Agustin and Garcia: Essential Workers Council recommendations for San Jose budget
Deotina Agustin speaking at the launch of the Essential Workers Council. Photo courtesy of Working Partnerships USA.

The pandemic has exposed the deep cracks in our society—overcrowded housing, too few good jobs and a lack of quality, affordable childcare—that left our families and neighbors so vulnerable. These cracks are the consequence of decades of policy decisions that put corporate profits before human needs.

Now, with San José set to receive $223 million in federal funds, our mayor and council have a choice: they can invest in mending those cracks and strengthening our communities, or they can pick a path of austerity that benefits Wall Street but slows our recovery and ignores our wellbeing.

As immigrant women of color, we feel every day the impact giant corporations have on our communities. Both of us have worked for years in jobs finally recognized as “essential”—Deo providing childcare, Olivia cooking food. But while our work might be essential, we are not: corporations and their elected allies have refused to pay wages that cover the bills, or even to provide proper masks and gloves until we went on strike to demand better.

As landlords have hiked rents over the past decade, families like ours have been forced to crowd together, resulting in greater risk of COVID infection. Many of our friends and relatives have faced tough choices after being laid off: delaying rent and utility payments, selling their cars, taking on debt, waiting in long lines at food pantries and finding any way possible to hang on.

So even as we’re relieved to see our communities get vaccinated and emerge from the pandemic, we’re unwilling to go back to a “normal” that was deeply broken for so many of us. That’s why we’ve joined together with other people who are leaders in their jobs to form the Essential Workers Council.

We’re united across industries—grocery clerks and restaurant workers, teachers and caregivers, nurses and emergency coordinators on the front lines of our pandemic response—to insist we go beyond recovery and pave a path forward where everyone has the things we all need: good jobs, homes we can afford and thriving neighborhoods.

Right now, San José can do just that. As part of President Biden’s “build back better” agenda, Congress has approved millions of dollars to support our local recovery. The question is: how will the city spend that money?

As the Essential Workers Council, we’ve identified a set of recommendations to guide the city’s budget decisions:

  • Strengthen community services like child and elder care, parks and libraries, healthcare and public health and reliable internet—and make sure the people providing those services have safe working conditions and fair pay.
  • Help families keep their homes through rent and utility relief, legal aid for renters facing eviction and community ownership models to prevent corporate landlords from buying up even more of our homes.
  • Support people who have been excluded from safety net programs due to their immigration or employment status by removing barriers and providing targeted assistance.
  • Promote good jobs that pay enough to support a family, and provide resources and support so people know and can exercise their rights in the workplace.

 

With these strategies, we can address the health and economic disparities highlighted by the pandemic. We can provide much-needed resources for the communities most hurt by structural racism and too few public resources. And we can speed our recovery by creating good jobs.

But sadly (if unsurprisingly) the corporations that have made billions by exploiting communities of color—paying low wages, buying up housing, refusing to chip in their fair share in taxes for public services—are pushing the same failed austerity agenda that delayed our recovery from the 2008 financial crisis.

Already, some of the politicians they helped elect, including Mayor Liccardo, are suggesting we should put a shocking $80 million of this federal money into reserve funds and get rid of jobs providing essential services. This, quite frankly, is an insult. It’s an insult to those of us who have been risking our lives doing essential work, an insult to the communities that have experienced such pain and loss these past months, an insult to our children when we have the chance to do so much better.

Japanese artisans have a technique for repairing broken pottery called kintsugi, or “golden joinery.” Instead of trying to paper over cracks, they use a golden lacquer to fuse the pieces together—focusing attention on what was broken to remake things stronger than before.

We should take the same approach now: filling the cracks split wide by the pandemic to build towards a stronger future and a steadier foundation for all. Investing in the wellbeing of our communities and families is the only path towards a lasting and just recovery.

Deotina Agustin is a childcare provider, Essential Workers Council member and leader with Child Care Providers United. Olivia Garcia works at McDonald’s, is a leader with the Fight for $15 and is a member of the Essential Workers Council.

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