For the past two hours on my Friday evening, after working close to another 60-hour week after Saturday and Sunday, I took the liberty in this sparse moment of freedom and decided to tune into On Demand on the television. I watched an HBO Production that turned out to be an emotional documentary that at times made me cry, and also clench my fists in anger.
The film chronicled a mentally and physically resilient single woman in her late 20’s who is fighting to raise three small children in rural Tennessee. She works 40 plus hours a week as a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) at an elderly care facility. The passion she has for her patients is palpable, the love she exhibits for them through her hard work and dedication is admirable and is showcased by some of the genuine thanks she receives from some patients’ families. She clearly goes to work out of necessity to provide for her three children and the love of her patients. Her three children attend a daycare center for low-income people, but this costs about $300.00 a week. She earns $9.49 per hour (do the math).
Although she never explicitly says so, she clearly doesn’t work this hard for the owners of this facility. Earning $9.49 per hour, she is not able to afford health insurance although it’s never made clear if it is offered. She has no paid sick leave. Halfway through the documentary, she goes to receive a check up after receiving her tax return. Yes, that is correct, she uses her tax return to get her medical conditions in line. Although she is visibly healthy and fit, after leaving the hospital she faces an almost $250.00 bill and later learns at the pharmacy that the prescribed medications will cost over $400.00 a month. Earning $9.49 per hour, paying for her medication is financially impossible so she elects to only pay for some medications and forgoes the others.
By this point in the film I became more irritated than upset. I couldn’t stop asking myself, where are the unions? Where is the only institution that working people have turned to in previous years to help alleviate these dire circumstances this woman is experiencing and millions of other workers are confronted with. She is on an island by herself fighting daily through migraines and other ailments, lumping it performing some of the most honorable work you can do in my opinion by caring for the eldest people in our society. She has no one to turn to or a path to follow to fight back and to realize the fruit of her labor. No health insurance, no sick time, no security, subsistence wages, when are we as workers going to rise up and demand dignity for ourselves?
Now brother Richard, who is a retired public sector worker like myself, only I am much younger and still working, (I am in my mid twenties) has written recently on Facts For Working People of the attack on public sector workers and explicitly their pensions. Watching this young woman struggle resulted in some long over due self-reflection and criticism of myself. I began asking myself what the hell am I doing to help lift this sister up? How can I remain idle while a fellow worker is experiencing so much hardship?
As of now, I receive a modest hourly wage and have to supplement my fulltime public sector job with additional employment, often times working 60 plus hours a week. I do however have health insurance that she lacks, through my union negotiated labor agreement with the State of California. I also receive other negotiated benefits like earned sick and vacation pay and I pay towards my defined benefits retirement package. I became emotional when I observed that this hard working single parent was struggling far worse than me and has none of the protections I do. Although I am not living high on the hog by any means, I do genuinely have more security than she.
Brothers and sisters, the burden is on us, we must organize we have to! Shame on me and shame on you if we don’t join together and fight for a better future for all workers. Young workers and retired workers who only receive and continue to receive the benefits earned from past labor struggles in this country’s history must realize what is at stake. How can we sit idle and watch our fellow brothers and sisters struggle day in and day out just to barely meet the month’s rent while falling sick from work induced stress?
When are the retired pensioners going to take to the streets and demand a secure retirement for all workers? Shame on them and their malaise for not wanting or remaining unwilling to ensure that workers now and years from now receive the retirement security that they are now realizing in their “Golden Years”. Shame on young workers like myself, who are too ignorant to realize how fortunate we are to receive somewhat of a decent package of benefits only because those before us literally fought in the streets for it. And finally, shame on the union leadership for presiding over years of the continuing erosion of worker rights and benefits. Shame on them for supporting the corporate backed politicians with our dues money election cycle after election cycle, who are all waging an assault on us daily in concert with the capitalist class.
We have to ask ourselves are we going to allow these benefits won years ago to be taken away and all together eliminated? Do we have that right? I watched the young woman’s children and other young children who appeared in this documentary and who are still too young to fully understand the harsh world that awaits them. If this is what we are allowing to happen to us workers in the year 2014, what does the future hold for these youngsters? How is our current economic system going to use and abuse these future workers?
Young public sector workers like myself, retired pensioners, and the union leadership, be damned if we don’t mobilize and fight back against the offensive being waged against us, we have an obligation to help are brothers and sisters.
We must take to the streets in the form of direct action. The current existence workers are living is truly not sustainable. Workers across the country are beginning to mobilize. Demands like in Seattle, Washington are being made and should be supported for a minimum of $15.00 an hour to all workers who labor day in and day out. However flawed some of these strategies may be in their conception or deployment, they must be supported. Young workers like myself need to become active in these movements, directing them in the most economically and socially just direction, with the goal of winning and realizing a better future for all workers.
Older workers who benefited from past struggles in labor conflict have an obligation and are likely most financially able to join these causes. Take to the streets in Seattle this Spring and Summer and don’t live out your remaining years benefiting from the rights and benefits won by previous generations while that same security is being annihilated daily and is actually non existent for this generation of workers.
Mike Benca is a public sector worker in California