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We Energized Each Other: Finding Engaged Allies Where We Work

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Whatever our situation, we need allies to work successfully for change. We need people to talk with, brainstorm ideas, lift us up when we're down, and build power by acting together. Many of us involve ourselves in local and national political issues, but what about our workplaces? How do we shift these contexts to help create a more just and sustainable world? Unionization is one key approach. Had the Deepwater Horizon workers been unionized, they could have challenged the dangerous shortcuts that BP was taking without fear of being capriciously fired. Instead, many may well have held back from expressing their concerns for fear of losing their jobs. But whether or not our workplaces are unionized, we need to find engaged allies if we want to make a difference.

When Jorge Rivera was hired at ASI, a small Boston mattress factory with forty production employees, he was paid only $7.50 an hour, but was promised quick raises to $11 an hour. Once on the job, Jorge learned how to coil inner springs, build frames, and sew padding and fabric. He assembled displays for trade shows and helped sell the company's high-end mattresses to customers. Some days he'd work sixteen hours straight. But his promised raises never came.

Jorge let it pass for six months. "Then after another six months I asked what happened to the original offer," he said. "I was giving the best of myself, but they said I had to wait a little while." By the time he finally got a 50-cent raise, well over a year had passed. "It was like they were using me, acting like I was stupid, so I said, 'I want the raise that you talked about when I got hired.' I was getting madder and madder, until one day I just stayed home and told them I was going to look for another job. They called and offered me nine-fifty because they didn't have anyone else to do the work I was doing."

At that point Jorge realized that "all these other people in the company hadn't had a raise in three years. People wouldn't even get their overtime unless they went to the office and complained. I told them, 'You have to do what I did. Go and speak up.' "But most were afraid to. While Jorge was born in New York City of Puerto Rican parents, most of his co-workers came from Central America and knew only Spanish. "So I started speaking out for other people, because I spoke English."

The factory had other problems. The workers' bathrooms were filthy, "like we were animals. Nobody cleaned them. The drinking water from our fountain came out green. They didn't give you safety belts for your back when you lifted heavy mattresses. We used hot metal glue from a pump gun, but they didn't give us gloves or masks."

When Jorge began talking openly about these and other issues, he says, "the manager told me to look out for myself and they'd take care of me. I felt bad because these were my partners. I was trying to make conditions better so people would be happy and increase production."

When Jorge heard about workers at another Boston firm who won the right to be represented by the textile union UNITE, he and a few co-workers quietly met with a union representative. "I also started talking with people inside the plant and asking them how they felt about getting paid just five or six dollars an hour, when in that same hour they made three or four top-quality mattresses that sold for eight hundred dollars each. 'You can't buy a house with that money,' I said. 'You can't raise a family.'"

Jorge knew his actions were risky. "But I had to do it for the people who were there, even if lost my job." The managers called a series of company-wide meetings. "They said that if the union came in, the owners would have to close the plant. That's the first thing they always say."

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Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time, and The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear,winner of the 2005 Nautilus Award for the best book on social change. See (more...)
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