October 5, 2012
I am very honored and humbled to accept the Florence Kelley Award tonight, an award that bears the name of such an important social justice advocate in the history of our country. What an incredible legacy she left for advocates like me to try to emulate.
I am also proud to be here on UMW evening. For all of you out there who are not familiar with what UMW stands for, it stands for United Methodist Women. I find it rather ironic that I am in this room with so many members of another UMW, the United Mine Workers of America.
My roots go deep into mining history in the state of West Virginia, where my father was born and raised in the company-owned coal camp of Hutchison. Since the end of the Civil War my forefathers have worked for companies like Westmorland and lived in places like Winding Gulf, Brush Fork and Sand Lick.
As has been mentioned, Florence Kelley was the first General Secretary of National Consumers League and an amazing leader and organizer. Many people rallied around her to make her work a success.
Although this year’s Florence Kelley Award bears my name, this award is also for the diverse, intelligent, dedicated team of volunteers behind me in Utah that has made achieving my goals possible. Without them I would not be standing here tonight.
Teamwork among staff and volunteers at National Consumers League today contributes to the ongoing success of their work toward fair wages and against wage theft, food safety, consumer finance issues, and their recent spotlight on the plight of restaurant workers around the country.
Let us acknowledge all of the work that National Consumers League has done on behalf of everyone here.
Utah, where my coalition takes on the political establishment, is purported to be a family-friendly state, one where we value everyone, especially the children.
It should be a state where children get proper nutrition, where taxes are fair, where struggling families can count on reasonable interest rates when borrowing money and where a living wage is the norm, not the exception.
This would be the Utopian Utah. This is not the real Utah. The state where I live and work is hostile towards working families, the poor and homeless. For years Utah was in the top five states for childhood hunger. And we spend less per child for education than any other state in the union.
When the Coalition of Religious Communities was formed in 1995 as an advocacy project of Crossroads Urban Center one of our three founding issues was to remove the sales tax from all grocery purchases. Crossroads operated and continues to operate the busiest emergency food pantry in Utah.
We provided emergency services including food, baby formula, winter coats and bus passes to almost 90,000 people last year alone.
During the early years we did this work we came to realize that handing out food and clothing, while a quick fix to immediate problems did not address the root causes of poverty. Thus we were not fully helping to move our clients to self-sufficiency.
As I mentioned, removing the sales tax from food purchases was our first issue. We were laughed at by state legislators. We were dissuaded by fellow advocacy groups.
The sales tax on food had been put in place in the early 1930’s by Governor Blood as a temporary solution to budget shortfalls as a result of the Great Depression. That tax, nicknamed Blood Money, would not, nor has it ever been removed.
We worked hard to make a case that taxing a basic necessity of life was unacceptable, an unnecessary burden on the poor, an immoral and unjust act.
We educated candidates about the tax and made it a campaign issue year after year, we met with sitting officials, put together information sheets, made charts and graphs, held press conferences, and ran around Utah’s Capitol Hill with neon stickers reading, “It’s Simple, It’s Fair.”
We did this for the better part of ten years, gathering proponents little by little, until finally in 2006 we reached critical mass and got our first bill passed all the way through the legislature to remove a portion of the sales tax on food.
When we began our fight Utah consumers were paying between 6 3/8% and 8.0% in sales tax on their groceries. Today we have managed to bring that number down to a flat 3% statewide.
Another big fight we have taken on is the fight against payday lenders, who prey upon the poor. Payday lenders are ubiquitous in states where their business is legal.
However, in most states there are laws against usury, or at the very least interest rate caps on consumer loans.
Not in Utah! We have no usury laws, no rate caps on most types of small consumer loans. In fact, before we started running legislation to curb their practices payday lenders had only to take out a business license and put up a sign in order to open their doors.
Today in Utah payday lenders are required to post interest rates in their stores, there is a law giving consumers a 24 hour right to rescind a payday loan with no penalty, lenders MUST be registered with the Utah Department of Financial Institutions, they MUST submit annual reports to the Governor and state legislature and they MUST submit to annual inspections. And there is more, but that is for another night.
As we worked to regulate payday loan companies, it came to our attention that state and nationally chartered credit unions were leading unsuspecting customers to payday loan sites for sub-prime loans with triple digit interest rates. We found that to be unacceptable.
Our first strike was to send letters to CEOs of all credit unions with branches and/or headquarters in Utah asking them to stop the practice.
After accelerating our work, which culminated in a press conference outside a branch of America First Credit Union, we scored a victory for ALL America First Credit Union customers nationwide when America First agreed to withdraw direct, supported links from their website to a national payday loan company.
A year later we got Mountain America Credit Union to stop the practice as well.
Our latest victory came this past June when credit unions in Utah purchased by Chartway the year before posted notice that they would no longer offer links to or endorsements of online payday lenders. We couldn’t be more proud of this victory!
In addition we tackle other issues that impact low income Utahns.
Right now we are trying to convince our Governor not to opt out of Medicaid expansion so that 138,000 people in our state can receive the medical assistance they so desperately need.
Next year we plan to pass legislation giving a Utah-state tax credit to businesses that hire the homeless.
One law we helped pass a few years ago has made it illegal for any company in America to send a Utah resident a check that upon endorsement constituted signing a contract for another product or service.
We had seniors who by endorsing what looked like a $3.00 rebate check from a phone company entered into a contract to buy internet service from a national provider for 24 months. And our victims at the time lived in subsidized housing and didn’t even own computers!
Although advocacy work is not sexy, not glamorous, not something that gets much attention, it is the core of social justice, something I believe in strongly and am passionate about. The fight isn’t fair. Sometimes our adversaries will stop at nothing to discredit what we do.
In the past year someone has used my name to post comments in favor of payday lending on a local newspaper reader comment site.
And, the manager of a local payday loan company, using my name, bought lindahilton.com and started a website promoting the business of triple digit lenders.
Our coalition goals in coming years include stopping sub-prime small loan lenders in Utah from charging triple digit interest rates, that right now average 521% APR, removing the remaining sales tax on groceries and going after the Utah state law that prohibits, yes, PROHIBITS individual cities and towns from being able to set their own minimum wages that are higher than the current federal minimum wage.
Our budget is small, yet we go up against industries that have millions for advertising and campaign contributions.
If there is one lesson to be learned here, it is that David MUST continue to battle Goliath.
The key to our coalition’s success is that we stay focused and we keep showing up to educate, to question, to testify, and to shine the light on legislation that keeps Utah’s poor and working families living in poverty.
Some legislators call me a pain. Some call me a nightmare. A group of majority leaders call me the Witch on Capitol Hill.
Put any label on me that you want but as Winston Churchill once said, “Never, Never, NEVER give up”. I will not, and I hope that you won’t either.
Thank you again for this most prestigious award. I am honored to have had this time with you tonight.