We Shall Overcome: Choosing Our Power

iamamanWhen I listen and really understand your story there is an opportunity for both of us. An opportunity to connect, to get angry, to learn, to relate. In that way, you help me and I help you to find our voices and lift them together. We empower each other to take action.

Empowerment means change. Something in the way things currently are has to give. So it can be hard. In my life, I have learned to place a high value on self-determination.  This value is based in a few basic beliefs: first, that everyone is uniquely qualified to understand their own story, and second, that any lasting change in a person’s life has to be the result of their own decisions.  You and I must choose to be powerful.  We must choose to overcome what holds us back.

When 1300 Memphis sanitation workers walked off the job in 1968, after years of poverty and mistreatment by their bosses, they made a choice.  They chose between continuing to work for poverty wages in inhumane, dangerous conditions, for poverty wages; or standing together to demand to be treated like men.

They chose to stand together; they chose to strike. In the face of brutality from the police and local government, sanitation workers took to the streets, marching with signs declaring the simple truth: “I Am A Man.”

Dr. Martin Luther King lent his support to the sanitation workers’ movement, sharing in their insistence that they be treated as men, worthy of dignity and respect. In an address given on March 18, 1968, Dr. King stated that “work that serves humanity…it has dignity, and it has worth…it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.” A few weeks later, on the eve of his death, he reminded the workers and the people of Memphis that “the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.” Though King was assassinated onApril 4th, the legacy that he helped to build remained. To this day, we speak of our rights to make our own choices and stand up against the forces that prevent us and our communities from achieving dignity.

We can look to these lessons to inform our actions in our own communities, by listening, learning, and thinking about what holds us back. Listen in Pittsburgh, and people are talking about UPMC.  What stands in our way is UPMC.

UPMC employs 60,000 people across the state of Pennsylvania; it is the largest private sector employer in the state. UPMC is the biggest landowner in the city of Pittsburgh, and the city’s largest charity, meaning that everyone in our city pays something to support UPMC hospitals.

UPMC has billions in revenue and billions in reserves, so it can afford to pay 27 executives $1 million or more in compensation; the top 22 made $47 million last year – approximately half of what they give to charity care in the region. They also spent $55 million on the private airplane that they purchased in 2013 – approximately the other half of the value of their charity care.

While executives make top dollar, the largest group of UPMC employees, service who keep UPMC running on a daily basis, make an estimated median wage of $12.18 per hour–between 8% and 30% below what would be a family-sustaining wage in the city of Pittsburgh. Unsurprisingly, UPMC is third in the state for employers whose full-time employees receive Medicaid and food stamps, just after Wal-Mart and McDonald’s.

What are workers doing? Let’s listen to Christoria Hughes, an employee of UPMC. Christoria is a grandmother with primary care of her grandchildren. When her granddaughter was struggling to finance her education at Pitt, Christoria moved her family to Pittsburgh to provide support and began working for UPMC. Christoria proudly saw her granddaughter graduate from Pitt with honors; however, she has found it a struggle to make ends meet in Pittsburgh on the wages paid by UPMC. Though she works as much overtime as possible (she has coworkers who work up to 70 hours per week), Christoria is one of many UPMC workers who has to rely on federal housing assistance to keep a roof over her family’s head.

Faced with the choice to accept conditions as they are or to fight back, Christoria has chosen to reach out to others who are struggling and to build a common fight. She is one of the many workers of UPMC fighting to grow the middle class in Pittsburgh inside the state’s largest employer. Her choice is not without risk. Coworkers who are vocal in supporting the union face intimidation, harassment, and discrimination. Some union supporters have been fired. By giving us her story, Christoria helps us understand the choice.

As we approach MLK Day and remember that great man, we should look to our own movements, really hear our own stories, get angry, and choose to overcome.

On Monday, January 20th, from 9-11:30 AM, PIIN will be hosting an action and prayer vigil as part of their larger campaign to fight for equality in Pittsburgh. The action will starts on 5th Avenue, across from Presbyterian Hospital, 1025 Liverpool Street. Please join us!

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