The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) is having their annual General assembly in Providence this weekend, and today around noon they held a rally outside the Renaissance Hotel near the State House to support worker’s rights to a fair and just living wage, and to demonstrate against the draconian and anti-democratic tactics used by state officials to stop hotel workers from raising the minimum wage in Providence. Well over two hundred people made the trek from the Convention Center, where the UUA GA is being held, to the empty lot outside the Renaissance to chant, hear speeches and sing for economic and social justice.
Pastor Santiago Rodriguez, of the Gloria Dei Lutheran Church located between the Providence Place Mall and the Renaissance Hotel, emceed the event, introducing speakers and leading the crowd in chants of “Show Your Love to the Workers” and “Fair Wages.”
Also speaking was local legend Yilenny Ferreras, hotel worker and one of the four hunger strikers who shamed the Rhode Island legislature into making a small gesture of raising the minimum wage in the state to $9. Her speeches are full of fire, and her story resonated with the crowd.
Reverend James Ford of the First Unitarian Church in Providence and Reverend Ellen Quaadgras of the Westminster Unitarian Church in East Greenwich spoke next. It was under the leadership of Ford that the UUA General assembly made the difficult decision to boycott the 850 rooms they had originally asked for at the Renaissance. Given the hotel’s refusal to fairly engage with its employees over union and salary, plus its loss of LGBTQ friendly TAG Approved status, it would have been hypocritical to do any less. Still, 850 rooms were a lot to make up for, and the UUA GA had to scramble to find adequate lodging for all their attendees.
Speaking next was B Doubour, a fast food worker at Wendy’s who spoke of the difficulty she has paying bills and supporting her kids on the minimum wages the company pays.
Lauren Jacobs, National Organizing Director for Restaurant Opportunities Centers United spoke next, reminding the audience that the real minimum wage in Rhode Island is not $8, it’s $2.89. That’s what tipped workers in Rhode Island are entitled to. Often, their checks from the company they work for are for $0 after taxes are taken out. “Do you know what they call a worker who works for free?” Jacobs asked. “A slave!” answered the crowd.
The Rev. Amy Carol Webb, Musician and Minister at River of Grass UU Congregation in Ft. Lauderdale then lead the crowd in a song.
Rabbi Jonathan Klein, Executive Director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice in Los Angeles spoke next about the need for organizing around social justice issues. He hopes Rhode Islanders can get past difference is race, class and union divides to work together for a fair living wage for everyone.
Donald Anderson, of the RI Council of Churches, told the crowd that his group fully supported the efforts of workers in Rhode Island to earn a living wage.
After the speakers were finished Jesse Strecker, Executive Director of Rhode Island Jobs With Justice asked the crowd to follow Pastor Santiago Rodriguez into the hotel to speak with Renaissance Hotel Manager Angelo DePeri about an employee who faces termination due to their involvement with the unionization effort. As the crowd moved from the field to the parking lot, Providence Police and hotel security intercepted telling the leaders that the hotel, a public building receiving over a million dollars in tax breaks from the City of Providence every year, was not letting anyone from the crowd inside. In fact, DePeri was not interested in meeting even one person from the crowd as a representative.
The fact is, good and moral people want fair wages for all workers. The battle for economic justice has begun.
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(cc) 2014 Steve Ahlquist