I was invited to attend the Economic Progress Institute's (EPI) 8th Annual Policy and Budget Conference, entitled Rhode to Economic Progress: An Agenda for Workers, on the morning of April 26th. I wasn't sure what this kind of event entailed, but generally speaking, I'll show up to anything I can that's related to Common Ground's beat, and in particular I was interested in hearing the the featured speaker, Sarita Gupta, the national Executive Director of Jobs with Justice.
EPI, before 2012 known as the Poverty Institute, is a progressive Rhode Island think tank, funded by labor and, somewhat confusingly, the insurance and healthcare industries. EPI has an indispensable role in providing data, talking points, and research reports to support progressive legislation at the State House.
As it turned out, the morning was an exercise in peeling back the layers of the onion of progressive and Democratic politics in Rhode Island, with each layer getting steadily more earthy and pungent than the relatively sweet and watery outer exterior. We started with opening remarks from Governor Raimondo and Senate President Paiva Weed, with Congressman Cicilline and Providence Mayor Elorza crashing the program with some brief words of support. As the morning wore on, the politicians drifted away, which was particularly unsurprising considering it was election day, but I suppose showing up is better than not.
Sarita Gupta did a great job talking about Jobs with Justice's work nationally, and is particularly articulate in talking about how deeply intertwined issues of caring for our children and parents are with our economic struggles. EPI's Director of Economic and Fiscal Policy Doug Hall brought the charts. The main thing that stuck with me is a reminder of how Rhode Island started our recession about a year before everyone else.
Finally, it was panel time, which was the highlight for those of us who stuck around. Juan Garcia of Comité de Inmigrantes en Acción and Gaspar D. Espinoza of the Olneyville Neighborhood Association had an opportunity to speak about their struggles and frustration working to secure driver's licenses for undocumented workers in Rhode Island. Espinoza in particular spoke directly and unguardedly about the complex interplay between establishment power and those mobilizing the grass roots:
"So we put up this new (driver's license) bill, we had over a thousand people the day of the hearing. We provided testimony. It was seven hours long. And nothing happened. Still, nothing happened. We had all our friends, who can vote, send requests to their legislators, and still nothing happened. Now we're going to have the hearing in the senate, and it is the same story. It has become that we have to play their games. ...
"As we speak now the hearing for the bill in the senate is going to be on May 5th, yes, Cinco de Mayo, I remember. Everybody will be celebrating Cinco de Mayo, tortillas, tacos, and everybody goes "Oh, we love the Hispanics," but without driver's licenses we will not be able to do deliveries, correct? Exactly.
"And they want the same story. They want to see how many people can we bring. Bring a thousand. Bring more than a thousand. Make the house shake. C'mon. Slowly we became their amusement. They want to see how we move. They want to see how much power they have over us. It should be the other way around. Slowly we're becoming subservient to the politicians within the state of Rhode Island.
"One thing that was very disturbing, I'll be very open. We've been trying to do some lobbying on this. I met with some of those who were against, and I asked, "You know you district is full of immigrants?" The parents might vote, but the children will vote. The surprising answer was, "Look Gaspar, you are a very smart man, I like you. Let's make a deal. I want to retire in two more terms. If you're able to get that bill to the floor, we'll say 'yes.' When I retire, you can come and have my seat. I promise you that. Let's work together on this." Not on the bill -- on him staying two more terms! So, this is Rhode Island."
The last speaker on the panel, and for the day, was Rhode Island Jobs with Justice Executive Director and EPI board member Mike Araujo. Not only did he sum up, re-frame, and amplify the morning's themes, he laid out a great mission statement Common Ground if not the entire labor movement in Rhode Island, so I'm going to quote Mike at length:
"We've allowed a narrative to be handed over that has centered a picture of Rhode Island that does not include brown people, black people, women, poor people or children. We've made an economy that is one of the uglier versions of what's possible. We just were told we're coming out of the recession, but in the poorer districts of Rhode Island, Providence in particular, unemployment is at 40%.
"This isn't just about wages, and it isn't just about earned sick leave, and it is not just about child care, and not just about the earned tax credit. It is about having an economy that is democratic. The fact that we've put barriers to that democracy at every step of the way is something that groups like EPI, Jobs with Justice, Fuerza Laboral, and the AFL-CIO are working aggressively to tear down.
"Yet every time we say something reasonable, like, maybe paying people who serve food equally, we're told this is the end of industry forever, and that they're all going to leave. That's not possible... Imagine if we did that kind of hostage taking. Imagine if we said things like that, that we would destroy the economy if we paid people. It is obscene at its face, and it is also something we cannot tolerate.
"I can't not see issues of poverty and issues of workers justice as anything other than civil rights. I think for too long we've allowed our policy and allowed our organizations and allowed our language and allowed our definitions to be defined in ways other than as civil and human rights. Workers rights are civil rights. Civil rights are immigrant rights. Immigrant rights are women's rights. We've been really good at separating these things and making compartments.
"Our movement is a moral movement at is heart. At its heart it is an anti-poverty movement, as part of a movement that belongs to each and every one of us, total ownership of each and other person in the world. Solidarity has to be the language that we speak, consistently if we are going to make this work.
"I know that we had people in the room who are lawmakers and who have occasionally been helpful. But at the same time we've seen the barriers that they put up and the arguments that they're saying are not reasonable. There's a hundred thousand people in Providence. There are only a million in the state. There's only 25,000 businesses in the state. If this was democratic, who would make those decisions that serve the people, those 25,000 people? It seems like an inversion. I think we can do better.
"I think we have to start owning this as a moral, civil rights issue, its not going to work. We have to show up for drivers licenses, we have to show up for the Earned Income Tax Credit, we have to show up for child care, we have to show up for each other. It also means we have to show up for each other outside of the State House. We have to provide physical, moral and economic support for each one of our organizations, so desperately needed to keep this work going. Until we're able to make that actual commitment, which means putting our skin in the game, brothers and sisters, it is not going to work.
"How many people here are members of the Jobs with Justice coalition? ... see, that's not enough.
"All of us should be linked to each other more tightly. I know that we're all brought together by EPI, but we're not tight enough. I need to know what you guys are doing, and you guys need to know what we're working on, so that when it is time for you guys to get out there, I can rely on you, and you can rely on me. If we're going to have a moral movement and a civil rights movement that is effective, and a democracy that everyone belongs to, we're going to have to actually start committing to each other, emotionally, physically, and use what Sarita (Gupta) pointed out so beautifully, our love for each other as something that motivates us. I'm hoping that days like today can move us forward."
Amen to that.