My wife and I were motoring down the main avenue in Alexandria, Virginia, in 2017 when I yelled out, “Stop! I gotta have this sign!”
Nancy pulled over. I jumped out and yanked out of the roadside a real estate sign that announced, “From the Upper $1 Millions, New Luxury Condos,” with a big arrow telling you to turn so you could buy one.
Back when we moved here in 1992, this had been an affordable place to live, just across the river from Washington, D.C. But soon after that, gentrification kicked in full throttle.
Today, working people are priced out of home-buying completely, forced to pay exorbitant and climbing rents.
I wrestled the big sign into the back seat. “We can show this to the politicians and bosses around here when they tell us they can’t afford a big raise,” I told Nancy, who works for the city of Alexandria as a paramedic and belongs to the Firefighters Union (IAFF). And that’s what we’ve done for the past five years.
Mayors, city councilors, and county commissioners have seen the sign. So have transit authority bosses, corporate managers, company negotiators, state representatives, and many, many rank-and-file members.
It gets attention. At first people are puzzled: “Why do you have this real estate sign here?” But everyone gets the point when I explain that the mortgages and rents are “too damn high” and working people need a big raise now!
Can’t Cry Poor
I took the sign to a union meeting with the workers of the Alexandria DASH transit company in 2018. Coincidentally, it was the day after Amazon had announced it was setting up a new corporate headquarters here.
I held the sign up as I laid out why we had to win the union authorization election by a big margin so we could win long overdue and major wage increases. Every head in the room was nodding—that sign said it all. Several workers volunteered that their landlords had already given them rent increase notices as a result of the Amazon announcement.
We won the election 9 to 1. The economic settlement we negotiated was one of the best in our international union’s recent history. The sign came with us to union meetings, city council meetings, and DASH board meetings. None of the powers that be wanted to cry poor in a city with this sort of tax base—not with that sign staring them in the face.
So if you see a sign like this in your town, grab it and put it to work.
This is a blog that originally appeared on Labor Notes on June 1, 2022. Reprinted with permission.
About the author: Chris Townsend is the former national organizing director of the Amalgamated Transit Union and retired United Electrical Workers international representative.
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