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Profile: Family’s Own Story Motivates Her to Help the Working Poor in NJ

Executive director of New Jersey Working Families has worked as union organizer, grassroots activist

Analilia Mejia

Who: Analilia Mejia

Age: 39

Family: Married, one son

Home: Elizabeth

What she does: Executive director of New Jersey Working Families

How she got there: Mejia was born and raised in Elizabeth. She earned her degrees at Rutgers University, including two master's degrees in public affairs and politics and in labor and public relations.

After graduation, she spent about a decade working with several unions in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New Jersey. She was an organizer with the United Food and Commercial Workers International, UNITE HERE (formerly the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees), the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, and the Service Employees International Union.

"I was one of the few of my classmates who went into labor, rather than human resources," she said.

Mejia also did some work on immigrant rights, working for the New Jersey Immigration Policy Network and the New Jersey State Democratic Committee's Latino Vote efforts.

In 2011, she worked her way back to New Jersey, as the state political director for the SEIU Local 32BJ and then as its northern regional political director. She settled back in Elizabeth, near her parents, who were able to help care for her new baby.

"Daycare is expensive and I worried about who would watch him," she said. "I was very lucky to have a mom and dad really close. We don't have affordable, accessible child care in this country."

Two years ago, she left to head Working Families.

Why she chose union organizing: Mejia said her mother, an undocumented immigrant from Colombia, and her father, a Dominican, both did factory work while she was growing up. They lived in poverty and did not have enough to eat.

"It wasn't until my mother got a good union job that we became less food unstable," she said. Had it not been for that, she would not have gone to college, Mejia said, because "when you are worried about feeding your kids, you have little time to dream."

Her mother was a member of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, which today is part of UNITE HERE. She jumped at the chance to work with them on such issues as immigrant rights and low wages, which had impacted her mother.

Union organizing or community organizing is a fulfilling job. Mejia said Republican Sarah Palin's disparaging comments about President Barack Obama's work as a community organizer could not be further from the truth.

"Community activists are building society, knitting people together," Mejia said. "Organizers make things happen."

What she is doing at Working Families: Although it was formed eight years ago, New Jersey Working Families was not well known and most of its efforts revolved around budget issues.

Mejia is a dynamic woman who set out to strengthen the organization from the start and has done so quickly. The organization's mission is to help improve life for working families, whose decline predates the Great Recession.

"The pain on Main Street is what triggered the collapse on Wall Street," Mejia said, noting that workers' job losses and mortgage defaults predated the financial decline that led to the stock markets losing half their value.

The organization's major battles are for fair taxes and a fair state budget, a $15 minimum wage, guaranteed paid sick leave, and expanded voting rights for all New Jerseyans.

"Americans, New Jerseyans, are tired of the inequality that has been baked into our political and policy decisions," she said. "Our focus is on inequality, whether it be racial injustice, economic injustice, immigration rights ... It's all about expanding the pie for working families. Too much of the gains have gone to the top 5 percent, the top 1 percent. The rest of us find ourselves stuck with crumbling roads, underfunded schools, jobs that don't pay enough."

How she has gotten around partisan gridlock to accomplish some of the organization's goals:

"I think what I brought to this organization is the idea that all politics are local," she said.

New Jersey's Democratic majorities in the Legislature and Republican Gov. Chris Christie have not accomplished much together to help working families. So rather than continuing to bang their heads into locked doors, Working Families has worked from the ground up.

"At the state level, you can be stymied," she said. "There is a lot of value in building up from the municipal level."

So when the organization made paid sick days for workers a priority and could not get it passed on the state level, it went to municipal officials. Jersey City was the first municipality in the state to require most employers to give at least some paid sick days to employees. Newark, Passaic, East Orange, Paterson, Irvington, Bloomfield, Trenton, Montclair and Elizabeth have followed suit.

"It was not a coincidence we picked cities critical within certain legislative districts to get to pass this," Mejia said. "The local people get covered. The local Assembly members and senators see the benefit and they support it. When the earned sick days proposal comes to the state level in a real way, when we have a governor who will sign it, it will be thanks to this local campaign."

The group is using a similar approach in pushing for a $15 minimum wage. Last October, Essex County became the first in the state to endorse raising the minimum wage to $15. Last month, East Orange signed a contract with public employees represented by the Communication Workers of America that guarantees a $15 minimum wage. And, Monday night, the mayor of Bloomfield introduced an ordinance that would pay all municipal workers at least that much.

Who you probably don't know she has met. Twice: The first time was in 2004, when she was working on the campaign for an Illinois U.S. Senate seat and met then-state senator and candidate Barack Obama at an event.

She was wearing a jacket emblazoned with the initials of her union, the UFCW. Union leaders had backed another Democrat.

As Mejia tells the story: "He came over and said, 'Tell your guys we forgive them.' I said, 'We are voting for you!' He was always so charismatic and handsome and funny."

The second time was last April, when Mejia went to the White House with 11 other Americans named “Champions of Change” by now-President Obama. He cited her for her work to get paid sick leave for so many New Jerseyans, lauding her and the others for "making extraordinary contributions to their communities."

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