Being an Unpaid Campaign Worker Was Worthwhile & Fun!

A 21-year-old organizer once worked for less than half the minimum wage to pass anti-nuclear bylaws in 106 towns – and was thrilled to be paid anything at all. Photo © 1981 by Leslie Desmond
July 28, 2019

If You Feel Entitled to be Paid to Participate You’ve Missed the Point of Democracy

Campaigns Are One of the Few Places in US Society Where Poor & Working-Class Kids Can Become Upwardly Mobile

By Al Giordano

(Photo © 1981 by Leslie Desmond, used with permission.)

Two young and presumably adult men this week cried to the media that they had applied to Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign for internships but were only offered unpaid positions. Oh, boohoo. I’ll bypass the mystery of how two of them came to tell the same story to the same reporter at the Daily Beast – we all know how these non-stories are spun into “news” – in the wake of the Bernie Sanders campaign’s public relations problems over not paying its fulltime field organizers the same $15 minimum wage the candidate loudly demands others pay.

There is in my view a bigger matter at stake here.

When did it become obligatory to get paid to participate in democracy?

Because if that’s become mandatory, democracy is already over. And I’m still of the belief that it can be saved. But to achieve that, we who experienced real democracy differently than it exists in the present moment need to tell our stories and push back against the imposed amnesia of these times.

I’m one who spent much of my early life as unpaid child labor – everybody, gasp as the drama creators have programmed you to do – in political campaigns.

A South Bronx Tale

I started my career of what some today would label as “unpaid child labor” (but an experience I cherish) at the age of nine in the arson-burnt buildings of the South Bronx: Fox Street, Simpson Street, Tiffany Street and Kelly Street, a Hunt’s Point neighborhood with a mostly Puerto Rican population, had become overwhelmed by neglect and malice from above. The stench of the most recently burnt edifices wafted together with that emanating from vacant lots where previous blazed structures had been razed only to become impromptu garbage dumps populated by gigantic mutant-sized rats (imagine being nine while cleaning one of those lots and coming face to face with a large mama rat who wants to protect her babies so bares her teeth and claws at little you) when the New York City Sanitation Department had ceased regular garbage pick-ups in the neglected zone. The neighborhood had become Ground Zero in war on poverty, and poverty was winning.

As Jill Jonnes recounts in her book, South Bronx Rising: The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of an American City (1986, Fordham University Press):

“Father Gigante now thrust himself into the media limelight. On December 15 the young parish priest gathered three hundred neighborhood residents onto East 163rd Street between Fox and Tiffany in Hunt’s Point and directed them to haul boards and old furniture out of the nearby abandoned buildings. Everything combustible was crammed into ten trash barrels, planted in the middle of the street, and set ablaze. As the soaring flames devoured the refuse, Father Gigante and his bundled-up parishioners marched up and down the block. Their faces reflecting the yellow of the flames, they chanted their grievances: They were without heat, without hot water. They were sick unto death of rats. They were tired of all of the junkies… They wanted action and they wanted it now.”

Father G, as many called him, the legendary community organizer, city councilor and rebuilder of the South Bronx, was my dad’s best friend. A Catholic priest who had been a college basketball star on an athletic scholarship at Georgetown University, Gigante had baptized me at St. Philip Neri Church in the Northwest Bronx when I was twenty-days-old. He was a regular presence in my family’s home throughout my childhood.

My pop took me along that chilly December night when the South Bronx civil resistance was lit, theatrically for the media, with controlled fires in the streets instead of the uncontrolled infernos that had driven thousands from their homes. Gigante’s chief of everything, community organizer Dali Morales, was still a teenager then. US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, another member of Father G’s congregation at Saint Athenasius Church, was 14. I was nine. I’m certain that nobody who was there that night has ever forgotten that moment.

The neighborhood was smack in the middle of the newly-drawn Congressional District, the first ever in New York with a majority Spanish-speaking population. The Gigante name means “giant” in both Spanish and Italian. Father Lou was from a Greenwich Village Italian immigrant family and had grown up speaking Neapolitan. He learned Spanish from a Church-funded immersion program in Puerto Rico designed by Ivan Illich. His older brother, Vince “The Chin” was a notorious reputed crime boss and throughout his decades of community and political organizing the press dogged him about his family members and tagged him quite unfairly as a “mafia priest.”

In 1970, Father Bob Drinan, the Vietnam War protester, ran for Congress in Massachusetts. That inspired Father G to do the same in the new Bronx-Queens district.

“I could bring attention to the South Bronx,” Lou told me years later. “Your dad thought I could win it. He was the campaign manager. I only ran as a media event. But he was right. We almost won! It shocked everybody, including me, and showed me something could be done.”

I did not grow up in the South Bronx. My early years were in Bedford Park in the Northwest Bronx and when it came time to attend school my family had moved to Mamaroneck, in the suburbs. Not all my family’s friends – frankly not every member of my family – thought it was a good thing that pop would bring me, his eldest child, to clean up vacant lot garbage dumps or watch nighttime bonfires in the Spanish-speaking South Bronx. But he was proud of what he was doing there and wanted his boy there to see it. I do have great memories from the 1970 congressional campaign. I had always begged my dad to bring me with him and sometimes he obliged. Those experienced formed me.

Interestingly, neighborhood people really liked that Father G had come from what the media had called a “mafia family.” It gave him street cred, and it frightened the landlords and other interests that had already assassinated other South Bronx community organizers like Edwin Rivera in 1969. Nobody would dare lay a finger on Father G! (He once took some neighborhood kids to a city basketball tournament downtown. “I told them on the subway, ‘if you get out of line or cause our neighborhood any embarrassment, I’ll kill you!’ I said it smiling and they laughed but I think they also believed me.”) Although the media wielded it as a negative, in the South Bronx it helped neighbors to feel unafraid. (As Ron Kuby, a protégé of the late radical defense attorney Bill Kunstler, told me recently, “Father Gigante raised the bail money for at least one of the Central Park Five defendants, and nobody could say anything about it because it was Father G.”) But to many in the rest of society the mafia tag was like a Scarlet Letter and the New York daily newspapers when they noticed Father G rising up on his own merits constantly used his family’s story to try to bring him down. This was before The Godfather movie had come out and had begun to weaken the impact of the slur.

Through years of organizing, the neighbors resurrected their own neighborhood and forced city, state and national authorities to help them do it.  Father Gigante – in spite of the drumbeat of media taunts linking him to the mob – won election to the New York City Council and formed the development arm of his Southeast Bronx Community Organization, SEBCO, which turns 50 this year, and built more than 6,000 new or rehabilitated housing units to be owned by the residents along with providing other long overdue community services. He and his organization were embraced by mayors, governors and presidents who ought photo opportunities at those South Bronx buildings. Today it’s one of the few safe neighborhoods in New York that has resisted gentrification because the families who still live there a half century later refuse to sell or leave. There’s so much pride still in what they accomplished by organizing together.

I’m regularly asked where my optimistic nature – even when things look bad – comes from. It comes from having lived a piece of that South Bronx story at nine and ten years old. Had my parents or I insisted that I should have been paid to participate, or had shielded me from it altogether, I would have learned none of the lessons I took with me. And it was only the first of many unpaid or underpaid stops along the way.

Child Labor for the Tenants Union

The early 1970s were trying times for many families…

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