I’m a janitor and a union member. This year I became an activist, too. | Commentary
Troy Bowman speaks at a rally for rent stabilization in front of Minneapolis City Hall in 2021. Photo courtesy of SEIU Local 26.
Like many people, for much of my life I didn’t think elections were for me. Over my 57 years I would vote occasionally, but the reality was that I didn’t feel like anything I did would matter.
COVID-19 and my union changed that for me, and now I want to share my story in hopes of getting more “regular” people involved in fixing our government.
I was a janitor at a big box store during the pandemic, and I started getting involved with my union during the fight to get employers to pay people for time they missed because of COVID-19. I thought it was crazy that people like me – already underpaid and overworked – were having to use our vacation time or just go unpaid when we were exposed to COVID-19.
I missed over a month of work in 2020, once because I was exposed to a co-worker and had to quarantine, and once when I actually had COVID-19. I’m still digging my way out from the financial hole of missing a month of paychecks.
I started speaking out about how I thought bosses and politicians were treating us as expendable, not essential (like they kept calling us), and at one event I talked with a fellow Service Employees International Union (SEIU) member who started telling me about a chance to get more involved in the 2021 Minneapolis and St. Paul elections.
This interested me because I wanted to figure out how to actually make the changes we need. We started talking about the things that were going to be on the ballot.
This year we were voting on local leaders who have influence over how essential workers are treated as well as whether we’d take steps to make housing more affordable and the future of public safety.
I’m an essential worker who was making less than $15, I’m someone who is struggling to find affordable housing and I’m a Black man in a state wrestling with how to become more equal and safe for all of us. It’s clear that all of these issues matter to me deeply!
Despite elected officials making decisions that helped or (more likely) hurt me, I never got involved in politics, let alone taking part in turning out the vote. But this year I jumped in with both feet alongside dozens of fellow SEIU members who also were tired of the status quo. I was tired of politicians telling us about champagne wishes and caviar dreams, but never delivering.
Before I joined my union’s election work, I didn’t think what I said or felt mattered or made a difference. But I can tell you that thousands of voter contacts and countless deep conversations with voters has made it clear that I was wrong.
I know that me, a regular person, talking with other regular people who have similar experiences to me helped change this election. It wasn’t just connecting with other voters, but it was helping to stop the disinformation that was floating around out there. I talked to many people who felt so overwhelmed by the attack ads and huge amounts of money being spent flooding their TVs and mailboxes.
One call that stands out was when I called a voter who said he didn’t know anything about the election because he was busy with work and life. I took the time to tell him about the important things we were fighting for. He was excited to learn and actually hear about what was happening. He was an older guy who hadn’t voted for many years but when he heard about the things we could vote for, especially after the murder of George Floyd, he said “we need change” and that he was going to vote.
I was proud to talk to him out of his shell and help him understand that voting does matter and his voice counted. No amount of money can top that real, human connection that comes with conversations.
After the January 6th attack on our Capitol, I remember hearing the poem from Amanda Gorman and being moved when she said we’ve been in the dark for too long and we have to let our light shine. It made me want to step out and do the work needed to make the change I want to see.
When the election results came, some issues and candidates I worked to support had won, and some had lost. But that’s OK, because I know I helped invite more people into the process who otherwise would have felt left out, and that builds long-term power.
I am glad I got involved with election work. It is clear to me that sitting out the process does nothing but keep things the way that they are now. If we are going to fix the huge issues we are facing around income inequality, lack of affordable housing, creating safe communities and more, regular people can’t sit on the sidelines.
I hope someone reading this listens to me when I say, based on my experience: It’s never too late to learn about government and help do the work of making change. There is another election around the corner…get involved!
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