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Daisy Holland, a nursing assistant and rebel

by Jordan Green

“In the sixties when Martin Luther King had a march on Washington I had a small child,” Daisy Holland says. “I was poor and living in New York. I always wanted to get involved. So after I raised my children, I got some training to become a nursing assistant.”

As an active union member at her job at Bellevue Hospital, Holland was an eager participant in struggles for racial and economic justice. She rode a bus to Washington DC to demonstrate for a national Martin Luther King holiday during the Reagan administration, joined the Rev. Al Sharpton in protests against police killings of young black men, and stood with her union to denounce an initiative to limit the federal government’s use of union labor.

Now 70 and a resident at Gateway Plaza, the high-rise retirement community on the southern flank of downtown Greensboro, Holland serves as a member of the Greensboro Minimum Wage Committee, which is collecting signatures to raise the citywide minimum wage to $9.36 per hour. Allowing for inflation, that was the equivalent minimum wage in 1968, the year it had the maximum purchasing power. Once the county Board of Elections verifies that at least 5,000 of the signatures represent registered voters who are Greensboro residents, the proposal is expected to go before the Greensboro City Council for approval. Barring unforeseen legal challenges, if the council rejects the raise the measure will end up on the ballot for the November municipal elections.

Shortly after relocating to Greensboro with her sons and daughters in 1992, Holland took part in a campaign to address racially disparate compensation at the K-Mart distribution center.

“The first time I went to jail was here at K-Mart,” Holland says. “I went on the property when they asked us not to. I was all for it if it was going to help.”

A photocopied image on her bedroom wall shows a row of alert Greensboro police officers standing to one side in front of the distribution center as a group of black ministers huddle in prayer and state Rep. Alma Adams hovers nearby.

Inscribed over the photograph are the words, “Power of prayer.”

For now the picture is taped inside an open frame. Someday Holland plans to find a glass plate to encase it.

For her, the struggle for justice and Christian faith have been intertwined since at least as far back as when she was growing up with her grandparents in the Tidewater town of Suffolk.

“I always read up and kept up with my black history when I was growing up in Virginia,” she says. “I learned about Booker T. Washington, Nat Turner and John Brown.”

She adds, “My faith is what made me be as Jesus said, to be our brother’s keeper. We’re Jesus’ hands and feet until he comes back. We’ve got to prevent war, bring love and peace, and look after the elderly.”

Holland will not directly benefit from the minimum wage campaign, should it prevail. Now that she is retired as a housekeeper at Guilford College, she relies on monthly Social Security payments, most of which go to rent for her modest-sized apartment on the sixth floor of Gateway Plaza.

But the raise would bring additional income to some of her children, who work in personal care and retail. And she can appreciate the relief such a raise would have provided her during the last of her working years, when her wages ranged from $5.15 to $7.50 per hour.

“My daughter moved here to get a job,” Holland says. “She was the first one. A friend got her a job at Bennett College. My other children and I followed her. We all fell in love with Greensboro.”

The nursing assistant job Holland left at the unionized Bellevue Hospital had paid $11.31 per hour. She was in for a shock when she hit the job market in North Carolina.

“When I came here I didn’t know you had to be North Carolina certified,” she says. “I couldn’t find a job for a while. I eventually got a job at Evergreen Nursing Home for $5.15, which was the minimum wage. That’s half of what I was making in New York. Over a period of six months they would raise you a quarter, sometimes fifty cents, but mostly fifteen cents or twenty-five cents. Overtime was what helped. I could work sixteen-hour days three days a week.”

During the three years she worked at Evergreen, Holland sometimes endured bouts of back pain from the strain of turning residents to help them avoid bedsores.

On top of volunteer work, Holland always worked a second part-time job. During the time she was employed with Evergreen, she worked at Four Seasons mall. After she took her housekeeping job at Guilford College, she working as a home-health aide on the side. At the time of her retirement in 1999, she was working about 62 hours a week, earning roughly $16,000 a year.

Had she been able to earn the proposed minimum wage of $9.63 per hour, Holland imagines she would probably have let go of her second job. Forty hours per week would have bumped her up to an annual income of $19,468.80. Even that would have been significantly less than her best-paid years in New York when she earned as much as $22,000.

She says she could have used the additional $3,468.80 to trade up for a nicer apartment. More importantly, the additional money would have relieved some economic strain and allowed her to spend more time with her volunteer work. Holland gives her time at Greensboro Urban Ministry and the Beloved Community Center’s hospitality house, not to mention occasionally cooking for disabled residents at Gateway Plaza.

Many of her acquaintances are struggling in jobs with stagnant wages, Holland says. She’s confident the $9.36 minimum wage will ultimately be adopted. For her, it’s a matter of fairness and progress.

“I know a lot of people who are making seven dollars an hour,” she says. “The nicer apartments, you start at six hundred and fifty dollars, maybe five hundred dollars. People have to pay light and water. There goes the bulk of your salary. If you got two or three children to feed and clothe… People are just existing and surviving.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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