February 2, 2021
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Families sleeping in tents or cars in sub-zero temperatures in Montana. Women with $400 monthly electric bills during winter in the mountains of West Virginia. Fast-food workers in Missouri who don’t know from one day to the next if they can feed their children. Home care workers in Virginia who can’t stay homesick because they don’t have health insurance.
And female wait staff who are told by male customers to remove their masks so the men can base their tips on how cute they are.
These are some of the stories that workers who are fighting for a $15 an hour minimum wage, union rights and COVID relief that lifts from the bottom told as the Poor People’s Campaign launched its series of 14 Moral Mondays for the first 100 days of the Biden-Harris administration and the new House and Senate.
“When we hear people say wait, (we say) we waited long enough,” said Rev. William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. “We waited behind the businesses. We waited behind the banks. We waited behind the corporations. We waited trying to see our loved ones when they died and we couldn’t get in. We just had to think about what it was like for them to die alone. Well, waiting time is over now. We need action and we need it now. People are hurting, people are dying, and it does not have to be and it’s time for us to raise our moral voices like never before.”
Viewers flooded the phones of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as well as their own senators and representatives as they demanded that Congress act immediately on undiluted bills for $15 an hour and just COVID relief.
In addition to the testimony from poor and low-income people, those who gathered online heard from SEIU President Mary Kay Henry and Saru Jayaraman, co-founder and president of One Fair Wage. Jayaraman announced socially distanced rallies of low-wage workers for Feb. 8. The Poor People’s Campaign and SEIU also will sponsor the rallies, now scheduled for Washington, D.C., Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Denver and Phoenix.
In addition the Poor People’s Campaign announced that former U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III will join the campaign as a special adviser to help facilitate a White House-level meeting of poor and low-income people, faith and moral leaders, economists and public health experts.
Last week, House and Senate Democrats unveiled the Raise the Wage Act of 2021 to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour but not until 2025. And the Poor People’s Campaign has been told of an effort to remove tipped workers from the bill in an attempt to divide those workers, who earn a subminimum wage of $2.13 an hour, from minimum-wage workers.
Ten Senate Republicans met with President Biden on Monday night to discuss COVID relief. Biden has proposed a $1.9 trillion relief package that Democratic leaders want to move quickly through Congress. The GOP group countered with a $618 billion proposal and sought Biden’s support in the name of unity.
This is not a time for gradualism, said Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, as she quoted Rosa Parks.
“We know it does not have to be this way,” Rev. Theoharis said. “In this pandemic alone, more than a trillion dollars have come into the hands and into the pockets of the richest in this nation. Overnight, the Federal Reserve bailed out Wall Street to the tune of trillions of dollars. We can raise wages. It will benefit our whole society. We can expand health care. It will benefit our whole society. And that’s why we’re going to organize and make it so.”
A minimum wage of $15 an hour “is the single most powerful measure we have to reduce racial and economic inequality,” Henry said. “It would boost the incomes of 32 million Americans, including 25 percent of Latino workers and 30 percent of Black workers.”
Tipping workers is a legacy of slavery, from when employers didn’t want to pay freed Black people for their work. It has taken on other insidious overtones during COVID for female workers, who make up 70 percent of tipped workers, Jayaraman said.
“We heard from thousands of women across the country that they’re being asked to remove their masks so male customers can judge their looks and therefore their tips on that basis,” she said. “We’ve heard that so often, from so many thousands of women, we’re calling it mask-ular harassment because it’s become so pervasive and it means that earning a $2 wage has gone from a racial, economic and gender injustice to becoming a matter of life and death that must be ended now. These workers need a full minimum wage (so they’re) not dependent on male customers who say I’ll only tip you if you take off your mask so I can see how cute you are. That’s gotta go. It’s a legacy of slavery. It’s gotta go. And these women relying on tips has to go.”
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Joe Kennedy’s grandfather, was in the midst of reviving the Poor People’s Campaign that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had started when he was assassinated in June 1968, months after King was murdered.
Kennedy quoted an unnamed Republican colleague as saying the $15 an hour minimum wage should be cut from COVID relief because the two were unrelated.
“It is the height of hypocrisy to be able to stand up and say hey, we need you to drive our buses, we need you to care for our children … pick up our trash, teach our children, what we need you to do so our society can function,” Kennedy said. “We’re going to claim that you’re essential, but we’re not going to pay you a living wage. We’re not even going to give you a foundation from which you can start.”
From the workers who spoke during Moral Monday:
Pam Garrison of Fayette County, West Virginia, who has worked minimum-wage jobs for her entire life:
“I’m not just calling on Sen. Manchin and Sen. Caputo. I’m calling them out. I am demanding that our kids have food, shelter … When you lift people out of poverty it helps everybody come out of it to do better in America. And so I just want you all to join us and call your senators and get mad about this, people. This is unjust. We have to stand up and stand together and let our voices be heard. We are tired of being used, abused and trampled, and I’ve done this my whole life and just struggled, and I know how people are struggling now. I talk to women all over the state, who are showing me $300 and $400 electric bills right now trying to stay warm in the mountains. This is survival for us. And it’s been far too long. It doesn’t just wear on your body. It’s your mind. It’s your nerves. It’s every part of you that struggles.”
Bridgette Hughes, a McDonald’s worker in Kansas City, Missouri, whose husband also is a low-wage worker. They have three children, one of whom recently contacted COVID-19 so they’ve had to quarantine:
“It’s a shame to know that we have workers who are working for companies that are making billions of dollars in profit, and yet we go home and don’t know if we’re going to feed our children, we don’t know if we’re going to have a warm place to sleep tonight. We don’t know when we get sick next week if we’re going to be able to afford to see a doctor. It’s shameful. “
Rev. Danielle Rogers of Boseman, Montana, where she said property values have risen by 40 percent in recent years, creating a massive housing crisis:
“As churches we do the best we can, but our financial contributions are dwindling because of COVID-19. We are not able to meet in person. Our community relies on churches to fill the gap and we don’t have the resources. Knowing families have to pitch a tent in a local park or park at Walmart in below-zero weather, it’s inhumane and unacceptable and this is why Montana is demanding a $15 (an hour) minimum wage.”
Thomasine Wilson of Richmond, a home health care worker and SEIU member whose work allows seniors with disabilities to stay in their homes:
“Even though I enjoy the work I do, the wages we earn do not reflect the care I provide. And even though I enjoy this work, often I’m unable to take off from work because I don’t get any paid sick leave or anything. … As a result we struggle with housing. We are forced to work multiple jobs. We are not compensated for mileage of going between different clients. We depend on the government for assistance — for rent for our utility bills, and even for our medications. We don’t even have health care. We’re not able to pay for our health insurance without $15 an hour. So many of us live in survival mode daily. That’s a struggle. Home care workers cannot wait five years especially as we continue to fight against this pandemic.”
BACKGROUND: Nationally, more than 140 million poor and low-income people live in the United States, or 43% of the country’s population, and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic. The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, with organizing committees in 45 states, is building a moral fusion movement to address the five interlocking injustices of systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and militarism and a distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism. Our demands are reflected in our Jubilee Platform. Our 14 policy priorities for the Biden-Harris administration are here.