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Philly's working-class hero gets practical waiting for revolution

Philly.com

By Jane Von Bergen - December 21, 2015

The workers' revolution hasn't arrived at a sad strip shopping center in the tired upstate Pennsylvania town of Dallas, where Republican State Sen. Lisa Baker has her office.

Instead, John Dodds, one of the state's longest-working champions of causes involving the poor - minimum wage, health care, foreclosure, unemployment benefits - is tucking leaflets under windshield wipers in the parking lot with a not-so-stirring message:

"Call Sen. Baker and ask her to report a $10.10/hour minimum wage bill out of her committee."

In the world of advocacy, there are at least two schools of thought. One is that the revolution is imminent. Act big, act boldly, act now. Fight for $15. Topple McDonald's.

Then there are the pragmatists, trying to do what they can, leafleting in parking lots.

"Some people are waiting for the revolution," said Dodds, 66, his salt-and-pepper hair combed back, not long and loose the way it was 40 years ago when he began the Philadelphia Unemployment Project (PUP). "Maybe [then], I thought there would be a revolution, but I'm not so confident about that anymore," he said in his calm way. "I do know the people at the bottom need a break."

"Short of a revolution, maybe we could make a little fairer world," he said. "That would help."

In Philadelphia and around the nation, fast-food workers and their supporters are abandoning their French fryers and taking to the streets, calling for a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

They represent the new guard, the young, unafraid to dream big, not cowed by the power arrayed against them.

Dodds, part of the Raise the Wage coalition for $10.10 an hour, belongs to the old guard.

His peers, raised on the anti-Vietnam War and the civil rights movements, admire Dodds' resilience and savvy.

"Dodds built [the Unemployment Project] from scratch," said Marc Stier, an activist closer to Dodds' age, who heads the left-leaning Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. He calls Dodds the "unsung hero of the progressive movement in Pennsylvania."

Dodds "kept it alive all these years. It's hard to believe he didn't have sleepless nights wondering how to meet his payroll."

At 66, Dodds earns kudos from the young bucks for what his group and his allies have accomplished in 40 years.

He can point to two minimum-wage hikes, a national model program to help stave off foreclosures, many extensions to unemployment benefits, and more care for the poor.

His group also runs the Unemployment Information Center, with job clubs for the unemployed and contracts to provide counseling to homeowners on the brink of foreclosure.

For an activist group with a $940,000 budget and seven full-timer workers, it's a good mix.

The people who come for help serve as models, recruited to tell their stories to politicians and journalists.

"Our relationship with PUP has been interesting," said young activist Kate Goodman, an organizer with Fifteen Now and the Socialist Alternative.

"Although there's tension, we have a productive relationship," she said. "John has ties to a lot of legislators. PUP is very valuable. They come from a little less leftist, less radical perspective.

"While we have been waving the flag for the $15 fight, their attitude is . . . what can the legislature do now?" Goodman said.

"We see the value propagandizing for $15," she said, "so maybe we can win $10.10."

Dodds' more moderate advocacy draws flak from conservatives. "I think he's wrong, but he's certainly passionate about his side," said Kevin Shivers, who heads the state chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which opposes any minimum-wage hike. "John is a strong advocate for his position even though history will show you that the economic benefits don't match up with the rhetoric."

In strip center parking lots in Baker's Wyoming Valley district, Dodds conferred last month with his leafleting crew, five activists from Philadelphia, three of them African American, four young people from the Industrial Workers of the World, a minister and his wife, two union staffers, and two ladies in pastel sweatshirts embroidered with flowers.

The locals haven't seen anything like a campaign that targets a politician at her office.

As modest as it was, a TV news reporter showed up along with a photographer from one of Wilkes-Barre's two papers.

"This is very rare, this kind of demonstration," said the minister's wife, Phyllis Terwilliger.

Pleased with the news coverage, Dodds explained the situation in the parking lot.

Baker chairs the Senate's Labor and Industry Committee, where a bill to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour has languished. She decides if it moves to the floor for a vote.

"We're the only state in the region that hasn't raised the minimum wage," Dodds said. In the three counties in Baker's district, he said, 47,000 people will get a raise from the current $7.25 an hour - to the new minimum. Statewide, he said, 1.2 million would benefit.

Dodds cited a poll this fall by Public Policy Polling of Raleigh, N.C., showing that a minimum-wage raise is favored by most Republican primary voters, but perhaps not, he added, by wealthy GOP business leaders, who donate the most.

Parking the bill in committee means no legislator has to vote on it - and risk displeasing supporters, Dodds said.

"So what we're trying to do is hold these people accountable," he said. "We're making [Baker] take the weight."

Baker's response? "The committee held a hearing in May to examine the impacts of increasing the minimum wage. We are continuing to evaluate the various proposals," she wrote. "No decision on any future action has been made."

Dodds' insight into the process helps explain why he and his group have survived.

The people in power, Dodds said, "aren't going to make it a fair system."

"But they'll give you a mortgage assistance program, or raise the minimum wage.."

Dodds grew up in Upper Merion, oldest of five brothers. His dad taught print shop at Lower Merion High School, his mom stayed home.

In the late 1960s, Dodds got introduced to activism at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, where he said he helped organize an alternate graduation when the senior class' chosen speaker, Charles Evers, older brother of the slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers, was rejected by the college president.

Dodds married his college sweetheart, and after graduation, they joined Vista, the equivalent of today's AmeriCorps, and were sent to an all-black community in Florida.

"It taught me a lot about injustice," and about organizing, he said. He and his wife mobilized neighbors on zoning, housing, and food stamp issues.

"You have to find issues that people care about," he said. "They care about living in an industrial area. They care about education. They care about being hungry.

"Small groups of dedicated people can make things happen. When those people organize, they speak for the silent masses."

In 1975, Dodds, then 26, returned to Philadelphia. As the leader of a new group, he went about building bridges to the area's labor leaders, who are still allies.

"I was very respectful of them," he said. "I wasn't like, 'We're going to have a revolution and you're in the way.' "

In the last decade, Dodds has rediscovered his religious roots. He serves as an elder in the Presbyterian church near his home in Olney, where he spent a recent Sunday handing out free street trees to neighbors, as a volunteer in the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's Tree Tenders program.

He finds it a relief to be dealing with trees rather than more weighty issues of poverty.

"I come out of a religious belief that everyone deserves a decent life," Dodds said. "Even if you are a little slow, you shouldn't have to be eating out of a Dumpster."

His friends are teammates in a neighborhood softball team, all African American. Dodds pitched until a few years ago. He loves soccer and roots for London's Arsenal team.

Dodds is now married to his third wife - all three were activists. His second wife, Carol Rogers, leads Healthy Philadelphia. Evelyn, his third, is PUP's office manager.

These days, "I'm getting tired a little bit," but the current minimum-wage battle - his third - is invigorating. Maybe it's because he's not losing hope waiting for a revolution.

"It's an ongoing struggle," he said. "You can win a battle, but the war is never going to end."

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