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Rosa Parks and the ‘Fight for $15’

By Sontia Bailey

This week America celebrates the courageous commitment of Rosa Parks to take her place at the front of a segregated bus in Montgomery on December 1, 1955.

It’s important to remember that we honor Rosa not just because she sat down, but because she also steadfastly refused to give up her seat.

As one of many low-wage Capitol contract workers, Rosa’s commitment inspires me and my co-workers to make the “Fight for $15” a fight to the finish.

Contract workers like I have gone on strike 5 times over the past year to win a living wage and union rights from our employer, Restaurant Associates/The Compass Group.

As the Senate Rules Committee finishes negotiating the terms of its contract renewal with the company this week, workers don’t expect the deal – cut behind closed doors – to make our lives better.

That’s why we want senators, staffers, and the company to know that the workers who cook and clean for them will not give up until we win our seat at the table.

Why do we persist?  Because if Rosa gave up, the course of history would run another way.

As rapper Jay Z put it so poetically, “Rosa sat down so Martin Luther King could walk.   Martin Luther King marched so Obama could run.   Obama’s running so we all can fly.”

The “Fight for $15” is the latest chapter in the long struggle of African-Americans who yearn for the freedom to get ahead.   We may have won civil rights, but we haven’t ended economic inequality.

While we can sit at the front of the metro during the morning commute to the Capitol, we still cannot afford to lift our families out of poverty on the low pay we earn.

My co-workers include a college-educated dad who is forced to use food stamps to feed his kids, a single mom dependent on Medicaid to care for her disabled son, and even a woman who moonlights as a stripper to provide for her son.

I too work a second job because my Capitol job pays so little.   Working 70 hours a week at two low-wage jobs took a heavy toll on my body – this summer I suffered a miscarriage.

If all of us give up now, it means the doors of economic opportunity will remain forever locked.  We will remain dependent on government assistance to supplement our incomes and allow another generation of our kids to be raised in poverty.

We cannot allow this version of history to be our destiny.

U.S. Capitol and Senate contract workers will continue to strike and engage in civil disobedience until the company recognizes our right to form a union.   We will not yield until we win our seat at the bargaining table.

Rosa wanted her actions to be remembered as a contribution towards winning “justice and prosperity for all people.”  By refusing to surrender, we seek to honor her legacy.

Bailey works at the Refectory Café inside the U.S. Capitol.