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Yvonne Abraham

Low wages, high hopes

Maybe, just maybe, this is Ronald Lwanga’s moment.

Until now, he has been pretty much invisible: just another African immigrant with a thick accent; just another nursing assistant paid to bathe and soothe somebody’s aged mother for 30 hours a week; just another low-wage worker trying to make the rent and keep his two young kids off food stamps.

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“People don’t know what’s going on,” Lwanga said, sitting in an office at SEIU 1199 Tuesday afternoon. “If I can’t put food on the table and I’m working, that’s weird.”

But Lwanga and legions of other workers like him are emerging from the shadows. Or at least they’ve become more difficult to ignore. It’s a best-of-times, worst-of-times deal: The nation is more focused on low-wage workers than it has been in decades. But that’s because the gap between their bursting ranks and those of the rich hasn’t been this big since 1928.

Suddenly, people are talking about men and women like Lwanga and what they should be paid. Gathered together via churches and Facebook, fast-food workers have been calling strikes at burger chains and disrupting corporate gatherings. The president, the pope, and Mitt Romney have been pushing for higher wages for those in the economy’s vast lower reaches. In Massachusetts, legislators are moving to raise the minimum wage to $11 by 2017. GOP gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker is talking $10.50, too (with reservations).

Even Lloyd Blankfein, chief executive of Goldman Sachs, called income inequality destabilizing Tuesday. If we don’t raise taxes on wealthy Americans, he told CBS, we’ll be left with a society we won’t like, “where the safety net would be more porous and lower to the ground.”

Amen, brother Blankfein! This is definitely a moment. And workers like Lwanga, who have never been active in the labor movement before, are seizing it.

On Thursday afternoon, hundreds of those workers will gather in Boston’s Copley Square, near a Walmart in Worcester, by a McDonald’s in Springfield. They will share stories they have never told publicly before.

Lwanga was doing all right until May, when New York-based Zenith Healthcare took over his Lexington nursing home and slashed his hourly wage from $18 to $11.50, while keeping him working less than full time. He now takes home $570 every two weeks. (Brother Blankfein makes that in three minutes.)

“If I go to the market to buy sugar, I pay the same as rich people,” he said. “You work to go up, then someone comes and puts you back down where you were 10 years ago.”

And so he is planning to step up to the microphone around 5 Thursday afternoon and tell his story. What’s remarkable about the event is the breadth and variety of workers expected to be there. Not just the fast-food workers and custodians we usually see as the faces of low wages, but health-care workers, adjunct professors, and taxi drivers.

At the union hall in Dorchester Tuesday, organizer Reggie Zimmerman drew out Lwanga’s story as others made signs and got coaching on how best to talk about their lives. Some workers struggled, recounting through tears their brushes with homelessness and battles with capricious employers.

You could feel the despair in the room — and the hope. Despair that there could be this many people working so hard, only to be mired in poverty. Hope that momentum might be building to change their lives.

But it all depends on whether anybody truly listens to them.

“I am not here for fun,” Lwanga said. “I want people to know we are suffering.”

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.
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