Activism  
comments_image Comments

Standing Up For Democracy: How Activists Are Fighting Injustice in America Today

Bill Moyers talks with activists about an initiative to open Americans' eyes about income inequality.
 
 
Share

The following is a transcript and video from the March 29, 2012 episode of Moyers & Company.

BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Although we’ve only been back on the air for a couple of months, in your letters, e-mails and webpage comments a single theme emerges time and again – thank you for the reporting, for the interviews and for your commentary, you tell us, but the problems seem so insurmountable, the forces arrayed against us so large, what can I do, as one person, to make a difference? How can I help bring change to America, how can I get involved in the issues facing our country?

Well, on this edition of Moyers & Company, we’re going to tell you about some of the ways people are taking action and we’ll introduce you to some young activists – all of whom are involved with an enormous citizen effort that’s just a few days away. It's a nationwide initiative called the 99% Spring, and it takes place the week of April 9th. Its organizers aim to teach 100,000 Americans about income inequality and then send them out to spread the word from door to door and even at the shareholder meetings of our too big to fail banks – the banks we bailed out with our billions of tax dollars when the economy went up in smoke and flames four years ago.

The inspiration for the 99% Spring comes from the Occupy movement and mobilizations like this one, in the fall of 2009, when citizens from all over the country came to Chicago to confront the American Bankers Association. Organizer George Goehl brought together a coalition of grassroots organizations big and small.

GEORGE GOEHL: The one thing we have. Our own political currency is people. And people are ready to hit the streets. Today is the beginning of a much larger set of mobilizations. They’re going to take place all across the country. We’re just getting started.

BILL MOYERS: That was George Goehl then and here he is now. One of the brains behind the 99% Spring. George Goehl been a community organizer, a strategist and trainer for 20 years. He’s executive director of National People’s Action. That's a network of grassroots organizations in 14 states using direct action to battle against economic and racial injustice. Welcome, George. GEORGE GOEHL: Hey, thanks for having me.

BILL MOYERS: It's been three years since I saw you last. And Congress has enacted the Dodd-Frank Bill with some oversight of Wall Street. And the president has been sounding like a populist from time to time. Are you satisfied with the progress?

GEORGE GOEHL: We're not. I mean, I would say that it's been hard for the president to tap into that populist bone in his body. I think some of us question whether it's there. It often feels like he's kind of trying to eat his worst, or least favorite vegetable. Putting some broccoli down his throat. And he can do it for a couple days. But then he kind of moves back towards the middle.

But he's got a chance to prove himself. And I think what we need is a leader that's willing to put direct pressure on the big banks to come to the table. There's a number of things that they need to do. But some of them are very clear. They can write down principle on mortgages to fair market value. The new settlement that they just signed with the attorneys general and the big banks, it actually is around $25 billion.

That may sound like a lot. But that's 3.5 percent of the $700 billion that we are underwater as a country. So the president has power to help make this happen. He could lead the way on this. But we also have to push the big banks to pay fair share of taxes. And the biggest corporations in this country, particularly ones that crashed our economy, are not paying into the system.

BILL MOYERS: Here's some headlines that I brought to read to you. One, the Volcker Rule. That was the rule that traders can't speculate for their own personal gain using the money you and I pay in taxes.

That's part of Dodd-Frank. "The Volcker Rule, Made Bloated and Weak." That's "The New York Times." This one, "States negotiate $26 billion agreement for homeowners." But it's really going to benefit the lawyers who work for the banks. Not the homeowners. What do those headlines say to you?

GEORGE GOEHL: I think you can score more victories for the banks. And I think that what we've seen is they clearly have a stranglehold on our electoral system and our legislative process. And that if we want to shift our politics, we both have to make politicians who side with the big banks and the larger corporations pay a price for not siding with everyday people.

But we also have to engage directly with those corporate CEOs. You know, when I started organizing around banking issues, you could go down to a very important bank in the city of Chicago, and you could do a small demonstration. And probably get a meeting with the bank president.

Well, in 1990, there were 37 banks in this country that by 2009 were four banks. Now these CEOs hardly ever have to face the public. They certainly aren't touring poor neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago and other cities. And so the shareholder meeting is actually one place where we can go directly to them and engage them because they have to show up to that meeting. And we're not only going as protesters to be on the outside. We're actually going as shareholders go to on the inside.

BILL MOYERS: You bought a small--

GEORGE GOEHL: We--

BILL MOYERS: --number? What, maybe even one share? Something like that?

GEORGE GOEHL: Yeah. We've bought as many shares as you need to get into the meeting, we've bought.

BILL MOYERS: So what are you going to do when you get inside?

GEORGE GOEHL: Well, I'm-- interesting thing about the shareholder meeting is you do, as a shareholder, have a chance of getting the mic and directly engaging with the CEO. And last year, a woman of faith from central Illinois, Dawn Dannenbring Carlson was at the JPMorgan Chase shareholder meeting. And she said to Jamie Dimon like I believe in a,

BILL MOYERS: He's the CEO, right?

GEORGE GOEHL: He's the CEO. Yes. Of JPMorgan Chase. Said, "I believe in a compassionate, loving God who cares about people. Do you believe in such a God?" And he said, "That's a hard question to answer." But what we saw there was an opportunity for people that are customers at JPMorgan Chase who've been victimized by JPMorgan Chase actually engage the CEO in a real conversation, and put some heat on those folks.

We would like to challenge these CEOs to come out and see the neighborhoods and the communities that they've devastated. We've got blocks in Chicago that have ten bank-owned properties sitting foreclosed, barely boarded up in a neighborhood. That is a moral crisis. Like, if that happened in Jamie Dimon's neighborhood or in Brian Moynihan, the head of Bank of America's neighborhood. It'd be front-page news.

I think we have to look at two things. Which banks are too big to fail? Because we cannot have another bailout. Banks that are too big to fail are too big to exist.

But we also got to look at what banks and what corporations are too big to be held accountable. Because if they're too big to be held accountable, how are we going to have a functioning economy that allows workers and everyday people to get their fair share. But also a democracy that flourishes and allows people to engage and have real power and decision making.

BILL MOYERS: But in the spirit of Milton Friedman, one of your former Chicago residents, the only accountability corporations have in the free-market system is to make as much profit as they can for their shareholders.

GEORGE GOEHL: And we have to change that.

BILL MOYERS: How would you change it?

GEORGE GOEHL: I think there's two things. One, you know, when corporations were originally created in America, they actually had to demonstrate a public purpose that you were going to serve. And you could make profits. But you also had to say, "We're going to do this good thing for the public." So how do we move back towards that?

But there's also an interesting movement that really started out of Maryland. Jamie Raskin, who's a professor and also a State Senator moved a policy called B Corporation. Benefit corporations. And so it's a law. It's been passed in seven states. And it's going to be passed in more. That basically gives these corporations a protection against that clause that says, "Your number-one mission is to produce for your shareholders."

And in that case, you often do things that are bad for the public. I think this is a movement towards corporations having to meet a more thoughtful bottom line. That not only includes profits, but also includes their impact on communities and on the environment.

BILL MOYERS: You're making demands at the shareholder meetings. What are you demanding?

GEORGE GOEHL: A number of things. But, I think, like, we'll take, let's stick with Bank of America, for instance, 'cause there'll be thousands of people at the Bank of America shareholder meeting. One, write down the mortgages in your portfolio that are underwater to fair market value. Secondly, we need corporations to pay their fair share of taxes. Bank of America has 371 tax shelters. A number of them on the Cayman Islands.

And have done everything they can to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. If you're going to get some of the benefits that come with being in a corporation in America, you need to have some responsibilities too. And third, Bank of America and a lot of the banks invest in a lot of things that are bad for our country.

Bank of America is one of the lead financiers of predatory payday lending. These payday lenders charge 455% interest rates, largely target communities of color.

The average $250 payday loan cost the borrower $750. So essentially, stripping wealth out of some of the poorest communities of our country. We need them out of that business. So those are three demands that we'll take to them at the shareholder meetings among others.

BILL MOYERS: So you're calling this shareholder spring?

GEORGE GOEHL: The larger effort this spring is called 99% Spring. And within that, there are two key components. One is actually training a 100,000 people in a new vision of what the economy could look like. And engaging people across the country in that conversation. Not only are-- this is not a predetermined vision that a bunch of us have figured out. But it is a challenge for us all to think big about what might be possible.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean to imagine a new economy? Imagine a new future?

GEORGE GOEHL: Well, I think that we're at a crossroads. And there's three roads we can take. One, we can say, "Things are so dire. Let's just fight to keep what we've got. Let's fight to keep our homes. To keep our jobs. To keep our unions. To keep other policies that have been good for people."

BILL MOYERS: That's pretty human nature there?

GEORGE GOEHL: Yeah. And to

BILL MOYERS: To hold on.

GEORGE GOEHL: Particularly in low moments like this. Secondly, we could say, "Well, let's try to get back to what we used to have. Let's get back to the economy pre financial crisis, and back to the Bill Clinton economy." But even that, we know that economy was marked by incredible racial disparities, gender disparities and was bad for our environment.

So hopefully, we can think bigger than that. The third is to try to really reimagine what is possible. And I'm not saying any of us have the answers. But I think now is the moment. Right now because things are dire to think big about what we might be able to do.

BILL MOYERS: Example. Give me one example of what you mean by thinking big.

GEORGE GOEHL: We need to completely downsize a number of the biggest corporations in the country. We would start with the banks. But a number of them that are not only too big to fail, but also too big to be held accountable.

But at the other side, we need to actually give birth and rise up in terms of a more local, community-controlled economy in communities across the country. And sometimes when we talk about this, people are like, "Well, that sounds kind of Utopian."

BILL MOYERS: Utopian—exactly.

GEORGE GOEHL: These are not new ideas in terms of the cooperative movement and in terms of everyday people having more democratic control over the economy. What's different is the moment. You've got a much broader cross section of the country saying like, "Will this economy ever really work for me like it did in the past?"

Or you have communities of color that's saying like, "This economy really never did work for me." And so you vehicle a broader cross section of the country asking hard questions, and starting to look for new answers. And I think the community and cooperative economy's particularly interesting for two reasons. One, it actually retains wealth in communities. Less wealth leaves a city and goes off. Or a neighborhood and goes off to some gated community or to some stockholder. But secondly, I think that there-- people feel that there is something spiritually missing in their lives right now.

People want to be in community with other folks. And I think a more community-controlled economy is a place that can happen.

BILL MOYERS: But you've been leading protests and marches all these years now. And I've been covering them. And it's hard to see that anything structural and significant has changed.

GEORGE GOEHL: We have to ask ourselves do our actions fully line up with our convictions. We say we want this level of change. But are we really taking that level of risk? And so actually, we need a movement of truth tellers. People that are willing to go out and say, "This is what's wrong. We've found who's behind it. And this is what it could look like." But saying those things will not always make you popular.

We look back at the Civil Rights Movement, the Women's Suffrage Movement and with great admiration. But at the time, this was not a group-- these were not groups of people winning big popularity contests. They were ostracized in their own time. So we need a movement of truth tellers willing to say, "We think this is possible." And then actually going out and putting our bodies in the line in the name of a new economy.

BILL MOYERS: Are you asking that of your followers now when they go into those stockholder meetings this spring? Are you saying they should put their bodies on the line and be arrested?

GEORGE GOEHL: I think we're saying that people should engage in action that shines a spotlight on the crisis and on those behind the curtain.

BILL MOYERS: All right. I'm going--

GEORGE GOEHL: In many cases in--

BILL MOYERS: --into one of these meetings and I'm going to follow you into one of these meetings. And let's say that Brian Moynihan is there as the CEO of Bank of America. What are you asking me to do? Now be specific.

GEORGE GOEHL: For a specific set of people that are ready to risk arrest, we'll be engaging in actions that will move to that level. But not everybody that's coming is going to be at that place. And if you even look back at the Civil Rights Movement, it's not like everybody--

BILL MOYERS: Oh, no.

GEORGE GOEHL: --said, "I'm ready to risk arrest." But I think there's an increasing number of people that are saying, "We are ready to risk arrest in the name of what we believe."

BILL MOYERS: Bill McKibben and the environmentalist who led a movement to be arrested at outside the White House at the protest of the building of the Keystone Pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. They were arrested.

Spent three or four days in jail. Had a big impact in the news. And at the moment, Obama backed away from approving the Keystone. Now we have a story that the president and government are going ahead with Keystone. Just reconfiguring it so it gets around what those protesters were opposed to. You don't win in the long run, against this system.

GEORGE GOEHL: That’s why we have to change the system. And I would say that I think that we're at what is, I'm hoping is the tail end of a 40-year effort to undermine the role of government. To disempower organized workers and to deregulate the financial markets in the corporate sector.

If you were in the meetings and saw what I see happening around the country, you would be so hopeful. Because whether--

BILL MOYERS: What meetings?

GEORGE GOEHL: --whether it's a meeting in Minnesota with a bunch of rank-and-file members of a grassroots organization or in a meeting of organizational leaders from across the country meeting in Washington, D.C. to hatch strategy, people are thinking in bigger ways. People are putting their egos to the side, and their values up front. And saying, "How do we come together to create a real sea change in our politics and our economy?"

BILL MOYERS: But that is a familiar story in America life. Protest, demonstrations. The search for a better system is inherent in the American experience. And often is the loser against these mighty powers of the economic structure.

GEORGE GOEHL: Yeah. I would say we've been laying down. There have been exceptions. We've had mobilizations. We've had actions. We've had people push back. But I would say the onus is on us as the American people. If we continue to lay down, we'll continue to be walked over.

But if we step up in bigger numbers, if we come to these trainings that we're going to hold April 9th through the 15th and learn about a potential vision around the new economy, about how to engage in real, nonviolent, direct action, and move into the streets in greater numbers than we have in a long time, we have a chance to shift things. There's an appetite out there. And it's up to us as everyday people to say, "Am I going to sit on the sidelines and watch this? Or am I going to really engage in this fight?"

BILL MOYERS: How is what you're planning this spring different from what we saw in the footage I began the broadcast with?

GEORGE GOEHL: I would say, you know, a number of things. One, there is a larger set of organizations saying, "There is no road to a new and just economy if we don't build a real corporation accountability movement in this country. So you have organizations and grassroots members who work on issues as diverse as jobs and worker rights, health care, immigrant rights, banks and the environment saying separately, "We want a bunch of a corporate campaigns to try make Bank of America to do one thing." Or, "Get this coal company to do another thing." Or, "Get this employee to be a little better."

In isolation, those campaigns won't add up to enough to shift the politics of the country. But if we actually bring them together and bring our bases, bring service workers, domestic workers, communication workers, families fighting to save their homes, farmers, environmentalists together around a common agenda, building between now and the shareholder meeting, we not only have an opportunity to shift the story around what's really happening with the economy in this country. But we actually move people together.

Because people's lives are not bifurcated between I'm an environmental person. I'm an health care person. I'm a jobs person. People's lives are, you know, a big mix of all of that stuff. And so this spring, you're going to see people from all these different kind of issue silos come together under one agenda. And work together, train together and act together.

BILL MOYERS: You describe what used to be the base of the Democratic Party. And I'm sure if you got a chance as one organizer to another to see Barack Obama, he would say to you, "George, just help me keep those people in the Democratic Party, and we'll make their lives better."

GEORGE GOEHL: I think people are losing faith in the political process as it's run right now. And I think the Super PACs are a big example of that. But so I think people feel like they have to take things into their own hands, and engage directly at pressuring the corporations.

BILL MOYERS: Sounds like the Tea Party, right? They're taking things into their own hands.

GEORGE GOEHL: You know, in that way, I think there is a similarity. I mean, I think you're seeing people's movements showing up and saying, "We have to figure out how to reclaim our democracy." We hear a lot from the Tea Party that the government is the problem. We actually believe government is the prize. But right now it sits--

BILL MOYERS It’s the what?

GEORGE GOEHL It’s the prize. It’s the prize. But right now, it sits in a trophy case on Wall Street. So sometimes government doesn't feel like it's working for us. Well, it's not going to work for us until we take it back. And so that's why we have to build a much bigger movement of people willing to both confront corporate power, and then shift this summer towards engaging in the elections. And we have to be more serious about candidates that do not match up with a certain set of values or principles. And saying, "Hey, if you're not going to come with us on being willing to tax the corporations, to challenge corporate power, and to protect people, you're not going to get our vote."

BILL MOYERS: But there's still one huge wall between you and your aspirations. I know it's there, and you do too. Let me play something from our earlier conversation in which you acknowledge what you're up against.

GEORGE GOEHL on Bill Moyers Journal: I do think that on this fight, we don't win unless we figure out how to toxify the banking money in politics. Until...

BILL MOYERS on Bill Moyers Journal: Do what?

GEORGE GOEHL on Bill Moyers Journal: Toxify that money. It's amazing to me that the same banks that created the foreclosure crisis, sent the economy into the tail spin, needed and billions and billions of taxpayer bailouts, are still able to hand out millions in campaign contributions. You'd think there would be a political price to pay for taking that money.

BILL MOYERS: That was December 2009. That was Heather Booth sitting there with us. She was involved in the fight for financial reform.

Not only have you and others failed to do that. But it's worse than it was the last time you were here. The Citizens United decision from the Supreme Court has helped unleash an avalanche of new money into the campaigns.

GEORGE GOEHL: It's really terrifying. There's no doubt about it. But I do think what you're seeing is you're seeing a backlash around Citizens United. The money in politics that I actually think is particularly powerful because it's not just coming from the left or the right. But I think both members of both parties, and different ideologies recognize that this level of money in our politics is not going to work, so.

BILL MOYERS: It's just gotten worse.

GEORGE GOEHL: It has. There's no question about it.

BILL MOYERS: So what keeps you, why do you keep fighting? You're not going to win.

GEORGE GOEHL: Oh, boy, I, there's no way I believe that. Organizers are the eternal optimists. I think.

BILL MOYERS: You may win in your daughter's lifetime. She may win. But you know that what you're up against.

GEORGE GOEHL: That's good enough. Winning in my daughter's lifetime is good enough. I think that, like, any movement worth its salt looked ahead to the long haul. If we get too obsessed with are we winning the tactical victories here and there, it can be a little, you know, tough for us.

Because I think a lot of times what we've done over the last 30 years is we've really focused on the issues. And figured out how do we win on the issues. But if we really want to shift the country, we have to say, "How do we engage in the big battle of big ideas?" 'Cause what corporate conservatives did is, like, they said, "Let's undermine the role of government. Let's promote free markets."

Though when free markets also means free markets that get a lot of good stuff from government. "Say that we'll already live in a racially just society." Even though we know that's not true. "And promote rugged individualism." And they moved those ideas out in a very systemic and intentional way over 40 years. And it has led us to this point.

So we now have to say, "How do we engage long haul and an idea shift that includes talking about how government could be an equalizer in our lives if we reclaim it? That markets have to be regulated to protect people and the environment. That we do not live in a racially just society. That structural racism continues to keep families out of opportunities."

And that we have to name that racial justice would benefit us all. And we have to go after it and make it happen. And lastly, we're part of a community of people that are in this together. And as we win that idea battle, which I think we will win, that's when our victories on the issues will follow.

BILL MOYERS: You know, I have a corporate underwriter. My sole corporate underwriter for 25 years. Mutual of America. They've been terrific to us. How do people distinguish between corporations that are trying to be good citizens and those you have on your hit list?

GEORGE GOEHL: I think there's a set of things that corporations can do that will make them clearly good citizens. Good, corporate citizens in this country. And so I do think it is, like, making sure they treat workers with dignity. And that these are jobs with justice and people get paid.

That they actually are very conscious about their environmental impact in this country. That they pay their fair share of taxes. And that they are thoughtful to how they contribute to the community that they work in. They-- we have lots of corporations in this country that do good stuff. The 40 that we'll be visiting this spring are ones that clearly failed on all those fronts.

BILL MOYERS: So how do people find out about what you're doing?

GEORGE GOEHL: There's a couple ways. There's a website called "The 99 Spring." The99spring.com. And that's where people can learn how do I go to one of these trainings to really learn about how people are thinking differently about the economy. And also how do I learn about nonviolent, direct action and how to do that, and how to engage in that. And out of those trainings, in many cases, people will then go do demonstrations.

And then secondly, the build towards the shareholder meetings, there's a website called ConfrontCorporatePower.org. And people can go on there and learn: how can I engage in some of these 40 corporate campaigns focused on 40 corporations. All will have demonstrations at the shareholder meetings. How can I plug in and be a part of this fight to really restructure our relationship with the corporate sector?

BILL MOYERS: You've been doing this for a long time. Why did you become an organizer?

GEORGE GOEHL: I'll give you the short version. But I had got in a little bit of trouble, and ended up at a soup kitchen. And didn't expect to be there. Was a little surprised to be there. And went and ate. And when I was done, I felt a little uncomfortable about being there. So I asked if I could wash some dishes. And one thing led to another. And I actually got my act together and my life together at that soup kitchen. And thank goodness, three years later, I realized soup kitchens weren't enough for me. And I had to become an organizer.

BILL MOYERS: What makes a good organizer?

GEORGE GOEHL: I do think eternal optimism. I think a sense that we are, you know, able to, like, create change and that we can engage people. But I think it's also a great organizer starts where people are at, and actually understands what people are feeling and what they are needing. And figures out how to engage them in the development of a strategy and a plan to create change. But I think probably even more in, than anything, I mean, the job of an organizer I really think is often two things. It's to get people to do things they didn't know they wanted to do when they met you. And then secondly, get them to do that with a lot of other people.

BILL MOYERS: So your daughter? Her name is?

GEORGE GOEHL: Adelaide.

BILL MOYERS: Well, given the rate I'm going, when she's ready to take your place on the lines, would you make sure I get a chance to interview her?

GEORGE GOEHL: I would love it.

BILL MOYERS: Okay.

GEORGE GOEHL: She's going to be a good organizer. I can tell.

BILL MOYERS: George Goehl, thank you very much for being with me.

GEORGE GOEHL: Okay. I appreciate it.

BILL MOYERS: If George Goehl’s daughter does grow up to become an organizer, she could have no finer role models than the two women with me now.

Ai-Jen Poo is director and co-founder of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. It includes more than 20 organizations in ten states and more than 10,000 members. She led the fight for the passage of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights here in New York State, the first of its kind in America. And now she's fighting for a similar bill in California.

Since 2007, Sarita Gupta has been the executive director of Jobs with Justice. That's a labor organization in over 45 communities and 25 states. They work to create a broad, global movement for economic and social justice. She led the Chicago chapter of Jobs with Justice for four years and served as its national field director for three.

The two women have joined forces not only for April’s 99% Spring Action but also to build an economic campaign for domestic and homecare workers of all ages. They call it Caring Across Generations.

BILL MOYERS: Sarita and Ai-Jen, welcome to both of you.

SARITA GUPTA: Thank you.

AI-JEN POO: Thanks so much.

BILL MOYERS: How does the work you're doing connect to what we heard George Goehl talk about in the 99% spring?

SARITA GUPTA: The work connects because we're, for Jobs with Justice in particular, working on organizing and bargaining rights issues and looking at the real impacts of workers rights, we understand that there are corporations that are making decisions, intentional decisions, that in fact are stripping away the rights of workers.

How do we actually say to corporations, "Your practices can, in fact, be different, that allows for us to have the kind of economy that works for everybody"?

BILL MOYERS: So what do domestic workers have at stake in shareholder springtime?

AI-JEN POO: They're a huge and growing part of the 99 percent. And domestic workers have children and grandchildren and their hopes for them, in terms of quality public education and access to higher education and health care and economic opportunity.

All of those things necessitate a different relationship between the one percent and the 99 percent. And we would say that we're the 99 percent for the 100 percent. In that it's in the best interest of corporations in the long term that the American public is able to survive and thrive with dignity and respect.

BILL MOYERS: Unions are among your main allies, are they not? And how do you explain the phenomenon that, unions are struggling in a time when obviously the need for solidarity is so powerful.

SARITA GUPTA: You know, it's interesting, it's all about what people-- the perception that's out there. And we should not underestimate the amount of money that corporations have put into anti-union media blitzes and discussions. I mean, the narrative around unions has a lot to do with the role of corporate backed media and the way that unions are portrayed.

BILL MOYERS: So what about people you work with? Are they members of organized unions?

AI-JEN POO: You know, what's interesting is that domestic workers are actually excluded from the federal labor law that gives workers the right to organize and form unions.

BILL MOYERS: How did that happen?

AI-JEN POO: When the New Deal was being negotiated the only way that Southern members of Congress would agree to support the labor laws that were part of the New Deal package is if African American-- well, at the time, farm workers and domestic workers were excluded from the right to organize from the National Labor Relations Act. And at the time, those workers were African American. So it was an attempt to be able to prevent African American workers from being able to build power and build a political voice through organizing.

And so those exclusions remain to this day in the books, and they shape the lives of over two and a half million women who work as domestic workers every day, who are excluded from labor laws, excluded from protections. And their work is still undervalued and not respected.

BILL MOYERS: So what are they up against, day by day?

AI-JEN POO: Well, you know, I can give you a story of a member of ours named Maria, who worked for a family in Queens. She worked six days a week--

BILL MOYERS: Here in New York City.

AI-JEN POO: Here in New York. She was live in. And she took care of a child with a disability and did all of the cooking, cleaning, ironing, washing for a family of six. So 16 hours a day, six days a week. And she lived-- her sleeping quarters were in the basement, where there was an overflowing sewage system. So she literally had to put down cardboard to get to her bed at night.

And for all of that work, she earned less than $3 per hour. And so there are just incredible violations. And not every domestic worker is in that situation. But every worker is vulnerable. These exclusions have made it such that every single worker is vulnerable. And you never know what you're going to get.

BILL MOYERS: What happened to Maria?

AI-JEN POO: Maria picked up a Spanish-language newspaper that had an article about another worker, who had been in an abusive situation and had sought help at an organization called Domestic Workers United, our New York affiliate here. And so she called and she came to the office. And the organization helped her pursue her unpaid wages. In addition, she became one of the spokespeople for the New York Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Campaign. Where hundreds and hundreds of workers took days off from work, like Maria, went up to Albany time and time again. We had one member, Angelica, who said, when the governor finally signed the legislation, she said, "Wow, I think I went to Albany more than 30 times to tell my story."

BILL MOYERS: It took you six years to win that, didn't it?

AI-JEN POO: It sure did. The purpose of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York is to establish labor protections, basic rights and protections for the over 200,000 women who do domestic work in New York.

BILL MOYERS: How many?

AI-JEN POO: Over 200,000. Every-- we often ask people to imagine what New York would look like if one day all domestic workers didn't go to work. And we think that there's not a single professional sector, workforce that wouldn't be touched in some way by it. It really is the invisible engine behind everything else in New York.

And what the Bill of Rights did was established basic rights and recognition so that members like Maria could go to work with their head held high, knowing that they have rights and they have protections.

BILL MOYERS: So the people you work with are either in organized labor or you're trying to get them into organized labor, right?

SARITA GUPTA: That's one segment of who we work with. We also work with community-based organizations. We worked with faith-based groups and student organizations all around this issue of workers' rights and economic justice.

And for me, with Jobs with Justice, I've loved this nexus of labor and community. That actually, when we all come together, we can have big, bold vision. We can have big, bold demands. And we can, in fact, win those demands together.

BILL MOYERS: Give me an example.

SARITA GUPTA: Well, one, you know, recent example is the story of the workers at Hershey's plant in Pennsylvania. When-- you know, were--

BILL MOYERS: Big chocolate maker, right?

SARITA GUPTA: Big chocolate maker. Exactly. I love Hershey's Kisses, right? And so does most of Americans. And what we saw happen is this is the story of a major corporation that Americans love that has chosen to take work, segments of their work that were one time permanent, full-time union jobs, and turn them into temporary jobs. And bring in, in fact, workers, guest workers to do these jobs, under deplorable conditions with very little pay.

And what was interesting about that campaign was the ability to bring together temporary workers, in this case, with permanent workers in that work site, with people in the neighboring communities to say, "It is not okay for a major corporation like this to treat workers this way."

PROTESTOR: The effort to bring Hersey's to justice has officially begun today!

BILL MOYERS: Did they strike?

SARITA GUPTA: They struck. They won a major victory. Which was basically having the recruiter and the program through which the work-- the students came. 'Cause these were actually students who had come from other countries who were believed to be on a cultural exchange program and then ended up working. Right?

BILL MOYERS: Right. I remember that now, right.

SARITA GUPTA: Yeah. And so the State Department found them guilty. And has been in proceedings with them to make sure they cannot do this ever again. And for us, the most important part of that story is really calling the question on companies like Hershey's, an American company.

What does it mean for you, in order to make profits, that it's okay to take what were once permanent full-time jobs in the community that allowed the community to be thriving and to actually turn them into temporary, in this case, in particular bring in guest workers to do this work?

BILL MOYERS: But you're adversaries or critics or opponents would say, "Look, that's not Hershey's fault. That's the way globalization has occurred with two billion workers over the last several years being introduced into competition with American workers. It's the economic dynamics of our time."

SARITA GUPTA: That's right. It is about a global economic system that frankly we need to change. I think more and more the workers we work with understand fundamentally that workers in other countries aren't the problem. And even workers of other nationalities in this country are not the problem.

That in fact, there is a need for us to change the practices of corporations and the way in which money flows globally and the way in which decisions are made globally to make sure that in fact worker protections are in place. And that workers aren't, in fact, having to compete against each other for what we know and we call "the race to the bottom."

BILL MOYERS: I've read some of the correspondence that is directed to you, some of the letters you get, some of the public complaints and comments. And they include the argument, quote, "People are paid according to their education level and skills. And these people are being paid for low education, if any, and low skills."

The argument is that these domestic workers and others like them work for people who are struggling, as well, who can't afford increased benefits, increased wages. And they say the two of you are not facing reality.

AI-JEN POO: The reality that I think we need to face as a nation is the fact that we cannot sustain if we don't start protecting the resources that make everything else possible. Gloria Steinem, 20 years ago, wrote this article called "Revaluing Economics." And she talked about the two invisible resources that everything else is built upon, our care work, or the work that it takes to raise families, and the earth, the planet's natural resources.

And those two things have been unprotected, undervalued, and invisibilized as the resources that make everything else possible. And we need to fundamentally revalue those elements of our society. Including making care work more affordable for every American who needs it, making the actual hiring of childcare and long-term care, elder care workers more affordable for American families. And making sure that the workers who do that work are protected and can earn a living wage and support their own families.

BILL MOYERS: You both have been doing this a long time now, I know. And you're not even 40 yet. How did you get started as organizers? Sarita?

SARITA GUPTA: Yeah, well, I, you know, I came to this work really watching my parents, I would say. My family immigrated here. I immigrated when I was a baby to Rochester, New York. My parents are of Indian descent. And I watched them, my mother and father, make huge sacrifices to have a better life here in the U.S. and to create tons of opportunity for my brother, sister, and I.

And in that process, they built community. We were one of very few Indian families in Rochester at that time. And they were a really important force in building what's now a thriving Indian community center, associations, and whatnot. And I think that were early seeds for me and drew me to think about how communities can really come together, if workers can really come together, we can make a difference.

AI-JEN POO: I also come from a long line of strong women. My grandmother and my mother were both really influential on me. They're both incredible, caring women who lived a life of service and who raised children. And did both caregiving work and their work in taking care of other people. And still do with a lot of dignity. And it just inspired me.

And I think I also noticed that a lot of the work that they did in the home was not recognized and adequately valued. And I don't recall my mother ever sitting down as a child. She was always working in some way, one way or another. And I think it's a difficult situation that American families are in. Where we're in isolation, dealing with how we're going to take care of our kids. And how are we going to take care of our parents? And I think that for future generations, it should be different.

BILL MOYERS: You have to be tough to be an organizer. You've got to be willing to wear brass knuckles and have sharp elbows, right?

AI-JEN POO: It's true. It is true.

BILL MOYERS: Come on, confess.

SARITA GUPTA: You do. You do.

BILL MOYERS: What's the secret?

AI-JEN POO: I will say that even with all the brass knuckles and the times when you have to be tough that we still find that the most powerful force for change in the world is still love.

BILL MOYERS: Love?

AI-JEN POO: Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: Don't tell me that you won the Albany legislature, one of the swamps of American--

AI-JEN POO: We absolutely did.

BILL MOYERS: --politics over with love? Come on now.

AI-JEN POO: We absolutely did.

BILL MOYERS: Oh, come on, come on.

AI-JEN POO: Absolutely. One of our most effective actions was this children and families march for the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights. And it was children of domestic workers together with the children that they take care of, holding signs. "Respect my mommy." "Respect my nanny." And the love and the connection between the children that they take care of and their own children and the employers who really appreciate the service of domestic workers in their home. All of that love and connection was an incredibly powerful force for change.

BILL MOYERS: Those signs and those people who took part in that march, they were very persuasive. They were very impressive. But you don't get legislation passed in Albany, seriously, just by that. What else did you have to do? Did you have to threaten legislators with protests-- withholding your support for them in an election? That sort of thing?

AI-JEN POO: It takes good old-fashioned organizing. It takes bringing people together around common goals, with a plan. When everyday people take action from a place of love and a place of dignity and courage, it's incredibly powerful. So whether that looks like marches or whether that looks like going to the polls and voting. Or that looks like telling your story in legislative offices, year after year after year. It's power. Because people are driving it. And they're committed to it. And they, you know, that's the formula, is really people coming together.

BILL MOYERS: It helps to have some publicity, too. I know that you were involved in some of these women being in Hollywood, at the time of the Oscars. Because "The Help," which was about domestic workers in the South was nominated, for an Oscar. There was a lot of excitement about it. You had some women out there, didn't you?

AI-JEN POO: We sure did. We had--

BILL MOYERS: Tell me about that.

AI-JEN POO: --them in from around the country, domestic workers from the South, from the Northeast, from all over the country, who came together to celebrate this moment of the public imagination, the hearts and minds of the American public being turned towards the story of domestic workers in the civil rights era.

BILL MOYERS: So you think that was the biggest value of "The Help." I mean, it was criticized by some realistic Southern writers as being sort of a romantic version of domestic workers in the South, a too-sweet version.

AI-JEN POO: Absolutely. But for us, it was this moment of being able to raise up the stories of domestic workers today. The story of domestic workers is not a story of history, of the past. There's, as I said, two and a half million workers doing this work every day in America. And it provided an opportunity or an opening in the public imagination for us to be able to tell that story and to be able to show the American public that there are actually things that people can do now to address some of the violations that were shown in the movie and more.

BILL MOYERS: Your two organizations have come together in this Caring Across Generations. What very specific goals do you have? What specific things would you like to see change.

SARITA GUPTA: So the way that we approach the campaign, we actually talk about it as the five fingers of the caring hand. So one of them is, in fact, creating jobs, creating two million jobs in the home care industry. Two is making sure these jobs are good quality jobs. That they have real standards.

The third is that there be training and a real career pathway in this industry. Home care, by the way, is the second-largest growth occupation, you know, between now and 2018, according to the most recent study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That is huge. And so our ability to shape the quality of these jobs is enormous. It's important to be doing. The fourth finger is really addressing the issues of how do we create a pathway to citizenship for the existing care workforce and then the fifth finger is really about affordability.

AI-JEN POO: So we're talking about offering tax credits for people who are paying for care and are really struggling to afford it. We're talking about family caregiver supports. And we're talking about increasing funding for programs that offer long-term care and support services in the home.

Right now, there's a bias in our laws towards institutionalized care. But there's a lot of data that shows that it's actually much more affordable, all told, to have people stay at home and receive care in their home. People, I think, want to live independently for as long as possible.

BILL MOYERS: What's the main wall between you and achieving what you would like to achieve with these women?

SARITA GUPTA: At the end of the day, the number one obstacle we find is people ask, "Well, how will all this get paid for? How is this possible?" And frankly, for us, we're very clear it's about the choices that we're making around our spending priorities.

But it is possible. I really believe it's possible. But that feels like the number one obstacle that we as the American people and our policymakers need to get over. That the cost of care is possible. You know? We can actually afford this.

BILL MOYERS: You two have brought new faces and new techniques-- new values to organizing. How do you see your work changing in the 21st Century? Sarita?

SARITA GUPTA: I think we're understanding more and more that we need to collaborate with each other, immigrant rights, housing rights, environmental rights, labor rights. Like, we need to actually be approaching our work together, to find the kinds of long-term, systemic solutions that we need.

But within the workers' rights movement, as well, I would say there's been huge shifts happening. I mean, with the growth of the informal sector and economy of workers that are unprotected there is a need for us to actually understand new forms of organizing amongst workers who don't fall under the protection of the National Labor Relations Act. And unions and the struggles they're facing, and begin to imagine new ways to be organizing workers at the numbers that we need, at the scales that we need to really make change.

AI-JEN POO: The world of organizing is reflecting the changing demographics of this country where communities of color are growing. Women, I believe, are 51 percent of the population. So you're seeing more and more leadership from women, from communities of color. And, you know, we're looking forward to running a domestic worker for president. So I think, you know, increasingly you're going to see that the world of organizing and the world of politics is going to be increasingly reflective of the changing demographics of this country in a very positive way.

BILL MOYERS: Ai-Jen Poo and Sarita Gupta, thank you very much for joining me.

SARITA GUPTA: Thank you.

AI-JEN POO: Thank you so much.

BILL MOYERS: Our three organizers this week have inspired us to create a page called “Take Action” on our website, BillMoyers.com. You’ll find information and ideas there aimed at helping you discover ways in which you can make a difference.

Veteran journalist Bill Moyers is the host of the show "Moyers & Company." More at www.billmoyers.com.
 
See more stories tagged with: