By Carla Vestal
Have you ever felt that you were being treated unfairly by your supervisor or maybe one of your professors? Have you thought about telling the person who held a superior position over you exactly how you felt? For many of us the answer is “Yes.” You play the scenario out in your head during your commute or while sitting in class, and for some reason you never follow through with it. Maybe it is because you do not want to seem unprofessional, or because you are scared of getting reprimanded or even fired. For whatever reason, you never speak up for yourself.
Meet Mr. Tyrel Oates. He is a Wells Fargo branch employee in Portland, Oregon, who decided to speak out about a problem plaguing America but few know little about: income inequality. He not only spoke up for himself, he sent an email to the President of Wells Fargo, John Stumpf, and cc’ed 200,000 other Wells Fargo employees. Since he sent that email the story has gone national, being reported in the Business Insider, The Huffington Post, and the San Francisco Business Times, just to mention a few.
I reached out to Mr. Oates and expressed to him how I admired his tenaciousness in sending an email to the president of one of the most profitable corporations in the United States. Surprisingly, he responded to my message and agreed to let me interview him for the Charlotte School of Law Civil Rights Blog. The following is a transcript of our conversation:
Carla Vestal (“CV”): Had you thought about writing that email for a while, or was it more of a spontaneous event?
Tyrel Oates (“TO”): Finding a way to create positive change in the workplace has been something I have thought about for a long time.
CV: What was going through your mind when you were cc’ing the Wells Fargo Global address book to your email?
TO: When the decision was made to address the issue, it was clear that the only way there was a chance in creating change was to make everyone aware of the scope of the issue, and to let everyone know that they are not alone in their thoughts.
CV: Are you this assertive in everything you do?
TO: Having a passion for something and remaining idle accomplishes nothing, [so] when you feel strong enough about an idea, you just have to go for it.
CV: Have you always been so forward thinking about income inequality or is your focus on this issue something that has developed throughout your years of service to a corporation?
TO: I’ve been monitoring the topic of income inequality off and on since the recession hit.
CV: Other than the raise you asked for, what other intentions did you hope that the email would have both internally and nationally?
TO: Internally, the secondary intention was to let my fellow team members know that their voice matters and [they] should not fear retaliation for constructively voicing their opinions. Now that this has gone national, my biggest hope is that a larger awareness has been created regarding the importance of this topic.
CV: Did you think that this email would garnish as much national attention as it has?
TO: I didn’t even think that it would even leave the company.
CV: What do you want people to internalize the most from this experience?
TO: That this is a much larger issue than our nation realizes, and the solution should not be primarily tasked to our government to address, but primarily be the responsibility of the major corporations controlling the majority of income distribution.
CV: Would you consider yourself a political activist? If so, what inspires you to be vocal about income inequality in particular?
TO: I would not consider myself to be a political activist; however, if this issue is not brought into a more prevalent light, our economy will only get worse.
CV: In an era where there is very little job security for people who choose to speak-out against the corporation that employs them, what was your “breaking point?”
TO: There was no particular “breaking point,” it was more a matter of choosing the right time.
CV: Did you send the email because you were just fed up or was it based on altruism?
TO: This was definitely an action based in altruism.
CV: Do you feel that the corporation scheme devalues and dehumanizes the people who make the profit margin for them?
CV: What are your next steps? Do you intend to stay employed at Wells Fargo?
TO: For now, I plan to stay with the company.
CV: What do you feel would happen if there was a movement to unionize?
TO: With Wells Fargo, any attempt to unionize would be shot down.
CV: Do you feel the reaction would be the same from Wells Fargo as the reactions that Wal-Mart workers have faced?
TO: The health care premiums at Wells have slowly increased over time already; on the other hand, the company continues to grow and I do not see them needing to scale back hours to make up for the increase in compensation.
CV: Do you think that our generation is involved enough in the workforce movement for equal pay?
TO: Not nearly enough.
CV: What does it take to get people involved in these issues (other than emailing the President or cc’ing the world)?
TO: Choosing not to remain ignorant to the issues we as a nation face, and to overcome the notion that one person has no impact, like I said in the email: While the voice of one person in a world as large as ours may seem only like a whisper, the combined voices of each and all of us can move mountains!
Mr. Oates does not consider himself a political activist, just a concerned worker taking a stand; however, the topic of income inequality is without a doubt one of the most politically charged debates that is happening in our country. Income inequality is measured by the Gini co-efficient, which is a statistical dispersion model of how income is distributed in a nation. Although a full discussion of income inequality is outside of the scope of this article, here are just a few startling facts and statistics about income inequality and the United States:
- United States income inequality is the highest it has been since 1928.
- The income disparity between Caucasian and African Americans, commonly referred to as the Black/White Gap, has persisted by growing from $19,000 in 1967 to $27,000 in 2011.
- Wealth inequality is even greater than income inequality with the highest earning fifth of Americans earning 59.1% of the income, and the richest fifth of Americans holding 88.9% of the nation’s wealth.
- In 1965, a CEO made 24 times what the average production worker made. In 2009, a CEO made 184 times more that the average production worker.
- The United States has more children living in poverty than any other developed nation at 21%.  
What does all of this mean? It means that we live in a society where the rich are getter richer, and the poor are getting poorer. But it does not have to remain this way. To stop, and possibly reverse this disturbing trend, it takes ordinary people—like Tyrel Oates and people like you and me—to find our voice in our respective community, and to organize, and to speak out against these injustices.
In a time when people will camp outside an electronics store for the latest technology, but refuse to make it to the ballot box to cast their vote, this seems like a daunting task. What is the use of having the latest phone or computer if we, as a society, aren’t using them as tools to advocate for social change? Imagine the impact on this country’s current political and social paradigms if we all made a conscious effort to speak up and speak out. The most powerful tool we have for change is one that was framed by the founding fathers of America: the power to vote.
With North Carolina facing one of the most nationally watched senatorial campaigns in the nation this year, I challenge everyone reading this to make it a point to vote on November 4. If you aren’t registered to vote in this state, then find a cause in your home state, write a letter to an elected official, or sign a petition for something in which you feel passionately.
In the words of Tyrel Oates, a man who challenged a global economic powerhouse, I will leave you with this:
~ While the voice of one person in a world as large as ours may seem only like a whisper, the combined voices of each and all of us can move mountains! ~
 For twenty telling charts about income inequality: see The Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality at: http://web.stanford.edu/group/scspi/cgi-bin/facts.php