California home care workers launch Poor Peoples Campaign

LOS ANGELES – Hundreds of members of Service Employees International Union Local 434 B gathered at Griffith Park Recreation Center on Sept. 13 to launch a Poor People’s Campaign aimed at eradicating poverty in Los Angeles.

In an exclusive interview, Tyrone Freeman, president of the 103,000-member local, told the World this effort to organize nonviolent action against poverty is a revival of the Poor People’s Campaign led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1967. “We are starting in Los Angeles but we aim to go to the state, and then across the nation on our way to D.C.,” Freeman said.

“There is not a day that George Bush does not wake up and talk about what he is going to do,” Freeman told me. “Well, we like to do things, but we are here today to talk about it. It’s a structural system that says we have to be poor. It’s time to awaken and say this is a fundamental problem in our society.”

Pointing out that every member of his local is a member of the working poor, Freeman said, “We are poor, but we will be holding our head up high as we march because we do work – some of us 24 hours a day. Today we ask, why is it that we work hard every day and are still poor?”

Freeman concluded by saying, “Our government should be focusing on fighting poverty and the suffering that comes with it. We can’t be talking about $87 billion for Iraq when we have people suffering at home.”

In November 1967, Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) decided to launch the Poor People’s Campaign as the second phase of the civil rights movement. After the first phase had exposed the problems of segregation, King moved to address what he called the “limitations to our achievements.” The goal was to focus the nation on economic inequality and poverty.

Local 434 B, a local whose membership is mostly Latino, African American and Armenian, is the same local that organized 75,000 home care workers into their union in 1999. Now the local has invited community organizations, clergy, elected officials, immigrant rights groups and civil rights organization like SCLC to join them in coalition in this new campaign.

“Our goal is to eliminate the economic disparities between the haves and the have-nots living in Los Angeles,” says Freeman. “Our first focus will be on winning housing in the city to insure that there is no homelessness.”

In Los Angeles County – SEIU calls it the “hunger and poverty capital of America” – up to 84,000 people are homeless on any given night and as many as 236,400 people are homeless in the course of one year. Eighteen percent of Los Angeles County residents, about 1,675,000 people, are living below the poverty level, including 25 percent of all children and 11 percent of all seniors. This is the largest poverty population of any metropolitan area in the nation.

“We need a society that treasures the longevity of life for all – by providing decent housing, jobs, health care, public transportation for all. We are also calling for capital investment in the communities of the poor,” said Freeman. “We want more than outfits like Target or Kmart in our communities.”

Freeman said their campaign is closely connected to efforts of State Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-San Fernando Valley), chair of the Senate Select Committee on Ending Poverty in California, who has held public hearings on poverty throughout the state. Freeman said that his local will build a grassroots movement in Los Angeles to help Sen. Alarcon pass legislation.

The author can be reached at evnalarcon@aol.com