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How the Other Half Still Lives | The Nation

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How the Other Half Still Lives

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The Low-Wage World

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Jack Newfield
Jack Newfield is a veteran New York political reporter and a senior fellow at the Nation Institute. He is the author of...

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Bob Dylan probably had no idea how much the times really were a' changin'.

On the rise of the "New Left" movement represented by organizations like Students for a Democratic Society, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Northern Student Movement, organizations whose ideologies could not be pinned to liberal sects of the past.

Most poor people work. The roughly $10,700 a year that $5.15-an-hour minimum-wage jobs pay is without question not sufficient to hold a family together in New York. But a big part of the city's poverty crisis is the World of Low-Wage Work, just above the legal minimum--"McJobs," as organizers call them. There are hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who are trapped in such jobs, from which they can be fired or lose shifts on the whim of a supervisor, at big chain franchises like McDonald's, Tower Records, Duane Reade drugstores and Gristedes supermarkets.

In testimony before the City Council on behalf of a living-wage bill, David Jones, president of the Community Service Society, a nonprofit social service agency, said that "one-in-five New York workers earns less than $8.10 an hour. Three-quarters of those earning less than $8.10 an hour are living in poverty." According to a comprehensive CSS study, 52.6 percent of low-wage workers are women; six out of ten have a high school diploma; and more than one in ten is a college graduate. Eight in ten are people of color. They are not teenagers working part-time jobs or subsidized members of middle-income households. More than 90 percent of those trapped in low-wage jobs are adults. More than 75 percent are now working full-time. They are not substance abusers, alcoholics or the mentally ill.

More than 600,000 New Yorkers earn between $5.15 an hour and $10 an hour. Some 56 percent of these low-wage workers have no health insurance for their families, 52 percent have no pension or 401(k) plan and 37 percent receive no paid leave. The CSS survey found that 27 percent of these workers fell behind in rent payments during the past year, 18 percent had their utilities shut off and 14 percent had to postpone necessary medical treatment. This low-wage world includes busboys, waitresses, janitors, food-service workers, store clerks, security guards, porters, maids, home health aides, day laborers and deliverymen. In late January, a federal judge in Manhattan ruled that more than 200 deliverymen were being paid less than $3 an hour by the Duane Reade drugstore chain. Most of these workers are immigrants from West Africa; as a group, they had been cheated out of $1 million in back pay.

A political tragedy is that only three unions are aggressively trying to organize the most underpaid workers: Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ, also of the SEIU, and the Hotel Trades Council, which is unionizing maids, housekeepers and employees of private clubs. Without the protection of unionization, collective bargaining and job security, low-wage workers are powerless in this savage season of high unemployment and intense competition for bad jobs. The simultaneous trend of Republican electoral ascendancy shoves these low-wage workers into a deeper hole, since Republican policies like tax cuts for the rich and budget cuts for the poor increase poverty and diminish the standard of living.

But late last year, the overwhelmingly Democratic City Council did pass two important laws to protect low-wage workers. They were enacted mostly because of the intense lobbying and targeted campaign donations of Local 1199 and Local 32BJ. First, the Council passed a compromise version of the living-wage law that gave 50,000 home healthcare workers--Local 1199 members--a minimum wage of $8.10 an hour if they have health insurance, $9.60 if not. This will become $10 an hour by 2006. The law covers employees of companies that receive homecare contracts from the city government--the basis for the legislative jurisdiction over wages. The scope of the bill was narrowed during negotiations between Council Speaker Gifford Miller and Mayor Mike Bloomberg, with about 2,000 building and other service workers deleted from coverage. But Local 32BJ got something else in return that they desired almost as much. This was the Displaced Building Service Worker Protection Act, which requires landlords, managers and contractors of newly acquired commercial properties of fifty units or more to retain on the payroll all union and nonunion workers for a ninety-day grace period.

32BJ was a notoriously corrupt union a few years ago. But now, under president Mike Fishman, and with an engaged membership of 70,000, it made its presence felt at the City Council. Every time there was a hearing on this bill, there were seventy-five or a hundred union members in purple union T-shirts, filling the chamber. A recent court-authorized wiretap recorded unsolicited praise for this union under Fishman's leadership. A Genovese crime family capo known as "Sammy Meatballs" was overheard talking about the union. "It's a very good union for the men," the gangster was complaining. "Y'know what I mean? Usually whoever belongs to it don't want to give that up. The men get treated good and they get good salaries." In the bad old days, this union was in collusion with the mob, selling labor peace and signing sweetheart contracts that screwed the membership. Now Local 32BJ is starting to demonstrate that even in this harsh economic and political climate, a democratic union can make a positive difference.

The difficulty is that too many private-sector unions are too timid or too much a part of the Establishment to hire the best organizers, think big, take risks and embrace an activist mission. Fishman, Dennis Rivera of Local 1199 and Peter Ward, the leader of the Hotel and Motel Trades Union Council, are the exceptions. Unfortunately, they don't have the jurisdiction to organize the exploited workers at the large nonunion chains.

It is hard for people in low-wage jobs to break out of the cycle of poverty. They obey the law, pay their bills, try to improve their education, stay away from drugs--and they still remain where they are, in bad jobs and in bad neighborhoods. Unionization is almost the equivalent of the lottery for them. When I asked Fishman about his philosophy of unionism, he replied: "Our power comes from our ability to take to the street. It is the only power we have. We can create chaos. I believe unions have to risk everything every day. I know our members are always one contract away from destitution."

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