The Dance of Unity
When my daughter was younger, she participated in Ballet Folklorico, a dance troupe which brings the beauty of traditional Mexican culture to a wider audience. We performed at children’s homes, schools and other venues, and often times I would bring my union sisters and brothers along with me to enjoy the experience.
During the best performances, powerful connections formed between the dancers and the audience, younger and older generations, and the cultures of Mexico and America. Seeing those connections taught me that people can find common ground and understanding, even if they come from very different backgrounds.
The extreme right wing in this country does not want us to discover our common values, but rather they want to drive as many wedges and divisions as possible between people. As an employee of the Department of Justice for over two decades, and a proud Mexican American, it is infuriating to hear extremists scapegoat public service workers and immigrants.
The 1% wants you to believe that everything should be ruled by profit-making and the “free” market, that nothing of value can come from the government. But public service workers play a vital role in our society that the private sector will never be able to fill, whether it is protecting public safety, as I did at the Justice Department; or inspecting nursing homes to ensure quality care for residents; or licensing the contractors who work on your home; or building and maintaining safe roads; or making sure we have clean air, water and food.
The corporate attacks on public service workers have coincided with the drastic de-funding of education, infrastructure and other public services. People are still getting rich in this country, but they are not paying their fair share of taxes, and so our state budgets are suffering. One set of cuts have hit home particularly hard for my family. Because of California’s budget crisis, my daughter’s state college tuition increased by over $700 per semester during the three years she attended, making it difficult to finish her degree.
When you are a public service worker, you are not motivated by profit, you are driven by a belief in service to your fellow human beings. You are not pressured to cut corners or serve corporate interests. You’re not going to get rich in public service, but you can gain a deep sense of meaning from work which is in line with your core personal values and is for the betterment of humanity. The public service workers I know work tirelessly to carry out this mission.
Just as public service workers are dedicated to a strong work ethic, the immigrant families that I know work harder than perhaps anyone else. Both my grandparents and parents were farm laborers from a very young age. My grandparents barely had a grade school education before they were forced to work in the fields. Because of their struggles, I was given the opportunity for a better life for me and my two children. But I can see recent immigrants struggling just as my grandparents did. My mother’s neighbor, who is undocumented, cleans office buildings all day, and then when she’s done with that job she goes and cares for elderly patients in their homes.
This is the kind of work that no one else wants to lift a finger to do. To treat undocumented immigrants as common criminals is absurd. We wouldn’t have food on our tables if it was not for the back-breaking work of undocumented immigrants. The right-wing says that immigrant workers drain our resources, but it’s not true. Many undocumented workers pay taxes on income without being able to draw benefits such as social security. What’s worse, when you have a huge group of exploited workers with no rights whatsoever, it drags down wages and standards for all working people. Our entire country is hurt by the demonization of these fellow workers.
But we can fight back against these seemingly endless attacks, because being part of SEIU has the same power as the Ballet Folklorico, to bring people together and let us see how we are interconnected rather than divided. There are people out there who want to be part of something bigger. It needs to be our mission to find those people in our workplaces, communities and places of worship, and then help them find their path. By developing them into empowered leaders, we will infuse them with strength, passion and hope. And as our movement keeps growing, we can transform our anger into energizing joy, and all our goals, no matter how large, will become attainable.