Poor People’s Campaign petitions demand Build Back Better’s passage
Poor People's Campaign: 'Rev. Angela Martin of the @Maryland_PPC challenges @Sen_JoeManchin directly with the central theme of our campaign: “Which side are you on?” ' | Poor People's Campaign/Twitter

WASHINGTON—Bearing petitions with more than 100,000 names, low-wage and poor women from the Poor People’s Campaign, along with co-chairs Revs. William Barber II and Liz Theoharis and other religious leaders, marched into the Capitol on Oct. 12 to again demand lawmakers pass the entire “bold Build Back Better” package to help lift up the nation’s 140-million-plus low-wage and poor people, many of them classified as “essential” workers.

“Poverty, low wages, racism and exploitation does not have a color or a race,” declared worker Emilee Johnson of Mississippi. Demanding a national solution, she added: “You cannot depend on states like Mississippi. It abolished slavery in 2013,” by finally ratifying the U.S. Constitution’s anti-slavery 13th Amendment, which Congress had passed in 1865.

President Biden’s BBB package, now hung up in congressional fights, would expand Medicare to cover hearing, vision and dental care, make the monthly federal child care tax credit permanent, funnel more money into home care—and mandate higher pay of at least $15 an hour for those workers—and enact other social program expansions. It also could provide a path to citizenship for undocumented people.

The bill’s tax provisions would help pay for those programs by raising taxes on corporations and the 1%, basically repealing the 2017 Trump-GOP tax giveaway to those classes. It also would impose higher taxes on carbon-causing industries such as oil and coal and vastly increase fines for labor law-breaking, while extending them to corporate honchos, boards and companies, along with individual managers.

What type of reception the campaigners got from two petition recipients, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., was to be determined after the campaign’s morning press conference outside the Capitol. Both combine long records of hostility towards social programs and low-wealth people with kowtowing to the 1% and corporations, who are their campaign contributors.

Also to be determined: The reception the campaigners got from a later closed-door session with two Biden White House aides. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., accepted their petition with alacrity.  Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a member of the House Progressive Caucus, reiterated that group’s enthusiastic backing of the package, and vowed it would pass there.

The petitions are the latest development in the campaign’s long-running mass mobilization nationwide to get Congress to pass the Build Back Better package, officially a budget “reconciliation” bill configured to avoid a McConnell-led Senate GOP filibuster.

But there are problems on the Democratic side with two of the 48 Senate Democrats—Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona— who haven’t endorsed the BBB. And the package needs all 48, plus both independents, plus a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris, to pass over the 50-person Senate GOP opposition.

Pointed comments directed at holdouts

So as a result., some of the most-pointed comments at the press conference were directed at the two holdouts. West Virginian Kaylen Marie Barker told Manchin, for example: “Stop playing kingmaker!”

“This is not about a handout, this is about a hand up!” added West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign co-chair Pam Garrison. “Do your job! Take care of people, not corporations!”

“The real question is not ‘How much does a bold Build Back Better plan cost? But (it is) how much does it cost in lives and hurt NOT to Build Back Better,’’said Barber. Manchin has said the 10-year plan, at an average cost of $350 billion yearly, is too much.

Theoharis’s reply: The figure Manchin dislikes, $3.5 trillion over a decade, “is already a compromise.” To really eradicate poverty would take three times as much, she noted—a far cry below what the U.S. spends on the military.

“We hope the Biden administration does not cower to the whims of a couple of senators,” Theoharis added. Instead, she and other speakers reiterated the campaign’s demand to cut military spending by half and shift the funds to domestic needs.

“My ancestors came to West Virginia to escape abject poverty,” said the West Virginian Barker, who can trace family in the Mountaineer State back for eight generations. “What we got was generational poverty.”

What she did not mention, however, was that the state’s coal barons and corporate elite—often one and the same class–imposed that poverty on the rest of West Virginia.

And it persists, she added. “I drive over rickety bridges. Our roads filled with potholes. We don’t have clean water to drink anywhere in the state because it’s contaminated with radioactive waste.”

“I’ve been caregiving for 50 years, starting when I was 15-and-a-half,” was the message from Phoenix resident Joan Steede for Sinema. Steede’s seen houses with no running water downhill from multimillion-dollar mansions, and must work two or three jobs a day to make ends meet.

When treating veterans “I’ve worked for them for five hours a day, and been paid for two,” by home health care agencies using Medicaid funds. The BBB’s provisions would give her higher pay—at least $15 hourly—and greater guaranteed hours.

Steede’s also treated elderly people, whom the BBB expansion would help and who are destitute. “Yet congressmen are going on vacation and leaving them in their beds to die,” she added.

“Housing is blocked for former felons” like herself, even after they’re rehabilitated, was the message from Lexington, Ky., resident Ariel Downing to McConnell. The BBB includes more funds for housing. “I shouldn’t have to have a pill addiction problem,” which she doesn’t, “to get help.”


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.