César Chávez Day of Action: March 31st, 2014
Rachel Castle, Graduate Social Work Student, Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA)
Driving the scenic route to the House of Representatives offices gave me a little time to ponder what our day would look like and what impact we would have for our César Chávez Day of Action in Washington DC. While I don’t have an answer for the latter, I can tell you what our day was like! Bright and early we met at the hotel restaurant on Massachusetts Ave to meet each other and discuss our plan for the day. I was graced with the presence of Sandy*, a Walmart associate from Maryland and two other Our Walmart organizers, Bethany and Silvia. John, a warehouse worker from Calumet City, IL had flown in the night before to join us in DC. Gloria and Fredrick, farm laborers, left New Jersey at 4 in the morning with Jessica, an organizer with CATA. Raul, Elena, and Dianne, all restaurant workers, travelled locally from DC and Baltimore to join us. Finally, AyeNay and Lakshmi from The Praxis Project joined us to show their support and to promote a perspective of how numerous policies of Congress come together to affect low-income workers.
We started the day off with introductions; I heard wonderful yet terrible stories of people’s experiences working in low-wage jobs. Sandy told heartbreaking stories of women who were living in hotels because they couldn’t afford to rent an apartment, let alone a purchase a house. John described his experiences of living with his partner, who was laid off. Luckily, she and John had family who could help them during their financial crisis. They are still in a precarious situation should John’s job disappear or his in-laws experience a similar work disruption (knock on wood). Gloria and Frederick worked in the fields, harvesting many types of fruits and vegetables. The physical labor resulted in Gloria, an immigrant to the US, becoming physically disabled. However, she is unable to receive disability benefits, despite paying into the system and working the required number of years, because of discriminatory immigration policies. Elena watched her mom raise her and her sister on $2.13/hr, the tipped minimum wage, and a generation later, she herself made the same amount as a server and bartender. Raul and Dianne worked together for a couple of years at a restaurant in Baltimore where they saw their employer cheat on their taxes and encouraged (or rather coerce?) its employees to do the same.
The first meetings of the day were all with representatives of the House Education and Workforce Committee (formerly the Labor Committee) and the Speaker of the House, to encourage them to bring the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013 (H.R. 1010) to the floor for a vote. After taking multiple taxis, going through security, and finally figuring out the layout of the building, we first stopped off at Speaker Boehner’s office in the Longworth building. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful in speaking with anyone; they were all in a meeting, according to the lonely intern in the office. Next we made our way to Congressman John Kline’s office, Chair of the Education and Workforce Committee, in the Rayburn building. Meaghan, the Legislative Director, spoke with us in the hallway. The visit was a little clunky since it was our first time as a group being able to speak with a legislative staff member. Meagan engaged us in casual conversation and politely listened to our stories. Sometimes, the politeness is harder to work with because we are unable to truly discuss why these issues are so important to us and why the legislators are so important to our cause. I’m at a loss for a solution, regretfully.
Next came Congressman Buck McKeon’s office. Representative McKeon is also a senior legislator in the Education and Workforce Committee. Unfortunately, the Labor Legislative Assistant (LA) was not in so we spoke with Alissa, the Communications Director and later Bob, the Senior LA, when he returned to the office. Bob, for me, was a little harder to read but Alissa seemed very moved when she heard the stories of workers affected by low wages and poor working conditions. After leaving behind some materials for the legislator and the staff to read and consider, we then went to Representative Petri’s office, also a Labor Committee member. No one was available so we left our materials with the receptionist.
We had an early lunch at the House cafeteria in the basement of the Rayburn building. After lunch, we visited workers’ representatives. These meetings took on a different tone as most of us were all fortunate enough to come from districts with supportive legislators. First was Representative Robin Kelly, where we met with Brandon, the Legislative Director. Congresswoman Kelly is John’s representative from Illinois 2nd district. Next was Sandy’s representative, Donna Edwards. We had a lovely conversation with Chris, the Legislative Director, who took about 20 minutes out of his day to hear our stories and discuss the importance of the issue with us. Congressman Bobby Rush, my legislator, was next. I am disappointed to report that I was unable to speak with any staff member despite the fact that I had come all the way from Illinois and I was a constituent. Lastly, we visited Raul’s Congressman Elijah Cummings from Maryland’s 7th district. Lucinda, the Legislative Director, chatted with us as well.
The last visit of the day was our return to Speaker Boehner’s office. We get our papers and cameras ready and knock on the door. Maddie, a staff assistant, greets us and is hesitant to let us in. We assert ourselves and manage to make our way into the office. Unfortunately, there is not a legislative staffer to meet with us (again) so we leave our materials with her. We presented the petition signatories from Ohio (Boehner’s home state), in addition to the letter of support signed by almost 100 food movement organizations and businesses and a policy brief. Someone in our group managed to snap a photo of us handing the petition to Maddie — priceless! After our visit with Speaker Boehner’s staff, we took more photos and debriefed.
I spoke with John later in the afternoon, who hung out at the hotel with me until I had to leave, about how he thought the day went. He is a member of Warehouse Workers for Justice, a member organization of FCWA. This was John’s first visit to DC and first time lobbying legislators. He was a little insecure about telling his story and was worried about making a fool of himself, as he puts it. After telling his story to a staffer for the first time, he said, “That wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be!” After that, you could see his confidence grow with each retelling of his experiences. He told me he was glad he had the opportunity to come to DC and would enjoy doing this kind of work in the future.
All in all, I think it was a good day. Having a small-ish group (11 people), was something I appreciated. It was big enough to make a statement but small enough to allow us to still have a sense of intimacy. Some of the workers I’d met for the first time that day while others I had been in contact with few other the past year. By the end of the day, I had grown to love them all. I’m glad I had the opportunity to learn from and work with just a sprinkling of the hard-working (exploited, actually) workers that the Food Chain Workers Alliance has the honor and responsibility to serve and represent.
*Names have been changed to protect identity as necessary.