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January 16, 2019

Think Progress: What years as a hotel worker taught this U.S. Congress member about ‘the dignity of work’

For Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), the political in many ways is also deeply personal.

A partial government shutdown, now in its fourth week, has left 800,000 federal workers without a paycheck. Hardest hit are those who can least afford to go without pay: federal contract workers who barely earn above minimum wage and probably won’t be awarded back pay.

Pressley, who is two weeks into her tenure as a freshman member of Congress, says she knows well the suffering of this particularly vulnerable group. She represents Massachusetts’ 7th district, the most racially and economically diverse in the state.

And the lawmaker not only represents many blue-collar workers but counts herself as one of them: For six years, Pressley herself worked in hotels, greeting guests and filling water glasses at fancy banquets.

“I… have my own lived experience as a hotel worker,” Pressley, 44, told ThinkProgress.

It was a job she performed first while working her way through college and as a congressional intern. Later, working in hotels helped her provide for her cancer-stricken mother.

Pressley said she started her job at a Boston hotel “when I was working (as an intern) for former Congressman Joe P. Kennedy II and I had to take a break from my college studies.”  

Hotel work helped pay the bills time and again early in her working life. “My mother lost her job. Not long after that, she was diagnosed with leukemia,” she said. Even after being hired on as a paid member of Kennedy’s staff, Pressley continued her employment at the hotel.

“I still needed to supplement my income because I was supporting my mother and myself,”  she said.

More than just helping her pay the bills, Pressley said her years as a hotel worker gave her a better understanding of the economic fragility that so many blue-collar workers and people of color experience — an awareness that, during her years on Boston’s city council, led her to log long hours walking with constituents on picket lines and at protests.

“I’ve always fought for those workforces that too often are rendered invisible and treated as such when it comes to their opportunity working for a living wage, health care benefits, having a predictable work schedule, and to be treated with dignity,” she told ThinkProgress.

Pressley’s background in hotel work also has allowed her to become intimately acquainted with the struggles of Boston’s large and diverse immigrant population, “who would work back-to-back shifts while often living in small quarters with multiple family members — who would be working hard and then sending much of their income back to their homes of origin,” she said.

“So it was a defining experience of my life, not just because I learned great lessons about work ethic, humility and the dignity of all work.”

Pressley is seen as one of the stars of a historically diverse freshman class that includes Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — a lawmaker of Puerto Rican descent who worked as a waitress and bartender before winning her New York congressional seat.

She upset 10-term incumbent Michael Capuano in last year’s Democratic primary and ran unopposed in the general election. Pressley was sworn in earlier this month as the first African-American woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress. She now occupies the Capitol Hill office that once belonged to Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress.

One of the first things Pressley did when she took her seat in Congress this month was to co-sponsor a bill demanding financial support for hourly contract workers who are unlikely to receive back pay when the shutdown ends. The measure was introduced by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton of Washington, D.C., whose constituents are also disproportionately affected by the shutdown.

Her maiden congressional floor speech this month earned her a verbal reprimand from Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), serving as speaker pro tempore, who cautioned her to “refrain from engaging in personalities toward the president.” 

Pressley directed her “personalities” — or language deemed unnecessarily insulting — against Trump for failing to live up to his oath of office to protect and serve all Americans.

“Sir, you dishonor that oath,” Pressley said. “You devalue the life of the immigrant, the worker, and the survivor. I see right through you and so do the American people.” 

Her chief of staff, Sarah Groh, told ThinkProgress that despite the rebuke, Pressley stands by her remarks.

“The congresswoman went onto the floor very clear about her remarks and their intention and their intention was to lift the voices of impacted workers that she felt we have not been talking about enough,” said Groh.  “She will never shy away from offering a clear rebuke of the actions taken by this administration when she feels it is appropriate.”

Last week, Pressley marched in solidarity with furloughed and contract workers at a union-sponsored rally near the White House demanding an end to the shutdown. She told ThinkProgress this week that getting workers back on the job is important, not just for their financial survival. 

“Of course, people need to work because they need the income for medication, to purchase groceries, to pay child care, to pay rent,” she said.

But, “people want to work because they find dignity and value in their contribution. They were demonstrating the ultimate patriotism at time when the occupant of the White House betrays the American people and the American worker.”