When did it all really begin? Where did this fire in my heart for fighting for the rights of low wage workers come from? As I drove down the street one early morning on the way to track practice my sophomore year of college, I passed the local temp agency, it was 4:30 in the morning and I didn't know anyone could possibly wake up that early in the morning unless it was mandated upon them. As I drove past that temp agency on 38th St in Indianapolis and saw the line for jobs wrapped around the side of the building, it was if my brain had been slapped with a vision of the reality, as a newborn would seeing light for the first time. Where had I been for all the time before that, how did I develop such a skewed and simple belief that if we just worked hard enough that the world was at our doorstep, that the factors of races, privilege and poverty did not exist? Was the quest bringing good to this crooked world really for me to do? Like Joah, I didn't want the job at first, after all, there were better paying ways of providing for my life than this, but just as Joah could not escape the belly of the whale, I could not escape my destiny in the struggle for the rights of low wage workers.
With great power comes great responsibility said Spiderman's mentor, God blessed me with an upbringing of privilege, growing up in a family that loved me dearly and had the means to help me get through college. With my education came my liberation, liberation from the confined and overly simplistic understandings that had once been my rock. It seems the structures of power and inequality seemed to only rear their ugly head when examined, this examination is always a choice that we have to make. As I drove by, looking into the glazed; half awoken eyes of the single mother in line hoping that a possible job today would yeald the means to turn the lights back on, I knew this would be my destiny. The only meaning my life that would be worth it would be to be the advocate for that line.
As I graduated from college and followed through with this fire, I knew that the root of justice was fundamentally based on economics, when you don't have a job that gives you enough to put food in your children's mouth, when the hell are you ever going to “save” up the money to go to the doctor? If your working two jobs just to make ends meet, when are you ever gonna have the time to be a parent and make sure the kids don't get involved in gangs. When the economy fails and your job is first to go, how are you going to make it? Do illegal options seem the best choice?
Economic justice is the not simply an aspect of the foundation for fighting for justice, it is the foundation.
The work started at Interfaith Worker Justice with the Labor in the Pulpits program organizing clergy to discuss issues of worker justice as they related to their faith on Labor Day Sunday. In 2007, about 100 congregations in the Milwaukee area talked about the importance of fighting for the rights of low wage workers, parishioners were challenged to think about poor folk in new ways, many these parishioners now are in similar situations now as recession and factory closures lead to more unemployed. Maybe at some point we will realize that were all in this together and that we rise and fall as one...
After that summer with IWJ it happened, the rubber hit the road, I kept the job with Faith Community for Worker Justice for a full year and the situation at Capital Returns crept up, Capital Returns (now Genco Pharmaceuticals) was a pharmaceutical recycling plant on the northwest side of Milwaukee which inventoried and disposed of unused and degrading drugs from places like Walgreen's and CVS. When the stories got out about what was going down at the plant something had to be done, the employees of Capital Returns had a plan and that plan was to organize a union. As I began to meet with the employees of Capital Returns with the United Steelworkers an organizing drive was created.
The situation down at the plant was bad, most of the workers were coming from the Welfare to Work (W2) program, a failed attempt to put people to work; however the jobs that were provided were as horrible as the program that had placed them there in the first place. Workers at Capital Returns were handling all sorts of dangerous drugs, pregnant women were grabbing raw old birth control pills out of boxes with no protection to their hands but food service gloves, an issue that may have lead to a number of miscarriages at the plant, as we heard the stories, the injustices seemed to creep up faster than pestering dandy lions in the middle of spring
Changes needed to be made, that was evident and the workers began to organize, after all this was their workplace, and if they couldn't be the ones to take the power back who would? They talked to their friends, brought back union cards, dug through the trash to find documents needed to detail workplace atrocities, distributed union literature and the in the organizing terms “leaders were developed.” Meanwhile, we worked on organizing the community outside of Capital Returns, we brought the situations that workers faced to churches, universities and local unions, and as the larger community became invested in the campaign workers felt that the power was theres, to win or to lose.
As the United Steelworkers received enough cards to file for an election we had a big vote yes rally. The workers called upon their friends and family, and with it college students, clergy and union fok gathered outside of the plant gates only as Milwaukee winters are, with 4 feet of snow on the ground and 15 degree temperatures, we got 100 people standing outside the gates of that wrenched place; the message was clear “Vote Yes!”
The feeling for the workers was monumental, once folks who had been broken down and beat up for their entire lives actually had a say in what was going on, although attempts to organize Capital Returns eventually broke down as a result of union busters running high dollar campaign, people from the plant began to have a sense of their own power to change the forces that seemed to ultimately govern their lives.
The feeling for me was similar, I once thought an organizer had to be the leader, but in the end it was never about me being the leader, it was about workers taking control of the forces which they at one point thought were unattainable. I am confident that at some point, Capital Returns will have the voice of the workers in charge.
As I continued organizing we worked on the Paid Sick Day referendum, where every worker in the City of Milwaukee would have Paid Sick Days through their employer, in an effort concerted with 9to5, the Working Womens Association, the referendum passed this past November by a landslide, this monumental reform has now made Milwaukee the 3rd city in the country to offer this important benefit.
Finally, I ended up working with AFT Healthcare which is where I stand now, organizing nurses to fight for the very same reasons that the workers at Capital Returns did, to have a voice that could shape the course of their lives, to be the voices of change in their workplace. As we stand now we are working on trying to get a neutrality agreement with the hospital so that nurses can freely and fairly organize their union so that they can be advocates for themselves.
Through faith, optimism and a never ceasing belief that a better world is possible will I continue the work of justice in our world because to not do so would be turning my back on the sanctity of everyday life. So to all the students and young idealists out there keep dreaming and keep fighting because its our world to live for and we rise and fall only as one.