When you’re frustrated with how things work or don’t work, it’s easy to pick up your phone-pull up Twitter or Facebook-and like a football fan on Monday morning, pontificate about what the leaders and aspiring leaders of the nation should have done differently. It’s easy to forget that it’s people who make up the government: millions of patriotic Americans serving their nation in government from the trash collector to the Navy Seals, from the school board to the halls of Congress. But it’s a completely different challenge to put yourself up as a candidate for office. Every decision you’ve ever made is eligible to be second guessed by stranger, every mistake you ever made amplified and every word spoken analyzed. The decision is bigger than any one person: it concerns their families, friends and their future. Tom Prigg made the decision to run in his home state of PA and decided to answer his most frequently asked quest: WHY?
One of the most common questions I’m asked is, “Why are you running for Congress?” I think people ask because I’m not the typical manicured, white-collar candidate with money or powerful connections. I tell people that I’m an Army veteran of the 82nd Airborne. I’m a scientist who has studied the brain for twenty years. I’ve climbed icebergs in the Atlantic ocean, and mountains on other continents. I’ve also completed a professional stunt school and performed stunts in movies. But these are things I’ve done; it is not who I am. They’re not reasons that I’m running for congress, nor reasons anyone should vote for me. These aren’t my values or motivations; they’re stories that exemplify what I’ve accomplished despite where I began. So, the real answer to why I’m running is deeper than the 30-second answer I can usually give, so I would like to take the opportunity to do it justice. It’s important to me that people understand where I came from and why I am confident I’ll get to where I intend to go.
Like millions of unfortunate Americans, I was born into a family struggling to make ends meet, and that life was all I knew. My parents worked full-time, but we lived in abject poverty. And, when my father left us in 1980, we inherited what seemed like impossible odds to overcome. I was the oldest of three, so I was more aware than my sisters that our family was living on the edge. We were greatly in debt and lost utilities on a regular basis. When our heat was turned off, I still remember stacking several blankets on top of myself and desperately snuggling with my dog for warmth. I would sleep with the covers pulled over my head so my breath would help keep me warm. Sleep was a sanctuary from the hunger pangs. If the lack of food wasn’t causing my gut to twist, it was the ulcers from worrying that did. At ten, life seemed like an impossible pit to climb out of.
I wish I could say my experiences with poverty and deprivation were uncommon, but unfortunately they aren’t. In my district of six counties, child poverty is as high as 26% in one county. My struggles may be over, but theirs are not. I may have clawed my way out of poverty, but I can’t live a comfortable life knowing that there are kids out there suffering the way I once did, and do nothing to help them.
After high school, I joined the military and fulfilled a dream of becoming a sniper in the 82nd Airborne division. Being an infantryman is a hard life; it’s essentially the blue collar of the military. Our packs and gear could weigh more than a hundred pounds. I graduated high school weighing only 130 lbs, and as an assistant gunner on an M60 team, my pack seemed heavier than I was. Every step I took felt like my legs were being driven through the ground. In the military there is no place for whining, so you rely on character and fortitude to complete the mission. Those are hard lessons, but the military taught me how to carry out an objective and overcome obstacles. That’s how I can now balance a full-time job, my family with two small children and a daughter in college with a congressional campaign that requires me to have meetings or events every single night, seven days a week. I do it because it’s my mission, and I refuse to fail.
I was inspired to run for Congress four years ago after a life experience that hearkened back to my childhood. In 2013, I found myself in the position of losing my job due to the non-renewal of my scientific grant. In science we call it “soft money,” because it’s only there as long as the government desires to keep funding your research. If the grants run out, your job and benefits go with it. That’s just the nature of the beast in academia, and we accept that. But 2013 was different. At that time scientists were only getting ~5% of their grants funded. Today it’s even less.
At the time, my lab at the University of Pittsburgh was working to develop a way for people to feel sensations of “touch” through their prosthetic by stimulating a sub-cortical region of the brain. You may be thinking, “Well, that’s potentially groundbreaking work, of course his funding would be renewed.” Well, that is sometimes true, but usually not. For example, the Pierce lab at UT Austin has turned to crowdfunding on more than one occasion to support Alzheimer’s research. To drive home the point that it’s not necessarily about the quality of research, they successfully published their results from those crowd-sourced funds. In other words, their science was good enough for a high impact peer-reviewed journal, but somehow it wasn’t “worthy” for grant funding at the time of review. This is not how science should progress, but it’s how the current system works.
On February 1st, 2013, I joined the ranks of the unemployed, and remained there for a year. I was unable to find a job despite having a good education and sixteen years of experience in neuroscience. I applied for everything under the sun. Biology, psychology, emergency management, writing jobs…anything and everything, yet nothing panned out.
It was at this time I realized, “If this is so difficult for me, what is it like for someone without a college education or a marketable skill, experience, or a good employment record?” While I recognized that others probably had a harder time, that didn’t stop me from feeling cheated, just like I felt when I was growing up poor. I always felt behind the eight-ball, and to be honest, why shouldn’t I? The Economic Mobility Project has shown that low-achieving, wealthy students are more likely to advance to college compared to high-achieving, low-income students. This pattern persists after college as well: low-achieving, wealthy students received better jobs than their high-achieving, low-income counterparts. This system is, and always has been, rigged.
I began thinking about how dysfunctional our system had become. It seemed futile to protest or complain about politicians, laws, or the direction of the country. It was clear that our elected officials weren’t listening to us. Millions of people were struggling and they didn’t seem to care. They said they did, but their policies told a different story. I felt the only way I could fix this was to become a lawmaker myself. If my voice and vote as a citizen couldn’t change things, I would become a person whose voice did matter. It was with this rationale that I set out to ultimately run for US Congress, and despite my unemployment status, I began the prep work to make this seemingly unattainable goal, especially for a middle-class worker, a reality.
Ten months later, I’d never felt so depressed and powerless in my life; I had no job prospects and my daughter, Riley, had just been born on December 20th, 2013. The ceaseless worry of being able to support my family while unemployed paired with the persistent brain-fog and exhaustion that always accompanies caring for a newborn accumulated into what felt like a constant vice-like tightness in my chest making it difficult to breathe. I frequently thought about my unattainable goal. I questioned my motives and my ability to pull this off. I was nobody; what chance did I really have? My wife, Kathy, encouraged me to press on. I refused to let her down, and so I persisted in laying the groundwork for a congressional campaign as I continued to apply for jobs. Months passed before I was called for my first job interview. When the call finally came, it was from a grocery store. It was May of 2014, my daughter was now six months old, but I was determined to spin my new situation in the most positive way. I decided that I’d learn a new trade and eventually become managment, all the while with plans for Congress on my mind.
They started me on the counter as a part-time meat guy. It didn’t take long for one of those weird, demoralizing customer encounters. It was my second night on the job when an older lady walked up to the counter. She looked like the 101 Dalmatians character Cruella de Vil. Her lipstick was a bit smeared and her hair was barely styled with sprigs of loose hair sticking out at weird angles like springs from a worn mattress. As I wrapped up her three pounds of sausage into two packages, just like she had instructed, she stopped me and asked, “Did you remember the discount?” Whole Foods gives a dollar off per pound of sausage when the order exceeds three pounds.
“Yep, I got it.” I answered. I handed her the order and she looked at it then looked back at me with a stone hardened face.
“You forgot the discount,” she said.
I didn’t think much about it, it was my second day on the job so maybe I mis-punched the numbers. I took the sausage back and looked at the labels. Nope, the discount was there. “The discount is right here,” I said pointing at the price per pound.
Her face wrinkled into a sneer, “If you gave me the discount, the price would be three dollars cheaper.”
“It is three dollars cheaper, it’s just distributed between two packs of sausage.” I realized there was no way she was going to understand this, her eyes were wild with anger, but void of comprehension. I could sense that all those missed math homework assignments she skipped as a child were going to doom me into a sales clerk beat-down of sausage induced rage.
Each package weighed a little more or less than a pound-in-a-half. It was clear that this customer wasn’t doing the internal math to understand this relatively simple transaction. At this point, Rick, a longtime employee walked over from down the counter and asked, “Can I help you ma’am?”
“Yes, he didn’t give me my discount.”
“Oh, I’m sorry ma’am, Tom is new here. He’s a good guy; he’s not going to cheat you,” Rick told her.
“Oh, I know he’s trying his best.” Her face stretched into a plastic smile, or maybe her face simply cracked; I’m still not sure to this day.
After she had left, I pointed to the label and explained to Rick, “I did give her the discount, but she doesn’t understand the discount is between these two packages. She thought that she would see the three dollars on a single label and just lost her mind.”
“I know, Tom, you’re going to get that a lot more.” He said before returning to the back.
This is when I realized that my new job was not going to be like academia at all. In fact, by all accounts, it was going to be a constant demeaning, patronizing, condescending lesson in life. Your paycheck is a direct reflection of your intelligence. It doesn’t matter if that is true, but it’s going to be how everyone on the customer side of the counter will measure you. I think this is probably why so many people in the service industry joke about “crazy customer” experiences. It’s a coping mechanism, like the dark humor of police or soldiers. It’s a way to hold onto our sanity, and, in this case, our dignity as well.
My experience was not unique. In fact, our government predicted these circumstances would happen. Alan Greenspan told Congress in 1997 that he believed the economic boon for the financial sector was largely due to workforce insecurity. Meaning that workers will accept pay and benefit cuts when they’re afraid they won’t be able to find a better job. Cuts like these are something that Unions traditionally fight against, and why corporations have always lobbied government representatives to favor union busting. At Whole Foods, there was always a constant fear of being fired. It’s a side effect of having one of the best of the worst jobs. People know that it’s bad, but it’s the best of the bad, so getting fired was a constant fear. It seems silly for that to be the case. If you come to work and do your job there shouldn’t be a problem, but there is. A constant cloud of judgment hangs over you.
One day I while I was cutting up some chickens, my co-worker, Jess, looked up at me and said, “Regional is coming in. Her eyes were wide as she scanned my face for recognition of this potentially impending doom. Regional seemed to be a bi-monthly occurrence that I grew accustomed to by the second or third time, although most of my co-workers never seemed to adjust.
“I’m not worried about it. I do my job. Why should I get myself worked up. I do this same job everyday, it’s a non-issue.” I said to her. Jess’s face went from informational to annoyance.
“You’ll care if they find a problem. You better have your shelves stocked.” She snapped back.
“I’ll be fine. I do my job. I’m not going to live in fear.”
They worked people below 32 hours so they wouldn’t have to pay for benefits. They did this despite the fact that they claimed to “care” about their workers, and even though they could see that their employees were struggling. Most major corporations do this, so up to this point those small “cost savings” and “corner cuttings” were annoying, but it wasn’t too far out of what I expected. Then, it was November of 2014. The air was getting chilly and Christmas was around the corner. At Whole foods, we had just wrapped up our Thanksgiving push. Working in the meat department was always a busy job, but nothing compares to a meat department at Thanksgiving. We had teams of people running back and forth delivering turkeys from semis parked out back to the front counter. There never seemed to be a moment’s rest. Besides the constant request for certain cuts of turkey, we got our normal meat requests on top of that, too.
Being partially bent over at the butcher’s table made your spine feel like it was being crushed in a vice. But, as difficult as the work may have been, we were fine with it. We knew we’d get one hell of a Gains Share going into Christmas. “Gains Share” is a type of financial motivator for employees to work hard for high sales. Whole Foods describes it as, “a program that rewards teams based on labor productivity.” Each department is granted a labor budget, and from there the managers figure out the schedules. When our sales exceed some expected average number of sales based a given labor pool, bonuses are paid out in the form of Gains Share. We were working our butts off to maximize our bonuses because, let’s face it, working a $23,000 dollar/year job doesn’t exactly buy much at Christmas.
Everything that year was looking great, until word came down just a few days after Thanksgiving: “Hey guys, I’m really sorry, but our Gains Share was cut at the beginning of November.” Management knew about it, but didn’t tell us because they wanted us to work hard for Thanksgiving. Our hard work earned them massive profits, but earned us nothing. Right before Christmas, too. It was a pretty devastating blow to many of us behind the counter, where every penny earned was important.
“Wow, talk about social engineering. The corporations don’t give a damn about us.” I said to Dave, the butcher.
Dave looked back at me, “You know, Tom, those poor executives need their Christmas bonuses this year.” His knife slammed down on thigh of meat. His hands sawed in short, choppy strokes back and forth. He didn’t say another word and neither did I.
The final straw came shortly after Thanksgiving. My six month job evaluation period had come and past. Usually people don’t like getting job evaluations, but I knew that I did my job and every day I worked without a raise was a day I earned less towards the next pay check.
I finally got my job dialog for my self-evaluation. I was still a little bitter about Whole Foods cutting our Gains Share before the holidays; that entire ordeal made me suspicious of the company’s dedication toward their workers. Kathy and I were counting on my getting a decent raise. Hell, I took over a position they wanted to improve, and I did just that! I was a reliable worker– I had never been late to work or called off, and I got my job done, and I did it well. I worked hard to make sure I met and exceeded their standards and tried my best to keep improving the position. A raise should be a no-brainer, right?
I asked my manager Dan, “Did you get a chance to look over my self evaluation?” It was more of a question to get a vibe of where they were with their portion of the job dialog.
Dan said, “Yeah, it was interesting.” Then laughed nervously and plastered an awkward grin across his face. I thought for a second and realized that he didn’t appreciate me scoring myself as “Excellent” in all categories. It’s not that I believe that I’m the best thing since sliced bread, I just didn’t want to fall for the game that corporations play to trick employees into giving themselves a lower raise than they deserve. By scoring myself lower in some categories, I would disqualify myself for a maximum raise. This is because the manager will average the self-scores with their scores for the actual raise. So, the only sensible tactic was to give myself the highest scores available to give myself the best position to bargain from. All this angling for a max raise of fifty cents an hour.
Dan brought me into a room with my other manager, Scott. They were both quiet so I knew something was up. They were dreading this meeting. Scott pulled out his evaluation onto the table. Penciled circles lined up in the row of threes. I could taste my anger.
“Threes? I’ve never called off a day. I’ve increased our sales in my section. I’ve done nothing but bust my butt!”
Scott started, “Well there are some things…” He paused, “People don’t get your jokes.”
That statement completely blindsided me. I didn’t know what to say. Writing this now, I’m still bewildered that was the best excuse they could come up with to cut my raise.
“What are you talking about?” Mind you, we had some snarky people in our department, including the very manager who’s taking away my full raise.
“Yeah, sometimes you can irritate people,” he said.
“Do you mean Rick? Come on, the guy dishes it out just as much. Everyone jokes around. This is really about you not wanting to give me a full raise,” I countered.
The two managers glanced at one another, and then Dan spoke up. “We’re giving you a forty cent raise. That’s more than most people get.”
“I don’t care what most people get. I want what I should get.”
“It’s based on this scale of your evaluation. We can’t do anything about that.” “A scale that you set by giving me crap scores. And I don’t care what other people are getting. Frankly you’re ripping them off too.” I looked down at the tabletop. I already knew this was useless. “This is what happens when we don’t have Unions,” I thought to myself. We went back and forth a bit more before Dan agreed to an additional five cents, but my time at Whole foods was over. I was done with Corporate America. Later, before I left the store, Dan told me that I was right. He wasn’t allowed to give a fair wage or raises. He told me managers were reprimanded in their own evaluations for giving their employees fair wages – this is what the job market is like these days. Get as much as possible from your workers. Get them as close to slavery as possible. Keep driving down wages and benefits. Profits are for the executives and CEOs, not the working class.
I went home that night and told my wife Kathy, “Forty-five cents.”
“Really? You barely make anything now.” Her voice trailed off. We felt utterly defeated.
“I can’t believe this crap. I’m getting back into science and I’ll run for Congress. I’m so sick of the way we’re treated. These corporations and politicians don’t give a damn about us.”
Four years later, here I am running for Congress. I’m running both because of, and in spite of, my history of being the little guy in a system built to break people down and extract all possible value from them. These experiences have made me strong, and taught me to overcome long odds in a struggle that’s stacked against me. A lifetime of witnessing injustices– both against myself and other citizens like those in PA’a District 12– have given me both the tools and the passion to fight for better and fairer outcomes for working-class people like me who have been marginalized for too long. We can do this, but we, as citizens must come together and start fighting for each other, not against each other. I am ready and able to lead that fight.
Tom Prigg is a military veteran and neuroscientist. He is also a candidate for Congress in Pennsylvania’s 12th District. Tom’s hoping to build a healthier economy more capable of supporting improvements in education and equal rights. Besides being an Army veteran, he’s climbed icebergs in the Atlantic Ocean, Half Dome in Yosemite and other rocks, ice and mountains on 3 continents. You can find him on Twitter @tomprigg2018