the streets of the megalopolis that stretches from the Chesapeake
Bay to New York Harbor, janitors chant, “Puedo si” (Yes, I can!),
demanding decent wages to clean the office towers of the New Economy.
On the West Coast, home care workers celebrate their hard fought
victories in a score of languages. In majority Black New Orleans,
an entire city gives itself a raise.
are just snapshots of the Living Wage movement that has, in just
eight years, fought its way into nearly every corner of the nation.
the center of the movement are two heavily Black unions - both
with African Americans as second in command - and the determinedly
multi-racial Association of Community Organizations for Reform
Living Wage movement is guided by the principle that public policies
and funds should not perpetuate poverty or stifle people’s abilities
to organize their way out. In its most basic form, that means
raising city, county and state minimum wages above the federal
minimum, shamefully stagnated at $5.15 an hour. Federal guidelines
say that a family of four needs an income of at least $8.20 an
hour to escape poverty.
a broad sense, the movement is an effort to shape a public policy
that encourages, rather than impedes, the organizing efforts of
labor and community organizations. Living Wage campaigns create
legal, economic and political environments in which workers and
entire communities can fight the power of money.
far, 82 cities and counties have passed some form of Living Wage
law. In addition to raising local wage floors higher than the
federal minimum, ordinances mandate that private contractors doing
business with public agencies provide their employees decent wages
and benefits. This makes it more difficult to contract out public
services to low-wage firms by applying similar standards to businesses
that get tax breaks or other subsidies from government. It also
knocks down the union organizing barriers.
campaign’s constituencies are broad and deep. In some ways, support
for a Living Wage rivals the range of forces aligned with the
civil rights movement at its peak. Hundreds of organizations are
on board, from the scholars and researchers of the Economic Policy
Institute, to the business people of Responsible Wealth.
movement is a vast landscape. It’s easier to tally the few states
that are not home to a Living Wage campaign than those
in which the movement is active. Idaho, North Dakota, Oklahoma,
Alabama, West Virginia, Maine, and Alaska are the seven that remain
outside of the mainstream.
the movement should also include the many battles being waged
by regional and local groups. Consider the Georgia Poultry Alliance,
allied with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, fighting
against a powerful industry that holds entire towns captive as
low-wage labor pools. These types of struggles proliferate in
the most oppressive anti-labor regions.
the Twin Towers came down, and the Bush administration prepared
to draw up the enemies list, a chill descended over many progressive
groups and campaigns throughout the nation. But not the Living
Swanson, ACORN’s Washington spokesperson stated, “It’s a progressive
movement that is a success. September 11 had absolutely no effect.”
demonstration days, Latin rhythms and Spanish affirmations echo
from the luxury high rises and office towers of downtown Jersey
City, a mushrooming outpost of hyper-active capital
directly across the Hudson River from the gaping hole that was
once the World Trade Center. The marchers are overwhelmingly
immigrant janitors who service the tax-subsidized towers nightly,
as the white-collar employees and their corporate managers sleep.
the Justice for Janitors campaign of the Service Employees International
Union (SEIU) roared into northern New Jersey, this “Gold Coast”
on the west side of the river was busy transforming itself into
Manhattan without the unions. The men and women, fighting
for recognition and a contract under Local 32BJ’s banner, toil
for their meager $5.50 an hour with few benefits. This is roughly
one-third of their New York counterparts’ salaries. They clean
the buildings of corporations that migrated from Manhattan for
cheap space and cheap labor. SEIU is adjusting the labor part
of that equation by winning union recognition and agreements,
sometimes one building at a time.
1.4 million-member union is hoping to organize 10,000 janitors
in northern New Jersey, and many more through their Baltimore
and Philadelphia command centers.
This is not just a workplace story. Over
the space of several decades, much of the rooted, Puerto Rican
population was exiled from downtown Jersey City to make way for
office towers, hotels and luxury high rises. Now, when the sun
sets, ironically, Spanish is once again spoken on the waterfront.
This time it is the South American accents of Bolivia, Peru and
Ecuador. These people come to the river at night to work, but
they live in the older city alongside politically ascendant African
Americans. Jersey City elected its first Black mayor, last year.
marching feet and purple SEIU baseball caps represent much more
than future union dues payers. These are communities on the move.
Their children attend public schools. When these newcomers are
exploited, their neighbors’ wage standard is lowered. When the
children are left unsupervised because the parents must work more
than one job to scrape together one, barely sufficient income,
the quality of life of the entire city suffers. When they have
no power because they have no union, the rest of the populace
is also weakened.
are community issues. Jersey City’s waterfront development
is entirely tax-abated, a subsidy by the public. If a properly
written Living Wage agreement were in place, the corporate owners
of downtown office towers would be barred from contracting out
janitorial services at poverty wages. With a decent wage floor
in place, SEIU’s negotiators would bargain upward from, say, $8.20
an hour, rather than $5.15 or $5.50. The entire city would benefit,
at no cost to the public treasury.
politicians should take the lead in such struggles, for reasons
that have nothing to do with ethnic politics.
a different time, it was common for African Americans to fantasize
about the day when the cities would be “ours” to claim and develop,
places where we would build our own, long-deferred castles. We
must now face the fact that this is a vision that must be shared
with the newcomers. It is both our moral obligation and self-interested
almost certainly already outnumber Blacks in the U.S. They have
appeared in sudden, startling numbers, from unfamiliar nations,
in regions and economic sectors where they had never before been
a major factor. Their ranks have swollen like rivers.
immigrant father hoists a daughter on his shoulders, high above
the marching union line. In her little hands she holds a Local
32BJ sign, “Standing Up for the American Dream.”
Memphis, back in the world-shaking year of 1968, the placards
carried by Black sanitation workers read, simply, “I Am A Human
are bridges of yearning that connect times and cultures.
Not Ethnic, Politics
was the Memphis garbage men’s struggle to gain fair wages and
safer conditions through the American Federation of State, County
and Municipal Employees that brought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
Lucy was an AFSCME organizer then. After King’s assassination,
Lucy continued the union’s commitment in Memphis, and went on
to become the 1.3 million-member union’s secretary-treasurer in
1972. This was the same year he helped found the Coalition of
Black Trade Unionists (CBTU).
personal history embodies the confluence of civil rights and labor
struggles. “The rights of workers to organize has to be perceived
as a civil right,” said Lucy, speaking from his Washington office.
was present at the birth of the Living Wage movement, in 1994.
An AFSCME-led coalition of labor and religious leaders in Baltimore
won enactment of a law that required private firms to pay their
workers a living wage, or lose their contracts with the city.
the eight short years since that seminal victory, the demographics
of the nation and the workplace have changed dramatically. “It
is really to our benefit to embrace the immigrant community and
build alliances with them,” said Lucy. “Their growing numbers
suggest a political shift in terms of who has the power.”
must, however, “be mindful that we are talking about class politics,
not ethnic politics,” he added, pointedly.
are commitments that must be affirmed and strengthened after the
end of the shift, understandings that are not written into collective
bargaining agreements. “This is not just about how they assimilate
in the work place,” said the trade union leader.
is more than a union card. It may have nothing at all to do with
the language one speaks. Lucy’s remarks touch on the Great Fear
that many African Americans harbor, with plenty of historical
justification: Will the newcomers switch to the side of our enemies
when the opportunity is offered? With whom will they assimilate,
politics can be played by any ethnicity. That’s why Lucy stresses
class politics. Retain your culture, but embrace your union.
is a challenge” to labor organizers, said Lucy, “because the countries
from which immigrants come have no history of trade unions in
the kind of environment we have in the United States.”
The newcomers do not float across the border like blank sheets
of paper. They often bring a militancy of their own. It’s part
of the legacy of nations where organizing fellow workers can be
a summary capital offense, administered by the boss’ armed thugs,
soldiers or police. Union activists don’t just get fired - they
“disappear.” Such experiences can produce broken men, or heroes
the banners and hand-lettered signs that decorate the union crowd
in downtown Jersey City are pictures and effigies depicting St.
Martin De Porres, the Peruvian saint of the poor and of social
justice. SEIU’s office cleaners have dubbed him the Patron Saint
of Janitors. That’s something that should be protected from the
processes of assimilation.
Ford, SEIU executive vice president and a blunt talker, is a compelling
combination of African American advocate, union stalwart and grand
political strategist. She estimates that Blacks make up about
20% of union membership. The SEIU’s Black caucus goes by the
immigrants is a “challenge and an opportunity,” said the Oakland
native. “The challenge to African Americans is: How do we maintain
our status within the labor movement and within this country when
we are no longer the largest minority?”
a rhetorical question that only the future can answer. This is
North America, after all. Race is the inescapable factor, the
weighted chip in any bargain, the card the bosses always play,
one way or another.
racism hobbled the American labor movement from its very beginnings.
Trade unionists in Europe and elsewhere recoil at the crippling
deformities that racism has wrought on the body of U.S. organized
labor, often rendering it infantile, even reactionary.
top-ranking African American at the nation’s biggest union speaks
plainly on the subject: “We’ve got to make sure that our contribution
is not forgotten,” says Ford. “In the labor movement we are the
most likely to be organized.” In the country at large, “we are
the group most likely to be politically organized. We should
stresses the importance of not allowing Black political gains
to be diminished. At the same time she forges ahead full throttle
to bring immigrants into the movement. Where total racial
exclusion once reigned, divide-and-conquer will surely emerge
as the strategy of choice of the previously privileged.
will have Blacks and Latinos fighting over those low wage jobs,
and then [workers] will forget about who the real enemy is,” she
warns. “When race becomes the issue, you have lost the battle.”
sounded a similar alarm at last year’s AFRAM national convention,
in Newark, New Jersey. “People are talking about a horse race
between Latinos and African Americans,” she told the delegates.
“A horse race for what? For who can have less power?
Make sure they don’t bring that kind of madness into SEIU, into
Employer, Hardly Any Pay
once reigned in turf wars between SEIU and AFSCME, as both unions
sought to organize home care workers in California. Fortunately,
the internecine strife ended amicably in 2000, according to Ken
Seaton-Msemaji, President and of the AFSCME-affiliated United
Domestic Workers of America. He unhesitatingly credits SEIU with
making the greatest strides in coping with the new labor demographics.
has done better than any union in America, at least on the visionary
level. They see that immigrants, Latinos, Blacks and poor whites
are the future, and are signing them up,” says Msemaji, whose
name means “orator” in Swahili. “They don’t lose track, they
see the total picture.
he adds, “once they get the numbers, sometimes they don’t know
what to do with them.”
and UDWA Secretary-Treasurer Fahari Jeffers regard themselves
as community organizers who work in the labor movement, rather
than the other way around. Their labor activism was inspired
by the late Cesar Chavez, founder of the modern farm workers movement.
“We were both involved in Black empowerment struggles,” said Msemaji.
“We saw Cesar as a civil rights leader, like Martin Luther King.
Cesar was convinced that the two worst treated groups in America
were the farm workers and domestics.”
United Farm Workers chief tried for years “to find people to organize
a parallel union for domestics,” Msemaji recalls, “but nobody
would do it. Nobody thought you could organize domestic workers.”
The two young activists were also daunted, feeling out of their
element among the largely immigrant home care workers.
Black. I told Cesar I didn’t think Hispanic people would listen
to me,” said Msemaji, now 56. “Cesar looked at me and said, ‘That’s
not accurate. You have to ask two questions: Are you committed
to them and their cause? And, Do you really respect them? They
will know the answer, intuitively. The answer has to be Yes to
Domestic Workers Organizing Committee was formed in 1977 in Chavez’s
Keene, California, backyard. Three years later, the nascent union
won its first contract, in San Diego, as the United Domestic Workers
of America, and affiliated with AFSCME in 1995, only to clash
with SEIU’s organizing drive.
unions confronted a rock-hard barrier while organizing the state’s
home care workers, a problem that dwarfed their poaching of each
other’s potential membership. This was even more fundamental
than communicating in the over nineteen languages spoken by a
90% female workforce.
domestics, whose long hours of toil for the homebound, were not
recognized as having any common employer. The state maintained
they worked for their patients. How could a union bargain with
hundreds of thousands of sick and infirm patients, most of whose
home care bills were administered by local public agencies?
1999, the California legislature finally recognized that the public
agencies were, in fact, employers who had to bargain with the
unions. Home care workers struggled over 20 years to achieve
the employee-employer relationship that to other wage earners
is a given.
them, AFSCME and SEIU represent about 150,000 domestics, currently
earning around $8.50 an hour. SEIU’s Los Angeles territory accounts
for the lion’s share.
100,000 remain unorganized, but AFSCME’s Msemaji, based in San
Diego, describes the new relationship with SEIU as “very, very
deep. We borrow people from each other, we blitz county offices
together, we share the same phone banks. We’ve gone to jail together,”
he says, vastly relieved that he and Fahari Jeffers can now spend
their time empowering communities through the union, rather than
fighting intra-union battles which are not connected to their
member’s broad concerns, which range far beyond the workplace.
vision as organizers is to find a way for our members to fulfill
their vision for themselves and their families,” said the
activist. “This is not limited to health insurance and holidays.”
members are most pleased when we fight for the elderly people
they are taking care of. They are concerned about the quality
of life for them and their communities across the board. They
want to build and keep open libraries and have parks given back
to recreation. They are involved in education.”
remembers his and Jeffers’ early days in Cesar Chavez’s back yard.
“Chavez believed that organized labor could, I emphasize
could, be the apparatus to organize and empower masses
of grassroots people, that it could transform their lives,” he
didn’t set out to build a union when we wanted all these workers
to sign up with us. We set out to build a living wage movement
for all of these other purposes, all of these quality of life
issues that go far beyond collective bargaining issues.”
in the South
New Orleans, the troops of SEIU and ACORN set out to organize
an entire city.
wasn’t the first time that ACORN had spearheaded a citywide vote
for a higher minimum wage. Earlier efforts in Houston and Denver
were smothered. “We just got killed by the opposition, which
spent tens of thousands of dollars on media campaigns,” said Jen
Kerns, who runs the Boston-based Living Wage Resource Center.
“Basically, we were shut down.”
Orleans would be different. To an observer from outside Louisiana,
it’s sometimes difficult to tell where SEIU ends and ACORN begins.
The union and the community organization seem to merge. The relationship
is easier to understand when one learns that Wade Rathke, who
founded the New Orleans ACORN chapter 30 years ago, is also the
chief organizer of SEIU local 100. The two are fraternal, not
in 1996, with the core labor-community connection already in place,
volunteers trudged from porch to church to worksite, talking up
a referendum that would take advantage of Louisiana’s unusual
home rule laws. The referendum would raise would permanently
raise both public and private employees’ minimum wage to one dollar
above the prevailing federal minimum.
organizer Steve Bradberry points out that “Louisiana has the highest
proportion of minimum wage earners per capita in the entire country.”
New Orleans is among the poorest major tourist cities in the continental
U.S. It has also long had a hefty Black majority. On the face
of things, it might be presumed that class issues would not be
easily muddled by race in the Crescent City. That may or may not
be true. The events of 2002 are open to interpretation.
is indisputable is that the Living Wage coalition, swelled by
churches, women’s and civil rights groups and the Greater New
Orleans AFL-CIO, won a resounding victory on February 2. It will
surely be mined for gems of precious organizing experience in
months and years to come. Sixty-three percent of the voters backed
the wage hike, affecting 75,000 workers.
the wage increase faced a legal challenge from the same forces
that had blared the issue into oblivion in Houston and Denver,
filling the airwaves with warnings that higher wages lead to fewer
jobs. This right-wing mantra was presented to the Civil District
Court as received wisdom
from On-High, but the propaganda was backed up by virtually no
data! Apparently, Louisiana businessmen are not accustomed to
having to explain themselves.
labor-church-civil rights-community coalition came to court with
facts in hand, including studies of the employment impact of the
Living Wage agreement, the prize won by AFSCME and its religious
allies in 1994. Not only had the higher minimum benefited Baltimore’s
low-wage working families, but retailers in low-income neighborhoods
also faired better catering to customers with more money to spend.
Week, which speaks to the saner sectors of the monied classes,
said much the same thing about Living Wage laws two years ago.
“So far,” concluded the September 4, 2000 issue, “they have imposed
little, if any, cost to the…cities that have passed them, the
studies find. And they have led to few job losses and have lifted
many families out of poverty.” The headline read, “Paying above
the minimum seems to do more good than harm.”
the surprise of some, Living Wage advocates won the day in District
Court, and the citywide raise was set to take effect on May 2.
But rational arguments mean little to employers whose larger agenda
is to lock masses of people in a state of economic desperation,
willing to take any job, under any conditions. The Louisiana Restaurant
Association and the Greater New Orleans Hotel-Motel Association
convinced the state Supreme Court to review the case, putting
the increase on indefinite hold while the judges decide whether
a wage hike for New Orleans creates "negative statewide consequences."
this final hurdle is overcome, New Orleans will join ten states
and Washington, DC, which operate under similar legislation. This
year the opponents of the Living Wage campaign also scored a major
electoral victory. Their candidate for mayor, a Black man, won
in a landslide.
one month after two out of three voters passed the Living Wage
referendum, a large majority elected the only serious candidate
who opposed the hike.
Nagin is co-owner of the New Orleans Brass hockey team and vice
president of the regional Cox cable system. The city’s Chamber
of Commerce endorsed him as “an excellent spokesman for New Orleans.”
He donated money to George W. Bush’s presidential campaign, prompting
a group of Democrats to run radio ads dubbing him “Ray Reagan.”
His courting of conservatives included a call for repeal of the
residency law for cops, provoking outrage from the head of the
city’s Black Organization of Police.
have to develop a strong African-American middle class,"
Nagin tells audiences. What he means by that is unclear. How
could a candidate, so singularly hostile to a wage increase that
was embraced by the bulk of the voters, triumph?
Secretary-Treasurer Bill Lucy closely observed the New Orleans
Living Wage and mayoral campaigns. He thinks there is no deep
meaning in the city’s apparent electoral contradictions. The
voters rejected former Black Police Chief Richard Pennington,
who was favored by most of the Living Wage coalition, based on
unrelated local and personality issues. “In the closing days
of the campaign, Living Wage was not a debated issue,” said Lucy.
The referendum had already been won.
Nagin’s ascension in the wake of massive progressive mobilization
is disturbing. On the other hand, if Lucy’s assessment is correct,
the proper conclusion to draw may be that the Living Wage is so
galvanizing an issue, it transcends petty, local politics.
Bradberry thinks so. “It becomes a rallying point for different
organizations to get involved,” said the ACORN organizer. “The
door is open for collaboration on a number of other issues.”
For example, “You would not normally be able to get welfare rights
organizations to sit down with the unions.” They did come together
for a pay raise.
explains, in pragmatic terms, what distinguishes the community-oriented
union stalwarts of the SEIU from the labor-supportive community
activists of ACORN.
depends on the issues,” says Bradberry, who is currently involved
in tenant organizing. “SEIU is doing daycare, for example. We’re
not involved with that. We’re doing community issues in the neighborhoods,
like the fight against the industrial canal. They’re not involved
in these issues.”
“depth” in poor neighborhoods places its troops in contact with
horrors that assault contemporary notions of civilization, degrading
not only the value of labor, but the human condition itself.
“The Hispanic community has a very large concern regarding the
treatment of immigrants,” says Bradberry. “People are brought
in from Mexico and given room and board, and then find themselves
in a kind of slavery.” The Living Wage campaign creates “common
February 2 ballot success must be measured in the context of labor’s
many frustrations in New Orleans and the South in general. As
business writer Kathy Finn pointed out in a recent New York Times
article, “Only one New Orleans hotel has ever been unionized,
and that was decades ago.”
Washington, the SEIU’s top woman and ranking African American
views the referendum as yet more proof of the continued vitality
of Black people as a whole.
shows that we are politically active and politically strong,”
said Patricia Ford, proudly. “We can’t just look at [union] member
density, alone,” she insisted, referring to organized labor’s
thin ranks in right-to-work Dixie. Ballot-based mobilizations
in areas of large Black concentration
can have vast consequences nationally. “If we’re going to take
back the House, we’re going to have to take the South.”
interviewer reminded Ford of the scene at last year’s SEIU’s Black
caucus convention. Delegations had stood by turn to affirm AFRAM’s
growing influence in the union. When it came time for the South
to be recognized, a lone woman rose from her seat. “As I said,
labor has to move South,” Ford repeated, even more firmly.
Orleans once again demonstrated that Living Wage campaigns are
“uniquely capable of bringing together labor, religious leaders,
and community organizations,” says Jen Kern, whose Living Wage
Resource Center is closely associated with ACORN. Churches readily
join, alarmed that “the working poor can’t tithe or come to services.”
Unions need popular power to “raise the floor for all workers”
and to resist the “contracting out of public jobs for low wages.”
Successful Living Wage organizers “tap into all of these urgencies.”
keys to rejuvenating, or rather, re-making the American
labor movement, may lie in the lessons being learned in Living
Wage campaigns. They emphasize community empowerment and reciprocal
respect among peoples. It is in these struggles that lingering
habits of narrow trade unionism may be broken. Rigidity and destructive
ethnic impulses, born of pain and prejudice, can be defeated when
popular issues are skillfully framed and broadly engaged.
the preceding brief and glancing views of three struggles; domestic
workers in California; immigrant janitors in the Northeast; and
the mobilization of a large, mostly Black city in the heart of
Dixie, we begin to see the promise of grassroots Living Wage campaigns.
has worked in 82 cities and is rising. The figure is far larger,
if the entire scope of the movement to organize the unorganized
is added to the count. This includes the jobless who would gladly
work if social support mechanisms were adequate.
and community activists are teaching and learning how to effectively
resist the Race To The Bottom. They are formulating strategies
and tactics that create common ground, rather than conflict, with
immigrants. They are revisiting unfinished battles, such as domestic
workers’ fight for dignity. They are setting community-wide standards
that no decent person can oppose.
Living Wage movement is an opportunity for unions and energized
communities to begin to recover from the hemorrhaging of decent
paying jobs during decades of mad corporate globalism, by empowering
the people flowing in from the other direction and the African
Americans and poor whites who have been here all the time.
of lifelong activists like Ken Msemaji are finding and rediscovering
ways “to make mass groups of people stand up.”
Black Commentator will treat the Living Wage movement as a regular
beat. This is the first of many commentaries on the subject.
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sites for understanding the Living Wage movement:
Wage Resource Center
Living Wage Page:
of Black Trade Unionists
Living Wage page
Justice for Janitors campaign
Living Wage Study
Responsible Wealth, Boston
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