Image via Occupy New Hampshire Seacoast
At 6 pm on the day that the political establishment landed in New Hampshire following the Iowa caucus, it had already been dark for over an hour in Manchester, where the pre-primary frenzy was about to kick off in earnest.
In the basement of a Unitarian Universalist church on a quiet street downtown, a young man in a sweatshirt announced, “I’ve seen people pass out. I’ve seen people break down. And then they see their paycheck, and it’s not worth it.”
The speaker was one of the first fast food workers to take action in the state of New Hampshire as part of Fight for 15, a national campaign for better labor conditions for fast food and other low income workers. He was addressing the Granite State Organizing Project, a 12 year old coalition of labor, religious, and community organizations with three New Hampshire branches.
Sitting in folding chairs under fluorescent lights, clergy members in blue jeans and collars, millennial Bernie Sanders volunteers, refugee advocates, labor organizers, and student activists erupted with applause at the worker’s story. Meanwhile, just blocks away from this church, the media began to unpack its circus at the Radisson, preparing to retread generic Granite State scenes and themes—potential commanders-in-chief talking in diners and school gyms, “hanging ‘round the pub” with ordinary people who have ordinary problems. Presidential hopefuls as fellow citizens.
But while the candidates hurtled through the Granite State, hosting rallies and town halls, everyday problems remain beneath the stories told by visiting media personalities, who spend most of their time quoting surrogates: “I’m definitely feeling the excitement starting to build.” I walked to the Unitarian church because I was wondering about the ordinary problems under that grid.
The meeting began with introductions and a timely question: “What is one thing you would have the next president do?” The answers spanned the progressive gamut and then some: Raise the minimum wage. Immigration reform. Healthcare for everyone. Welcome Syrians. Ecological Responsibility. Revoke Citizens United. Address student debt. And mass incarceration. Raise the cap on social security. Invest in infrastructure and good jobs. Protect children.
Then came progress reports. Fight for 15 organizers explained that their national movement began in New York City immediately following Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012. In the time since, they’ve had a struggle but seen some success in winning higher wages in New York for fast food workers, while also applying pressure on lawmakers in Massachusetts who went on to raise their state’s minimum to one of the highest in the country (a still-inadequate $11 an hour by 2017). Trying to echo louder nationally, along with an SEIU-backed coalition, Fight for 15 recently crashed the Iowa caucus.
Via Granite State Organizing Project
Next was a report on the group’s tenant rights work. Members of GSOP recently spoke out in response to news reports of lead poisoning in Manchester, in properties that were deteriorating with apparently lackluster responses from landlords. The commission’s actions led to media coverage and a response from city officials, leading one activist to remark, “I’m glad we made the paper. If we made the paper, we did our job.”
Joined by a representative from the American Friends Service Committee, GSOP members went on to discuss a state $12 minimum wage bill that recently died in the New Hampshire legislature—not good news. After the big group broke up, some people spoke amongst themselves, with a few lead organizers meeting with low wage workers and activists about lessons from Iowa. Mapping out the week ahead, they plan to keep the Sioux City momentum burning while the spotlight’s on their backyard.
“The debate is our backdrop,” said one organizer with Fight for 15. “Over here is the debate, and over here is what the people of Manchester are asking for. And we are asking for a platform based on our community’s needs.”