Minimum Rage: Fight Mounting Against Low Wages, Anti-Union Pols
After Great Recession, blue-collar workers strive for dignity and living wage
There are a few things that fry cooks, hotel bed makers, airport janitors and retail shirt folders can all agree on: For too long, they’ve been deprived of better work conditions, living wages, and prospects of a comfortable retirement.
Many of them without college degrees or immigrants with English-language difficulties, don’t have the luxury of demanding more – and giving up irreplaceable low wages or part time hours to strike or protest. Until recently, low-wage workers like themselves had few serious advocates.
But ever since some workers threatened to walk off their jobs at Walmart and other big box stores when retailers this year pushed for extra early Black Friday store openings, their cries of inequality have been heard by the politically strong and influential labor unions. In recent weeks, protests at fast-food chains in big cities like New York, where hundreds walked off their jobs to demand higher wages, benefits and the right to unionize, have drawn attention from some big-name political and civil rights leaders.
This all coming at a time when big labor has come under attack. On the heels of the fast-food and Walmart actions, American organized labor took a major hit in one of the most significant union states in the country: Michigan. Republican lawmakers there last week passed sweeping, statewide changes to the way unions can be financed, outlawing a requirement that all workers pay fees to unions as a condition of employment. The state’s GOP governor, joining the chief executives of states like Indiana and Wisconsin, which both recently passed anti-union measures, promptly signed the law.
Conservatives have long argued that unions bully states into fiscally irresponsible labor contracts that leave taxpayers on the hook for wages and benefits that, in some case, are better than what’s offered in the private sector. However, liberals and Democrats in Michigan and around the country have promised to regain control of statehouses and restore unions to their storied power; a power hinted at during a recent New York rally attended by hundreds of workers from fast food restaurants, airports, car washes, supermarkets and hotels.
“This is about the future of New York City,” former city comptroller and 2013 mayoral race front-runner Bill Thompson told the crowd. “This is about who can afford to live in New York. You make the city of New York go…but if you don’t get paid a decent wage, if you can’t bring your family up in this city. If you can’t enjoy a little bit of what you put into New York City, it isn’t worth while!”
“I like that,” shouted one young black man at the rally who, like others, wanted to see an increase in wages for his city construction job.
The diverse crowd of workers – some in long established unions and others seeking new organization – gathered in Times Square, under the bright lights and dancing jumbotron billboards advertising major corporations and banks. Members of the New York Hotel & Motel Trades Council were there. Teachers’, contract workers’ and city service workers’ unions were there. Retirees were there. Leaders from the faith community were there.
Fast Food Forward, the organization pushing to unionize the long neglected food service and retail sector of the service industry, is regarded by the "New York Times" as leading “the biggest wave of job actions in the history of America’s fast food industry.”
It’s not an easy feat to organize this particular portion of the service sector because of how vulnerable its workers are, The Nation reports.
According to The Working Poor Families Project’s 2010-11 report, there were more than 10 million low-income working families in the U.S. in 2009, an increase of nearly a quarter from the previous year. Twenty-two million of the 45 million people living in low-income families are children.
Forty-three percent of those families include at least one minority parent, according to the report. That’s nearly twice the rate for white working families (22 percent). And, as has been the trend for more than a decade, income inequality continued to grow, with the richest 20 percent in the U.S. taking home nearly half of all income.
If those unsettling data weren’t enough, low-wage jobs have accounted for the bulk of the added jobs during the Obama-led recovery from the Great Recession. A report released in August by the National Employment Law Project found that low-wage jobs, paying less that $14 per hour, have dominated the recovery.
It’s therefore entirely likely that more people are subject to the abject conditions of low wage, no benefit labor. It’s something that has concerned civil rights leader and MSNBC host the Rev. Al Sharpton, who last week focused the spotlight on the New York State Senate.
“[Leaders must] support and pass bills like the minimum wage,” Sharpton said in a statement about a new leadership deal between liberals and conservatives in the Senate. “Those bills would not have to be ‘up for discussion,’ watered down, or horse traded for a pet item for the Republican leadership to get to the floor.”
Whether the movement will find victories in the legislature or on the picket line is yet to be seen. While there is certainly big support for the unionization movement, Republican outfits are working to push forward policies – including those as part of the fiscal cliff deal now being debated in Washington D.C. – that don’t favor paycheck-to-paycheck Americans.