The Rhode Island House, under the leadership of Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, moved to strip away the political power of Providence hotel workers by inserting a provision in the state budget that would prevent municipalities from setting their own minimum wage last Thursday night. This week, the Rhode Island Senate takes up discussion of the budget, and though Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed might wish to continue to ignore the demands of underpaid and overworked hotel workers, it will be hard to do so as five women engage in a hunger strike at the State House in protest.
Starting Thursday, five women, including four hotel workers and Central Falls City Councillor Shelby Maldonado, will be camping out 24 hours a day at the State House, refusing any sustenance except water to call attention to the terrible way in which this year’s budget specifically targets low wage workers with the intent of politically silencing their voices. The plan is to strike until Governor Chafee makes his final decision on the budget, which will be a week from Thursday, if past experience is any indicator.
At a press conference Monday afternoon, Unite Here!’s Jenna Karlin talked about how finding volunteers for the hunger strike was not a problem. The problem was settling on only five people to participate, there were so many eager to step up for the cause.
Mirjaam Parada is one of the hunger strikers. Parada works at the Omni Hotel and presently makes a comfortable wage in excess of $15, but she is participating in the strike out of solidarity with the workers at the Renaissance and the Hilton, who make far less than she does, and struggle every day to make ends meet.
Hotel worker Evan McLaughlin, who will not be participating in the hunger strike, wants everyone who walks into the State House over the next week to understand that the women not eating outside the the building are doing so because the General Assembly has decided that they do not have the right to petition their city government or fellow voters for fair wages under the new law.
This change in the law targets the Providence hotel workers, but the effect will be state wide. All 39 town and city councils in the state will lose the ability to determine a key aspect of their economy under the new budget. This is in some ways an end run around democracy itself: The Providence City Council put the measure to give hotel workers $15 an hour on November’s ballot for the voters of Providence to decide. The law championed by Mattiello’s House takes away the power of voters. It seems “big government” is only a problem when it affects a business trying to turn a profit and not when it affects a family trying to eat.
Central Falls Councillor (and union rep) Shelby Maldonado will also be participating in the hunger strike. Maldonado wants to best represent the people who elected her, and she feels she can best do this by championing the democratic process. The rights of the people to determine what is best for their communities is being usurped by a General Assembly that is beholden only to business interests at the expense of low wage workers, and this situation has to stop.
Earlier this year, Senate President M Teresa Paiva-Weed participated in a vigil in the main rotunda of the State House and spoke about this issue of poverty, and her responsibility as a legislator to address this problem.
“The Senate’s focus this session on the economy will be inextricably intertwined with the causes of poverty. We can’t move the economy forward without addressing the very issues that underline poverty.”
She said the vigil and a screening later in the day of [the movie] Inequality For All “will set a tone for the year and the message will be carried with us as we work to meet the significant challenges ahead.”
Even though it seems these words were forgotten by the Senate president moments after leaving her lips, one hopes that Paiva-Weed understands that how we treat our most vulnerable citizens best demonstrates our commitment to our moral responsibilities.
Ironically, just before the hotel workers took to the State House rotunda to talk about their planned hunger strike, there was an event in the Bell Room on the first floor of the State House to celebrate the release of a new cookbook, Extraordinary Recipes from Providence & Rhode Island Chef’s Table by Linda Beaulieu, complete with expertly prepared foods from some of the area’s best chefs. This juxtaposition of fancy food for the entitled political class and a hunger strike by poorly paid workers is a jarring reminder that things are not going right in Rhode Island.
Here’s the press conference video: