Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Carwashero Takes the People's Mic

The power of the Occupy movements all over the country and across the world is that the microphone is taken away from the 1% plutocrats and then given to the folks who have such little means to tell their story. The beauty of the “people’s microphone”, the method of sound amplification via dozens of people repeating what the speakers is saying, is that the crowd recognizes everyone’s right to their voice. That power and that beauty is humbling yet empowering.

Now let’s give the people’s mic to a carwashero.

On Tuesday afternoon car wash workers in the Chicago Southwest Side neighborhood of Little Village took that people’s mic and told their story. They worked for 12-hour days in all sorts of Chicago weather with little or no safety equipment, receiving abuse after indignity from their boss.

And then they didn’t even receive actual wages for their work. Their employer distributed only the tips that the workers received for their labor, resulting in some days of only $40 for a 12-hour day. That, dear friends, is the story of wage theft.

This story isn’t only true because it happened to these car wash workers. It’s true because it happens every day all over the United States, in urban landscapes and rural communities alike. In a landmark study of wage theft in America’s three largest cities, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, researchers showed that workers lost more than $56.4 million per week.[i] This money is taken from the most vulnerable workers in our country, where the difference between making rent, putting food on the table, and providing medicine for one’s children is a matter of hours of pay.
Worker advocates call wage theft the crime epidemic that no one talks about, and that falls right into the Occupy narrative. The rich, powerful, and connected in our society try very hard to make sure that the vast majority of people not only accept these abuses but are thankful that folks have degrading, subsistence-level jobs. However, low-wage workers are finding a way to tell their side of the story.

Workers’ centers and their union allies act as a sort of people’s mic for low-wage and immigrant workers to make sure people hear about they experience every day. While the 1% tries to divide and demonize the lower strata of workers, workers’ centers unite and affirm the humanity carwarsheros and other low-wage workers.

I personally had the privilege of acting as a person’s mic at the protest on Tuesday, translating for a worker named Martín. Just like other workers I’ve met while serving as a missionary with the national group Interfaith Worker Justice, Martín understood how powerful his voice can be when other workers and advocates stand with him and amplify his voice for the world to hear.

So, on a day when Occupy movements affirm their power to speak with a prophet’s voice, let’s give that people’s mic to a carwashero and occupy together.

[i] Berhardt, A., Milkman, R., Theodor, N., et al. 2010. Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers: Violations in Employment and Labor Law in America’s Cities. Chicago: Center for Urban Economic Development, Uinveristy of Illinois at Chicago, New York: National Employment Law Project, Los Angeles: UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment.

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