoke to me in person outside her office. She voiced her support for full Medicaid expansion and the need to speak directly with the opposition on matters such as Medicaid expansion and fairer taxation.
After lobbying visits wrapped up, we Working America members joined the May Day rally that was gathering then on the corner of Broad and High Streets. More than 100 Ohioans came together to honor workers’ rights and commit to continuing the fight.
The experience was long and tiring, yet a positive and eye-opening one. While one can read about the Kasich Budget in the headlines, it’s an entirely different – and deeper – experience to meet with legislators, aides and fellow activists to talk about these issues in person.
Numbers and data alone cannot fully convey the raw emotions and lives affected by the legislation that is passed or pushed aside in the Ohio General Assembly. By bringing not just facts and data but real stories of real people to the table, we’re able to make a difference.
Working America members are in the midst of a fight to protect public education in North Carolina.
Since 2011, the state’s public school budget has been cut by $450 million, leading to overcrowded classrooms and outdated textbooks. Now the state legislature wants to continue weakening our public schools through the expansion of charter schools and voucher programs.
Both charters and vouchers take public money to send children to private and sometimes for-profit corporate-run institutions. These corporate run schools have little accountability, and make large profits by underpaying teachers.
Do we really want corporations teaching our students – and using tax-payer money to do so?
Working America member Joyce Mers is taking a stand against privatizing education. Joyce organized a church forum to discuss issues surrounding public education and promoted the event though her church newsletter. She even enlisted the help of education policy expert Dot Kearns to answer questions.
When discussing the immediate threats to public schools, Joyce referenced a bill that would restructure the oversight of charter schools. Under the proposal, charter schools would no longer be held accountable to the State Board of Education, which oversees all K-12 public schools. Rather, charter schools would have a separate board, whose members would be appointed by Republican Governor Pat McCrory and the legislature. The bill also has provisions to eliminate certain charter school requirements.
“Right now only 50 percent of teachers in charter schools are required to have a teacher’s license and this bill would do away with that requirement completely,” said Joyce, “Also, the schools would not be required to perform a background check, which just doesn’t make sense to me – especially when there is a bill in the legislature trying to put armed guards in schools.”
Under this proposal, corporations have even more power to use taxpayer money to create and oversee charter schools.
When discussing public school funding, both Joyce and Dot noted that despite past cuts, student performance is high. “It’s a popular thing now to say everything is failing, but that just is not the case,” said Dot. She then cited the increase in North Carolina’s graduation rates. However, it will become difficult to maintain this success if more charters and vouchers drain public education resources and are held to different accountability standards.
The forum ended with Joyce collecting a dozen petition signatures from the group, which urge Governor McCrory to protect public school funding. But we need to continue this pressure. Our state needs to fully invest in public schools. If you’re in North Carolina, email me at email@example.com to find out how you can help.
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.”
The following is a guest post from Nicole Hilgendorf, a server in Minneapolis.
I recently asked a colleague what receiving the $7.25 minimum wage as a tipped employee meant to her, and she, without hesitation, responded, “It makes me feel like I am worth something.”
My colleague was not only referring to a sense of monetary worth, but also worth of one’s esteem. Undeniably, an investment in overall human capital drives the American economy, yet the federal minimum wage for tipped employees has remained at $2.13 an hour since 1991. At the same time, the restaurant industry continues to flourish. Minnesota bucks this trend by paying all workers at least $7.25, which is not enough but it is much more than tipped workers get in other parts of the country.
Some politicians want to pass a “tip penalty” or “tip credit,” which would allow employers to pay tipped workers like me much less – between $2.13 and $7.25 an hour.
I have been a server on and off for the past eight years. My serving career began while I attending college in Wisconsin. I received $2.33 an hour plus tips. I never received a paycheck, as my hourly wages covered state and federal taxes. I could not create monthly budget because my monthly income was inconsistent at best. At the end of each month, if I did not earn enough in tip income to cover my bills and rent, I had to choose between picking up additional shifts and missing class or paying bills late, only to incur late penalties.
After I moved from Wisconsin to Minnesota, the first job I was offered was a serving position. I was initially unaware that tipped employees received the actual minimum wage in Minnesota. I assumed throughout the nation, servers were only earning an hourly wage of slightly over two dollars. After receiving an actual paycheck, I felt like a valued employee and worker. More importantly, I realized I lived in a state that values its tipped employees as well.
Because tipping is culturally enforced, it is subjective and therefore not guaranteed. Relying solely on tip money for income is impossible, given that business dictates how much a tipped employee earns in their shift. I am unaware of a single tipped employee that has not at least once in their career left work without receiving any tips.
Furthermore, a 40-hour work week is not typical for tipped employees. A lunch or dinner shift usually last fives hours. Many tipped employees work two jobs (myself included) to make up for lack of work hours.
Tipped employees rarely receive benefits such as health care, paid time off, or a 401(k). They simply cannot afford to get sick – or rather, do not get proper health care when sick. For a tipped employee, any missed work is missed income, and any missed income makes the out of pocket health care costs even more unbearable. Subjecting tipped employees in Minnesota to a “tip penalty” or “tip credit” would dissuade many tipped employees from getting proper care when ill.
I would like to thank Rep. Jason Metsa for taking on the Working America Minimum Wage Challenge. Representative: I know this challenge has deepened your understanding of the realities of a low-wage budget, and made you aware that Minnesota workers every day are sacrificing essentials just to get by.
The intended purpose of a minimum wage is allow any worker to afford basic living standards, but today’s minimum wage only represents the lowest hourly wage in which an employer can legally pay employees. Minimum wage is not a living wage. I hope the state of Minnesota realizes the necessity to fairly compensate all workers – our economy and livelihood depend on it.
As readers of the Main Street Blog probably know, the foundation of Working America’s work is the pursuit of economic justice. We encourage lawmakers to focus on funding quality public education, affordable healthcare, corporate accountability, family-sustaining jobs, and retirement security.
State budgets can impact all of those issues – some profoundly – and so Working America members have organized for an economically just state budget every spring since I’ve been a Member Coordinator. As this is the third budget campaign that Working America members in the Pittsburgh area have participated in, and engaged Working America members have developed noteworthy skills, savvy, and vision. We’re dedicating those assets to driving a campaign to provide Pennsylvanians with a much brighter vision for our state, and to help fellow Pennsylvanians speak up to our state legislature in support of that economically just vision.
“We the People” may not be interested in wining and dining politicians to win their support for our vision for the Commonwealth (nor can we afford it). But don’t worry: we don’t need to schmooze. We’ve got strength in numbers and constituent leverage, and last year’s budget battle demonstrated just how powerful our strength in numbers can be when we use it.
Because of the public outcry from innumerable Pennsylvanians against the horrendous budgetary proposals Gov. Corbett has been making, our state representatives and senators refused to pass some of the massive cuts to education and social services that Gov. Corbett wanted last year. In fact, our state representatives added over $500 million back into Pennsylvania education and social services compared to Gov. Corbett’s proposal.
We know that when many of us constituents speak up to our state representatives and senators for a better budget, we can make gains in what we want for our families and communities. And so, this year, we’re doing it again.
Our vision: Instead of balancing the budget on the backs of workers, our state legislature should have corporations pay their fair share of state taxes so we can increase funding for critical social services and education.
Our strategy: We’ll broadly share our vision with community members, and we’ll help folks speak up to their state representatives and senators in support of that vision.
Working America member Connie Cavara explains why an economically just budget matters to her:
I pay a healthy amount of state income taxes, but I’m extremely concerned to find that the educational opportunities that Pennsylvania provides in return are getting weaker and weaker.
During Gov. Corbett’s first year in office, he slashed a shocking amount of funding from our public schools, contributing to class sizes in local schools being simply too large for kids to get the education they deserve. Gov. Corbett also axed funding for higher education, which certainly isn’t helping to keep college financially within reach for families like mine.
Why are we working families doing our parts, but losing opportunities and services that are basic for accessing the American Dream?
Probably because there are very wealthy “people” who dodge paying their fair share of state income taxes, while benefiting from Pennsylvania’s infrastructure, schools, and other services. One of those people is named Wal-Mart. Unlike everyday working folks, people like Wal-Mart can and do exploit corporate tax loopholes like the Delaware Tax Loophole.
If corporations are people too, why aren’t they paying their fair share of state income taxes like working families are?
We need to close the Delaware Tax Loophole, so that corporations finally pay their fair share, helping our children to have the quality public schools and affordable college opportunities they deserve. And we need to close the Delaware Tax Loophole so that Gov. Corbett no longer utilizes the consequential funding shortage as an excuse to balance the budget on the backs of our state workers.
Use your constituent power to help us progress towards economic justice for Pennsylvania: sync up with the Working America Pittsburgh Community Action Team. Feel free to contact me, the Member Coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org to get involved.
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.
Julie Parker, the creator of the sign above, is among several Working America members and staffers who came out for the economic justice street theatre organized by the Pennsylvania Health Access Network (PHAN) this week. PHAN’s skit called on Congress to protect funding for critical programs – like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security – by eliminating the costly sweetheart deals and loopholes set up to benefit corporations and pharmaceutical companies.
Over the course of PHAN’s street theatre, Larry the Lobbyist and his costly Loophole smugly sucked up a mother’s purse, a college student’s backpack, and a senior’s medication money, revealing the costliness of corporate tax loopholes and deals to the American People.
Not only do these corporate breaks suck up our money, they strain our country’s resources. The desperate situation caused by such loopholes and deals gives rightwing politicians fuel to attack critical social insurance programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.
The Working America members at PHAN’s event know that we cannot allow the slashing of such programs: programs that keep our seniors and low-income folks afloat and able to take care of their health.
Julie Parker (seen above holding her sign) explained what inspired her to create her sign:
“I remember visiting Alcatraz prison and seeing a sign stating that the prisoners were entitled to medical care along with food, clothing, and shelter….I thought that if our convicted felons were entitled to health care, shouldn’t our citizens also be entitled to the same? After all, the only ‘crime’ [of recipients of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security] is being old or poor.”