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Minnesota: Welfare Rights Committee 15 Years of Fighting Back

By Deb Konechne

Minneapolis MN – “For fifteen years, the Welfare Rights Committee has been in the trenches, fighting back!” declared emcee Angel Buechner, kicking off an afternoon of celebration, in a south Minneapolis community center, Oct. 21.

As people walked into the room of the 15-year anniversary celebration, the rich history of the Welfare Rights Committee surrounded them. “Tax the rich, undo the cuts to poor and working people!” and, “Stop the war on the poor!” leapt out in red and black from giant banners on the walls. Brightly painted posters with slogans from different campaigns of the WRC’s history also lined the walls.

The most impressive, however, was the 40-foot timeline of the Welfare Rights Committee history, actions and media coverage. Over 375 actions and a selection of more than 100 examples of print media coverage spread out year by year, along the wall.

As one walked along the timeline, the impact of the WRC on the history of welfare in Minnesota and in the country could not be denied. From the 50-some arrests for civil disobedience, to testimonies in legislative hearings, to protests targeting welfare offices, politicians and the wealthy, the importance of the WRC in fighting to defend the rights of poor families was clearly evident.

Members of the Welfare Rights Committee spoke out with highlights from the 15 years. Founding members spoke of the early years of fighting for a welfare grant increase, for respect at the county welfare offices and to dismantle a repressive workfare program that was pushing mostly Hmong immigrants into forced slave labor.

Long-term members spoke of the national campaign initiated by the Welfare Rights Committee to stop Clinton’s 1996 welfare ‘deforms.’ The campaign climaxed with activists carrying out protest actions in 26 states on a national day of action, including the start of the WRC’s 7-day hunger strike at the Saint Paul Federal Building.

Committee members gave highlights from 1996 through 2002, years of fighting the state legislature to eliminate the five-year time limit in Minnesota, to stop all federal cuts to immigrants and to stop an effort to impose 100% sanctions on welfare grants.

Finally, committee members spoke of the most recent years, where the Welfare Rights Committee led the charge in the state to, “Tax the rich!” and stop politicians from solving a budget deficit on the backs of the poor. Highlights of the 3-year campaign included the poor peoples bills that raised money by taxing the rich and their corporations and then used that money to undo cuts to welfare and health care programs for the poor.

Descriptions of WRC actions rounded out the talks. Gillie Townsend told of one: We took over 770 diapers with stickers that people had signed and put their address and phone number on to symbolize the 6000 children who were about to lose basic survival assistance. At first capitol security refused to let us in, but we got on the news showing us dumping the diapers in Ventura’s office.

Virginia Amy Weldon spoke of the power in simply testifying at the capitol: “To sit in the State Office Building to testify on an issue so relevant to the cause of survival was and is mandatory for all poor people who have evidence of such economic abuse.”

Throughout the celebration, it was evident that the low-income women leading the fight for the Welfare Rights Committee are extremely proud of the important work they have done fighting for the poor, and understand their crucial role in building a poor peoples’ movement in this country.

#MinneapolisMN #PoorPeoplesMovements #StopTheWarOnThePoor