Steve England is an organizer with the BPWA, a group that has struggled to improve the working conditions of Chapel Hill town public works employees, especially the material and spiritual conditions of African-American employees.
England works in the Public Works department and lives in Reidsville, about an hour's drive away, because, he says, his family can't afford to live in Chapel Hill.
This year, as last, the BPWA, joined by employees in the Public Housing and Public Transit divisions, presented an alternative budget plan to the town, called the "Freedom Budget." Speakers addressed pay policies, policies on evaluations, and other workplace issues.
I attended the meeting, and it was quite inspiring. The Town Council meeting room was nearly full (that doesn't happen too often), and I'd guess that about 1/3 - 1/2 of the crowd were African Americans (that's not too common), and maybe 1/2 of the crowd were wearing their town work uniforms. Those people were visually identifying themselves as "workers."
England got up to the podium and assumed the role of facilitator for a long list of speakers from each department. I thought it a very important symbole that people identifying themselves by uniform as public workers reclaimed the public space of politics, confidently identifying problems and, more importantly, identifying their own solutions. In a way this reversed the usual symbolism of the Council members as "active" and town workers as "passive," when it comes to the world of politics.
Afterwards workers enthusiastically, but realistically, assessed their performance and its reception. Employees chided themselves for not turning out more of the members who had promised to come, and for not having everyone exactly ready to come up and speak when each's name was called, or for speeches not being clear enough. I was a bit less critical, feeling that I had seen a bit of the someday-to-be when ordinary people run the world themselves.
(This creative self-assessment by the public workers gives quite a different image than that given by, say, the Readers' Digest which thrills readers with tales of lazy unionized janitors raking in $70,000which would of course be horrible, unlike the pay of corporate PR hacks who are paid to lie to the public.)
Since then, England told me that he has heard that this was one of the most powerful council meetings yet.
Here's hoping that workers continue to view themselves as policymakers, rather than policy-followers alone.
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