Active with the Activists
Arnie Alpert is a retired activist, organizer, and community educator long involved in movements for social and economic justice. Arnie writes an occasional column Active with the Activists for InDepthNH.org.
ARNIE ALPERT, InDepthNH.org
When COVID-19 swept through Lidia Yen’s family at the beginning of 2021, everyone had to quarantine for a month. Yen, who was finishing her college degree and working several part-time jobs, was the only family member with paid sick leave, and that was from just one position at a local nonprofit.
With her mother out of work due to a disability, “I was the only child in the house who made enough to help with the bills,” she said. “It was tough.”
Yen attributes her need to work 55 hours a week at multiple jobs to the state’s minimum wage, stuck for years at the federal level of $7.25 an hour. “It’s not livable,” she says.
Yen, who came to Concord from South Sudan when she was little, told her story at a rally Saturday in Concord marking International Workers Day. The overall theme, “All Workers Have Dignity,” came through in speeches from clergy, lawmakers, and activists from several organizations.
“When we lift from the bottom, everybody rises,” said the Rev. Jason Wells of the NH Council of Churches in a phrase reminiscent of the labor credo, “an injury to one is an injury to all.” In addition to raising wages, Rev. Wells spoke about the need to defeat legislation aiming to turn New Hampshire into a “right to work” state, one with restrictions on the ability of employers and unions to adopt contracts in which all workers pay a share of the cost of collective bargaining. The concept has been batted around at the State House for decades and is expected to come before the House of Representatives for a crucial vote in early June. The Council of Churches has joined labor unions and other groups in calling on legislators to vote it down.
For David Holt, an activist from Somersworth associated with Occupy Seacoast, “right to work” doesn’t have anything to do with the actual right to work. “What it is is an attack to keep people from working together,” he said.
The first day of May has been an occasion for labor rallies since 1886, when workers throughout the United States demanded an 8-hour day. When radical labor leaders were framed, tried, and executed for violence that took place during a rally in Chicago, the significance of May Day spread throughout the world. Although it petered out in this country in the mid-20th century, the tradition revived in 2006 under the leadership of immigrants who tied workers’ rights to the need of undocumented immigrants for legal protection and a pathway to citizenship.
“We stand on the shoulders of ancestors who had a vision for a world that they could not see. It’s hard for us to imagine that an 8-hour day was once not a reality,” observed the Rev. John Gregory-Davis of the Meriden Congregational Church.
In New Hampshire, annual May Day rallies since 2006 have taken place in several southern New Hampshire cities, all led by Eva Castillo of the NH Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees. This year, Castillo tied issues like the minimum wage and the right to organize unions with the need for humane immigration policies. “Workers should stand together,” she said. “What affects one affects all. We should live up to our values of solidarity with one another.”
Castillo also led chants. “They say, ‘get back.’ We say, ‘fight back.’ They say, ‘go away.’ We say, ‘no way.’ They say, ‘shut up.’ We say, ‘rise up.’”
Marta Alvarado, a member of the Granite State Organizing Project from Nashua, pointed out that plenty of immigrants come to the state with training as doctors, nurses, accountants, and engineers yet are unable to find employment in their professional fields due to lack of proper documents. “It’s a shame,” she said, “that these people are not allowed to fully participate in our society. What we need is to legalize all the millions of people who are here working and contributing to our society.”
Rep. Latha Mangipudi, of Nashua, an immigrant from India, described her own problems gaining professional employment in a field for which she held a graduate degree. It took four years working in a lower wage position, she said, before she could get her training recognized. “Do we have equality?” she asked. “Do we have justice? Do we have equal opportunity? Do we have equal pay for men and women? Do we have equal opportunity for people with my skin color?” The crowd shouted “no” after each question.
Other speakers, including Linds Jakows of One Fair Wage and Rep. Maria Perez of Milford called for defeating, SB 137, which aims to freeze the minimum wage for tipped workers, now set in New Hampshire as at 45% of the minimum, or $3.27/hour. The bill, which has already passed the Senate, would freeze the wage at $3.27 rather than allowing it to float upward if a higher minimum wage makes it through Congress. They want a $15 minimum wage for all workers, with tips on top.
Jakows also called for messages to Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, who have voted against bills to raise the minimum wage to $15. The Raise the Wage Act, which they said could come up for a Senate vote this summer, would raise the federal minimum in 4 annual steps to $15 an hour by 2025.
New Hampshire’s Senators received praise, however, for backing the PRO Act, an ambitious labor law reform proposal which already passed the House and received an enthusiastic endorsement from President Joe Biden in his Congressional address last week. According to the Rev. Dr. Gail Kinney, the rally’s final speaker, American workers have had a legal right to organize unions for decades. But there are “minimal consequences for employers violating these laws,” she said. Instead of facing serious sanctions, she added, employers see fines for labor law violations as just another cost of doing business. That would end with passage of the PRO Act, which would also bar “right to work,” prohibit employers from permanently replacing workers during strikes, and reduce barriers to negotiation of first contracts for newly organized unions.
The rally, held in front of the State House steps, lasted for about 2 hours with 75 people in attendance and musical breaks from Portsmouth’s Leftist Marching Band.
Anthony Harris of the American Friends Service Committee recalled his own youth and said access to better jobs would make it easier for young people to resist the temptation to engage in criminal activity. Martin Toe of the Granite State Organizing Project added that higher wages would reduce the pressure felt by young families to leave New Hampshire to start families. Dr. Randy Hayes of the Kent Street Coalition spoke about family medical leave, a proposal vetoed by Governor Sununu last year in the midst of a pandemic.
Isaac Grimm, Organizing Director for Rights and Democracy-NH, recalled the history of May Day. “The labor movement has been a century long struggle of raising expectations,” he said. “All of us deserve living wages, to retire with dignity, to be more than workers and consumers.”