Rep. Keith Ellison’s Low-wage Worker Organizer SOTU Guest: “I go with a conflicted heart”

Veronica Mendez Moore January 20, 2015

Veronica Mendez Moore will accompany Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) to tonight's state of the union address. (MN Fair Economy / Flickr)

Today I will accom­pa­ny U.S. Rep. Kei­th Elli­son, rep­re­sent­ing low-wage work­ers’ voic­es at Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s sixth State of the Union. While I am hon­ored, I go with a con­flict­ed heart.

Yes­ter­day the radio was filled with speech­es from the late Dr. Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. Today I will stand beside the first African Amer­i­can to be elect­ed to the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives from Min­neso­ta lis­ten­ing to a speech from the first African-Amer­i­can Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States. Clear­ly we live in changed times, demon­strat­ing that through orga­niz­ing we can win impor­tant change.

Yet in many respects times have not changed for the bet­ter. Near­ly 50 years ago, Dr. King talked about the dan­gers of income inequal­i­ty in the coun­try, stat­ing: the prob­lems of racial injus­tice and eco­nom­ic injus­tice can­not be solved with­out a rad­i­cal redis­tri­b­u­tion of polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic pow­er.” Since then there has in fact been a rad­i­cal redis­tri­b­u­tion of eco­nom­ic pow­er, but not in the direc­tion imag­ined by Dr. King.

Today, the wealth­i­est 0.1% of the pop­u­la­tion in the Unit­ed States con­trols as much of the wealth in this coun­try as 90% of the pop­u­la­tion. Let those num­bers sink in for a sec­ond. In 2013, the aver­age CEO in the Unit­ed States earned 331 times as much as the aver­age work­er, and 774 times as much as min­i­mum wage work­ers. In half a day’s work, the CEO of McDonald’s Cor­po­ra­tion receives more com­pen­sa­tion than the work­ers who pro­duce his wealth are paid in an entire year.

This divi­sion of wealth is also now more than ever reflect­ed in the halls of polit­i­cal pow­er: For the first time in his­to­ry, more than half the mem­bers of the House and Sen­ate are mil­lion­aires. And while the new Con­gress is the most diverse in his­to­ry, four out of five mem­bers of Con­gress are white and four out of five are men.

Let’s move beyond sta­tis­tics to under­stand what this means in real life. I work at the Cen­tro de Tra­ba­jadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL), a low-wage work­er led orga­ni­za­tion that is fight­ing for fair wages, fair work­ing con­di­tions, and a voice in the work­place for all work­ers in the Twin Cities metro area. Mem­bers of CTUL build and recon­struct the homes in our com­mu­ni­ties, yet can­not afford to put a roof over the heads of their own fam­i­lies. Mem­bers of CTUL work for fast food com­pa­nies, sur­round­ed by an over­whelm­ing abun­dance of food, yet often can­not pro­vide food for their own fam­i­lies. Mem­bers of CTUL work for con­tract­ed com­pa­nies main­tain­ing the sleek and clean images of large stores like Kohl’s and Home Depot, yet they can­not afford to shop in the very stores they clean.

Every day, mil­lions of work­ers stress about how to cov­er basic needs for their fam­i­lies on wages that fall well below the pover­ty lev­el. Every day, work­ers endure the arro­gance and dis­re­spect of com­pa­nies that con­stant­ly increase work­loads, low­er wages, and threat­en work­ers who com­plain. Every day, peo­ple dri­ve home from work wor­ry­ing that they will be pulled over sim­ply for being a per­son of col­or. Every day, par­ents wor­ry about a racist sys­tem that allows police to kill unarmed youth of col­or. And all of these com­bined days cre­ate a real­i­ty where the wealth­i­est, most­ly white Min­nesotans live on aver­age eight years longer than the poor­est Min­nesotans, most­ly peo­ple of color.

Despite all of this, I do not by any means feel defeat­ed. Low-wage work­ers across the coun­try are stand­ing up, refus­ing to be rel­e­gat­ed to the back of the bus of the U.S. econ­o­my. From retail jan­i­tors in the Twin Cities to farm­work­ers in Flori­da to fast food work­ers across the nation, low-wage work­ers are orga­niz­ing and win­ning. Yes­ter­day on MLK Day, and over the past month, hun­dreds of thou­sands of young peo­ple have marched in the streets, declar­ing #Black­Lives­Mat­ter.

Our voic­es are echo­ing through the halls of polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic pow­er struc­tures. Tar­get Cor­po­ra­tion is now fol­low­ing the lead of retail jan­i­tors by imple­ment­ing a Respon­si­ble Con­trac­tor Pol­i­cy regard­ing the con­tract­ed clean­ing of its stores. U.S. Con­gress­man Kei­th Elli­son is work­ing tire­less­ly to ampli­fy work­ers’ voic­es in Wash­ing­ton by call­ing for poli­cies to achieve jus­tice for low-wage work­ers across the coun­try. Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma is now call­ing for an increase in the fed­er­al min­i­mum wage and the right to guar­an­teed paid sick days for all workers.

While all of this is impor­tant, it’s not enough. As you read this, the city of Bloom­ing­ton is threat­en­ing to sue orga­niz­ers for declar­ing that Black Lives Mat­ter in the sacred halls of Amer­i­can cap­i­tal­ism, Mall of Amer­i­ca. Even if we win paid sick days and a $10.10 min­i­mum wage, mil­lions of work­ers will still live in poverty.

Today I will sit sur­round­ed by the polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic pow­er struc­ture of this coun­try lis­ten­ing to the State of the Union. Tomor­row I will stand in the streets sur­round­ed by those who have been pushed to the edges of the polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic sys­tem, demand­ing a rad­i­cal redis­tri­b­u­tion of polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic power.

Veron­i­ca Mendez Moore is co-direc­tor of the Cen­tro de Tra­ba­jadores Unidos en Lucha in the Twin Cities in Minnesota.
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