Last Thursday, at my job at Savers in Henrietta, NY, I clocked out early for lunch and stepped out into the bitter February wind to join the fight for labor justice already in progress. Outside, coworkers and organizers from the union local were gathering with local activists, ready to deliver a statement to management on behalf of Betzaida Cruz, another coworker of mine who, back in August of 2014, Savers saw fit to fire because she was pregnant.
Allow me to repeat that for emphasis. In the United States of America, in 2014, this billion dollar corporation fired a young woman, because she was pregnant.
Betzaida’s affidavit to the EEOC describes a senseless, frustrating battle with bureaucratic authority worthy of Franz Kafka, complete with the brutal, winner-take-all amorality of an Ayn Rand novel. Suffering from pregnancy-related illness, Betzaida spent more than a week ping-ponging between the doctor’s office and the manager’s desk, receiving notes and authorizations, explaining that she could work, but with a twenty-five pound lifting restriction. The restriction should have been no problem, as her position as a cashier never required her to lift anything that heavy. Nevertheless, in the end the store manager and a representative from Savers corporate HR kindly advised her to “go home and take care of her pregnancy,” as Savers would not be providing her with any more work.
Since then, Betzaida has been unable to find another job. She is currently couch surfing, moving from one friend’s house to the next, which is a slightly more palatable way of saying that she is homeless. She lives the kind of chaotic, nomadic life that I enjoyed when I was a beer-swilling punk rocker in my mid-twenties, except she is still under the legal drinking age, and expecting a child in less than two months.
So often my life has been touched by young single mothers, like my mom, like my sister, like Betzaida, and I find myself dumbstruck by their sacrifice, by the depth of their courage, and I ask myself how they do it. When I can barely stay awake for prime time TV after a long shift on the job, I wonder, where do these underpaid and discarded heroes find the strength to carry on? Cases like Betzaida’s beg another question: how in God’s name we allow billionaire corporations to punish them and to make their lives harder than they already are?
Thursday, while the union reps and I were handing out leaflets to workers and customers, a group of volunteers from the local community activism group Metro Justice delivered the charges to the manager and asked for an explanation. Her response was craven. She claimed to have no idea who Betzaida was, and asked the activists what right they had to be in the store confronting her with the facts of her own actions. The other managers on duty busily snatched leaflets from the hands of employees, to save us from the burden of becoming informed.
In response, the next day management called the employees into the breakroom and read us a statement. Predictably, Savers denied any wrongdoing. They claimed, contrary to the facts established in the EEOC investigation, that Betzaida ended her employment of her own accord. The statement went on to claim that Savers does not practice discrimination, and that they are very proud of their diverse workforce.
As a member of that diverse workforce, I’d like to point out that Savers pays us all minimum wage. They provide us with shoddy healthcare coverage and force us to incur co-pays for doctor visits if we get sick and need to stay home for even one day. In Betzaida’s case, she did it all right. She jumped through all the hoops, got all the doctor’s notes, and still, the manager and the HR rep took her behind closed doors, and told her, “respectfully”, they claim, to kiss off.
Thrown out of work with one in the oven. Some respect.
Finally, to my fellow workers, all of us in our diverse array of races and nationalities whose meagerly paid hours of hard work makes Savers’ millions in corporate profits possible, I say, we are all Betzaida. When we were hired, we all signed statements saying that our employment was “at-will”, meaning the company can fire us at any time, with or without cause. We all deserve better than this. No one should work a forty hour week and still not make enough money to provide for their family. No one should lose their job because the boss doesn’t like them, because they are sick, or because they are having a baby. This is why we need to stand together to help each other out. Put simply, this is why we need to form a union.
Who can we look to for help if we don’t organize to help one another? The store manager and the corporate hierarchy are simply different faces of the same power structure, each one blaming the other when they disregard our needs. Your pay raise doesn’t carry over when the minimum wage increases? Blame corporate! Can’t get the day off when your sick kid is vomiting all over the place and the daycare won’t take him? Blame the manager! It’s a game we can’t win, because we weren’t meant to.
By contrast, when we are organized, we are no longer subject to termination at will. With a union, we have a contract, and we have real, binding power to fight with management for the kind of pay, benefits and policies that we need. If we had a union when Betzaida was fired, she wouldn’t have been in a locked room with two different bosses telling her to hit the bricks. We wouldn’t have to take the company’s word for it that they did the right thing. Instead, there would have been a steward in that room, one of us, whom we elected, whose job it was to make sure that she, or any of us who find ourselves in that position, would be treated fairly.
Now that’s democracy, and it’s the way it should be everywhere. That’s the world we need to live in. So let’s keep handing out flyers in the cold, let’s keep fighting with the boss in the morning meeting, let’s keep standing together and holding our heads high, until we make it real. Power to the people.