To make a real difference, initiatives for national service and civic participation must not be limited to recent college graduates or retirees who are able to volunteer their time or work for subsistence wages. Working together, unions, employers, and government can increase opportunities for participation by low-income workers who would add diversity to the ranks of national service and benefit from the learning experience that civic participation provides.
The 1.5 million members of the Service Employees International Union serve our nation every day. They care for the sick as nurses and doctors, nursing assistants and medical technicians, home care and nursing home workers. They protect workplace health and safety as security officers and janitors. They work in children’s services, law enforcement, environmental protection. A true national service initiative could unleash their talent and energy.
One way to expand civic participation would be to designate election day as “National Citizenship Day” and require employers to provide a paid holiday to encourage working people to vote and perform community service as local Election Board poll workers or on behalf of nonpartisan election day activities. Unions already help workers register and vote, without regard to political affiliation. But many workers cannot find time to vote, let alone participate in other civic life and community service. Many are holding down two or three jobs to make ends meet. In nearly two-thirds of married-couple households with children, both parents are working. Mandatory overtime keeps many on the job well beyond the eight-hour day. Meanwhile, most working families are scrambling to piece together child care and elder care and to secure health care. If the United States is to be a nation “of the people” and “by the people,” working families need time set aside when they can choose elected leaders and the policies they will be pledged to carry out.
Millions of the hardest-working people in America today are recent immigrants. They harvest and serve our food, care for our children and our sick, and build and clean our homes and offices—yet their legal status keeps them on the fringe of our communities. Unions are often immigrants’ entry point into civic life. We help them achieve living wages, affordable health care, and career ladders. We provide English classes so that workers can improve their job status and better understand their adopted country. But hard-working, taxpaying immigrant workers cannot become full participants in this country without a national commitment to legalization.
Not so long ago, President Bush was an outspoken advocate for providing a clear and achievable pathway to citizenship. After September 11, he and others backed off that conversation with the American people, but it is now time to resume it. National service by itself is not an answer to legalization, but it could be part of a renewed discussion about the need to acknowledge the contributions immigrants make to American society. Why not make a two-year commitment to national service one pathway to legalization? Union leaders and employers together could identify eligible current and future workers for screening by appropriate authorities. After legal checks, undocumented workers (and legal immigrants who are more than two years away from citizenship) could participate in national service jobs and gain credit toward legal status and, ultimately, citizenship. During their service, workers could attend English and citizenship classes.
The nation could also benefit from a concerted program to give workers who have been convicted of a felony an opportunity to reenter society. More than 3.8 million people who have been convicted of a felony are denied voting rights and full participation in our communities. Some states have passed laws that allow reinstatement of full citizenship after release, parole, and probation periods. Why not find appropriate national service opportunities to enable these men and women to earn credits toward restoration of full citizenship at the same time that they gain work experience and new skills?
Establishing a National Citizenship Day on election day, rewarding hard-working immigrants, and reintegrating those who have served time for past crimes are just three ways to expand national service and civic participation programs to include working people. If we are going to achieve the mission of the Corporation for National and Community Service to “foster civic responsibility, strengthen the ties that bind us together as a people, and provide educational opportunity for those who make a substantial commitment to service,” working people must be part of the process.