Members of Congress are just like us. They work. They have families. They have been through tough times. And during those tough times, they realize their lives have been touched by labor unions and government employees, the men and women who have answered the call of public service.
At AFGE’s annual legislative conference last week, Sen. Mazie Hirono, Rep. Elijah Cummings, and Sen. Tammy Duckworth shared with us their personal stories that remind us of why we need to preserve public service and help advance the labor movement.
Sen. Mazie Hirono
Not many people know that Senator Hirono is an immigrant. When she was eight years old, her mother brought her to the United States to escape an abusive marriage. Her mother raised three children by herself. She had a low-paying job with no job security or benefits. They rented a single room in a boarding house where they all slept on one bed sideways. Life was hard for many years. As a child who came here not knowing a word of English and living under these circumstances, it was pretty scary.
“Growing up, my greatest fear as a kid was that my mother would get sick, and if she got sick, she couldn’t go to work. No work, no pay. I know what it feels like to run out of money by the end of the month where you’re having to figure out how you’re going to pay for food or in our case pay rent. This happened to our family a lot in our early years,” said the Japanese-born senator.
But her mother didn’t give up. She worked hard to improve their situation. They had to move every two years as her mother tried to get a better, more stable job. She finally got a job where her fellow workers decided to organize. It was not easy to form a union, but they did it.
Our family’s life situation improved because we were now a union family.
“Our family's life situation improved because we were now a union family. So my mother had stability in her job and her pay got better. And for the first time we didn’t have to move every two years. That’s what being a part of a union meant to our family,” Hirono explained.
Hirono later put herself through college and decided early on she would dedicate herself to helping others. Her firsthand experience is one reason she’s a strong supporter of labor unions.
Rep. Elijah Cummings
Rep. Elijah Cumming is 66 years old. He’s lived and worked on behalf of the people of Maryland long enough to recognize the impact of government on the American people. But at the AFGE legislative conference last week, he shared with us a more personal story about his own mother who had a stroke and was not able to move the left side of her body.
The physical therapist she saw was a public employee at the University of Maryland. At one of the sessions, she lifted his mother’s arm up and asked her to hold it as part of an exercise to help regain her strength. His mother failed twice. Before the therapist tried again one last time, she gave his mother a shoulder massage and told her she could do it. This time, his mother succeeded, and the therapist burst out in tears.
Cummings was stunned. He asked her why she cried. She told him, “I live for these moments.”
The therapist told him that she was only 14 when her mother had a stroke and died within three days. She decided then and there that she would dedicate her life to helping stroke victims.
The reason why I love you all is much is that...you don’t come to work so you can buy a house with a white picket fence. You come to work because it feeds your soul.
“Somebody’s taking their pain and turning it into a passion to help others,” Cummings told AFGE members. "The reason why I love you all so much is that you don't come to work so you can buy a dress. You don't come to work so you can buy a house with a white picket fence. You come to work because it feeds your soul."
Sen. Tammy Duckworth
Senator Tammy Duckworth is an Iraq war veteran. She lost both of her legs when a Black Hawk helicopter she was co-piloting was shot down by Iraqi insurgents in November 2004. Rescuing Duckworth was described as something from the opening scene of the movie Saving Private Ryan – she was bleeding and was dragged out of the helicopter by crewmembers, one of whom was bleeding and going into shock himself. Duckworth was taken to a hospital in Germany before being transferred to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
At Walter Reed, where she stayed for 13 months, doctors and nurses took care of her. Many of them were veterans and understood what she had been through. It was tough, but she was determined to live life to the fullest.
"I'm not going to let some guy who got lucky with a (rocket-propelled grenade) decide how I live my life," she said.
Duckworth told AFGE members that she wouldn’t have been with them today if it wasn’t for the medical team at Walter Reed.
These are folks who not just did their jobs, but did a little extra every single day because they cared so deeply about our vets.
“These are folks who not just did their jobs, but did a little extra every single day because they cared so deeply about our vets,” she said. “If we want to continue to have the world’s best public servants, those of us in Washington owe it to you to do our best to make sure that government employees are treated with respect by the government.”
Has your life been touched by public servants?
If so, we want to hear about it. Share your story with us!