The bill had been amended to be more amenable to Mayor Nutter’s corporate sensibilities. It would allow workers to earn one hour of sick leave for every 40 hours worked. It would also exempt small businesses with up to five employees.
But it was still not enough. In rejecting this pro-worker measure, Nutter repeated the same claptrap that politicians have used to oppose the minimum wage, worker safety measures, and child labor laws throughout history.
Mayor Nutter, in his veto message, said mandatory paid sick leave would result in job cuts that would hurt “the very workers this bill is intended to help.” And he said it would hurt the city’s ability to attract new businesses.
But there’s something different in 2013. We are only one vote away from overriding this veto in the Philadelphia City Council.
Councilman Dennis O’Brien is a swing vote on the sick days bill. He voted no the first time, but moving him to a “yes” could provide this crucial worker protection that so many Philly workers have lacked.
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:
All the April Fools jokes in the world can’t change the fact that April 4, 2013 is coming. That’s the deadline for Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter to either sign or veto the earned paid sick days bill that the City Council passed by a nearly 2-to-1 margin last month. He can also do nothing (“return it unsigned”) and it will still become law.
Mayor Nutter had this same chance in 2011, but decided to side with the business lobbyists (lead by Comcast and the over $108,400 spent on lobbying against sick leave) instead of the nearly 200,000 Philly workers who can’t take a day off without risking their employment, health, or basic economic survival.
However, times have changed quickly since that last veto, and Nutter is running out of excuses. This past week in nearby New York City, after three years of delay, Council Speaker (and Mayoral hopeful) Christine Quinn finally compromised to allow a vote on a sick day measure – which 80 percent of New Yorkers and a majority of her fellow City Councilmembers support.
Mayor Nutter is also running out of excuses on the business front. Like many sick leave ordinances, the Philadelphia bill is a compromise, with over 23 amendments “thanks to feedback from small-business owners,” writes bill sponsor Councilmember Bill Greenlee. The measure exempts businesses with 5 employees or less, and requires employees to earn every hour of sick leave – 1 hour of leave for every 40 hours worked. That’s “personal responsibility” if we ever saw it.
Furthermore, every single report or study on this issue has shown that sick leave ordinances are good for businesses. It’s common sense: the sooner workers can get better, the sooner they can return to work at full strength. Productivity goes up, and turnover goes down.
Oh, and we almost forgot – it’ll allow the people who cook our food, serve our drinks, teach our kids, and care for our grandparents to stay home instead of infecting us and the people we love with whatever germ cocktail they are carrying around.
Every day Mayor Nutter takes no action, workers across the city are faced with the impossible choice of working through a sickness, losing a day’s pay, or potentially losing their job.
Some of them are parents who want to stay home and take care of a sick child, but can’t lose the day’s paycheck that allows them to buy groceries.
Some of them are retail workers who are afraid of getting fired if they switch shifts, so they skip doctor’s appointments that could speed up their recovery.
One of them is Michael Cockrell, as cook and dishwasher who has worked at a Philadelphia restaurant for 13 years. Because Philadelphia doesn’t have a sick leave policy, he has worked in the kitchen preparing food while sick with the flu. He has worked when his son had an asthma attack and had to be hospitalized. He once cut himself so badly that he had to get stitches – but he had to wait until his shift was over.
Every day, the lack of a sick leave policy for Philadelphia causes needless, preventable harm and strife to workers, consumers, patients, and businesses. While some big corporations like Comcast have spent big on lobbying against the sick leave bill, many business owners realize that allowing workers to earn sick days increases productivity, reduces turnover, minimizes absenteeism, and is ultimately good for the bottom line.
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.
If there was an Olympic event for out-of-touch, ridiculous, paternalistic economics writing, this piece would have won Philadelphia’s Gene Marks a gold medal.
Quick review: Earlier this month, the Philadelphia City Council voted 11-6 to pass an ordinance allowing Philadelphia workers to earn an hour of sick leave for every 40 hours worked. Mayor Michael Nutter can either sign or veto the bill – he vetoed a similar bill in 2011.
Currently, over 180,000 Philadelphians have no sick leave opportunities, which means every single day there are sick cooks, servers, nurses, retail workers, and others showing up to work and infecting customers and patients simply because they can’t afford to miss a day’s pay. No wonder the flu season hit so hard.
Gene Marks, a self-identified “small business owner” and “consultant,” doesn’t think we need a sick leave policy. Why? Because he has one friend who gives sick days to his employees:
James is a client of mine who runs a 30-person roofing company in Northeast Philadelphia. Last week, one of the people in his office wasn’t feeling well and called in sick. It was no big deal. She got paid for the day. The next day she was back at work….This is typical of most of the clients I work with.
It seems so far that Marks agrees with a sick leave ordinance. But then he says:
Mayor Nutter vetoed a similar bill in 2011. And I’m hoping he does the same to this one…a sick leave bill is embarrassing and an insult to both employers like James and his employees.
An insult? Marks takes offense at the government taking action to address the needs of over 180,000 Philadelphia workers:
I can’t be trusted to come up with my own policy for my employees? I care so little for my people that I would try to take advantage of them when they’re feeling ill? I need the city to tell me when I should pay them for staying at home? As if I don’t see that a sick employee is unproductive and could potentially affect others in my office?
Marks thinks he’s writing all these questions sarcastically – but the answer to all of those rhetorical questions is a resounding “Yes.”
Mr. Marks: Walk into any Walmart, or Darden-owned restaurant, or fast food joint in Philly. Talk to an employee about their experiences, and if they aren’t too afraid of retaliation to be honest, you’ll find that, yes, many employers do care very little for their workers. You’ll find that many employers do try to take advantage of employees when they are ill – or at any other point in time, for that matter. And yes, absolutely, you’ll discover that these employers have not come up with a sick leave policy, and they do need the city to take action.
Good employers treat their employees with respect and give them the time they need to get better… a good employee is the most valuable asset in the world to most business people. And a good employee works hard and doesn’t worry about it if he or she needs to take time off for a sick or vacation day because his or her relationship with their employer is built on the understanding that sometimes people need time off and that’s OK.
The sick leave bill is intended for that .01 percent. And you know who you are.
You are the person who treats his employees, particularly those in the lowest-paying positions, like cattle. You think that every employee is out to take advantage of you. You keep a wary eye on everyone’s hours and are ready to cut someone’s benefits when they don’t meet your petty standards of fairness.
If all employers were the benevolent angels of Marks’ imagination, instead this bad apple “0.1 percent,” he’s right – we wouldn’t need a sick leave law. We also wouldn’t need a minimum wage, or workplace safety standards, or child labor laws; and we definitely wouldn’t need union contracts, because in Marks’ utopian workplace, all worker-management interactions would be built on magical “understanding.”
Talk to a laid-off Hostess worker about this so-called “understanding.” Or a foreign guest worker who arrived in Central Pennsylvania on a J-1 visa ended up working 25-hour shifts at McDonald’s, living in humiliating housing and paying exorbitant rent. Next time you get in a cab, consider that your driver is misclassified as an independent contractor so her management doesn’t have to pay for her health care. Where’s the understanding there?
Is Mayor Michael Nutter acting under the same head-in-the-sand assumptions that Marks presents in this column – that all worker protections are “insults” to employers? Does he think it’s better to turn a blind eye to how Philadelphia workers are actually being treated than take any action that would offend anybody with fat pockets? Would have vetoed a child labor law for the same reason?
We hope that instead of taking this column as gospel, Mayor Nutter will consider the millions of Americans who have had to work through a stomach bug, had to or carry platters of food on a sprained wrist, or had to prove to their bosses they had a broken leg so they could take a day off, or had to suffer the indignity of losing their job because they couldn’t stand to leave their child alone with a high fever.
People like Marks’ client James, who treat workers with respect, are certainly out there. But protecting workers doesn’t insult employers like James, it creates a tide that will lift other businesses to his level. And that’s why Mayor Nutter needs to sign this bill.
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.
Leaving his cabinet behind to deal with issues like municipal labor contracts, property tax assessments and his new city budget proposal, Mayor Nutter plans to spend the next five days in Florence, Italy, comparing notes on “the creative economy” with a delegation from the U. S. Conference of Mayors and an organization of Italian counterparts.
The full tab for airfare, lodging and meals will be picked up by the Conference of Mayors, at no cost to city taxpayers, said Mark McDonald, the mayor’s press secretary. (Unless you factor in the city’s annual dues to the Conference of Mayors, which ran to $45,569 in 2012, according to the city’s expenditure data.)
At least 182,600 workers in Philadelphia can’t earn a single paid sick day. That means if they get sick, or if their child or elderly relative gets sick, they have to choose between coming in and potentially infecting customers or patients or staying home and losing out on pay – or even losing their job.
So while Mayor Nutter flies off to Florence for a five-day conference, (indirectly) paid for with taxpayer dollars, thousands of those taxpayers are left in the lurch.
But Nutter has the power to change all that with a stroke of his pen. He can do what he didn’t do in 2011 – sign the sick leave bill and restore health and decency to Philly workplaces.
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.
That’s a real win, and it matters to real people—everyone who’s ever been afraid of losing their job if they get sick, or had to choose between a day’s pay and taking care of a sick child.
It’s good for workers’ health and it’s good for public health. It’s a simple, common-sense idea that will make life better for everyone here in Philadelphia.
There’s just one more step before this important bill becomes law: Mayor Michael Nutter has to decide whether he’ll sign it—or, whether he’ll ignore working people in Philadelphia and veto the bill, as he’s done before.
Philadelphians spoke out about this issue, and the City Council listened, voting overwhelmingly for this bill. Now it’s Mayor Nutter’s turn to decide. Will he do the right thing?