Poor People’s Campaign plans marches, mass voter registration
Poor People's Campaign, courtesy Common Dreams

BESSEMER, Ala.—Linda Burns was tired of “working like robots” for a net of $180 a week at Amazon’s giant warehouse in Bessemer, Ala.

Which is why, after the monster retailer illegally defeated one union organizing drive there, and with the outcome of a rerun election undecided, she’s taken the next step and become a state leader in the national Poor People’s Campaign.

As one of its Alabama co-chairs, Burns will help lead a march on the state capital of Montgomery on March 2, one of 31 such marches in state capitals nationwide, plus D.C. There will also be a march on Congress on June 15.

During a February 4 kickoff zoom press conference with Barber and campaign co-chair the Rev. Liz Theoharis, Burns and other campaigners described what it’s like to struggle from paycheck to paycheck.

Venal and vicious employers, virtually all non-union like Amazon, exploit the poor and low-wealth workers, too, speakers said. That’s what the warehouse and retail giant, owned by one of the nation’s richest people, Jeff Bezos, did to Burns.

“I worked at Bessemer for three years,” she said. “We were expected to work like robots, moving 1,000 items per hour.”

Doing so severely injured Burns’s left arm. She underwent surgery twice and should have had a third operation “but I couldn’t afford it because Amazon cut off my insurance.

“And Amazon let me go because I was helping organize for the union,” the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which tried to organize Bessemer.  “Now I work 16 hours a day, seven days a week as a caregiver.”

Veronica Burton of Beloit, Wis., who works at a child care center, said the pay is so low “I had to work for two hours” just to earn enough “to buy a gallon of orange juice. And a couple of kids had to disenroll from our center because” families otherwise “couldn’t pay for drugs for their asthma.”

“We’ll focus on what legislatures can do” to alleviate the poverty that kills 800 people daily nationally, says Poor People’s Campaign national Co-Chair the Rev. William Barber II. “We have power and we’ve got to use it.”

The March 2 demonstrations will kick off this year’s massive mobilization of millions of poor and low-wealth people to register, vote, and make sure their votes count this year. The mobilization will begin that day and run through Election Day, 40 weeks later.

If even just a larger fraction of the estimated 140 million poor and low-wealth people go to the polls this fall, they could once again swing elections, Barber said. His examples included Michigan, where an increase in turnout by poor and low-wealth people made the difference in 2022 election results, when progressives swept the state.

Don’t walk in their shoes

But politicians don’t walk in the poor peoples’ shoes. The problem the Poor People’s Campaign encounters, again, is low voter registration and low turnout by its constituents.

“The #1 reason they’re not voting is because the politicians are not talking to them” or listening to them, Barber said of poor and low-wealth people nationwide.

Left unmentioned at the press conference was that millions of the poor and low-wealth people live in red states such as Alabama, Florida, Texas, Mississippi and Tennessee where Republican regimes enacted massive voter repression laws, creating what Barber has called “Jim Crow 2.0.”

Even more massive voter registration and turnout, he emphasized, could overcome such laws.

Theoharis stressed the key role of the states, politically as well as economically.

“Economic justice and saving democracy are deeply interconnected,” Theoharis said. “We are mobilizing and educating people to vote for fair taxes, raising the minimum wage and expanding voting rights.”

The threat is there. “Since the last election, more than 1,000 bills have been introduced” in state legislatures “to restrict voting rights.”

And those measures, including ones already enacted by Republican-run red states, disenfranchise poor and low-wealth people, workers, students, women, the elderly and the differently abled, the Poor People’s Campaign noted in the past.

“Wisconsin has 1.9 million poor and low-wealth voters. That’s 39%” of the voting age population in her home state “and poverty is on the rise,” Theoharis said of her home “purple” state.

But the heavily Republican-gerrymandered Wisconsin legislature is considering or enacted anti-voting rights bills, which also disenfranchise poor and low-wealth people. It’s also rejected anti-poverty measures. And the Republicans’ infamous Act 10 trashed public sector unions,

The problem is not just the Republicans, though.

“As long as we have so-called ‘moderates’ who will join the extremists” to defeat voting rights and legislation to help poor and low-wealth people, nothing will succeed, Barber said. “We have to take back the mic, mobilize and cast our votes in a way that is transformative.”

Information about the marches is at https://www.breachrepairers.org/mass-poor-peoples-low-wage-workers-moral-march.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.