La Oferta

April 1, 2023

America needs a raise in order to begin to dignify labor

June 19, 1996

By Yolanda Reynolds

Photos by Mary J. Andrade

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Last week, many working people gathered at the entry of the San Jose City Hall for the first phase of a nationwide drive to improve salaries and working conditions for U.S. workers. There are numerous reports that detail the decline of America’s middle class-all due to declining salaries and well paying job opportunities. The middle class in America is the backbone of the American workforce. Union organization is generally credited with expanding America’s middle class to include most of Americas workers into this category in unprecedented numbers that were unknown previously in the history of any country.

It was following WWII that America could claim to have the largest middle class ever a fact that made Americans very proud. In the 1950’s and 1960’s there were relatively fewer really rich people and fewer really poor people and this remained so until recent years. Today, the statistics reflect a different story. For example, 64% of workers in the U.S. earn less than $30,000 per year and are earning barely 25.4% of the total U.S. income. At the same time, 3% of the workers earn more than $100,000 per year and take home a full 23.4% of the Nation’s total income.

A worker in Silicon Valley earning $30,000 per year is likely to be unable to purchase a home and, in fact, would be likely found paying a full 1/3 of his/ her income to rent a two-bedroom apartment. Such housing costs leave little money for other essentials such as food, clothing, education, health and dental care, transportation and savings for retirement- hardly the description of a middle-class life style of the early 1960’s.

For some workers-far too many-their salaries average a minimum hourly wage of $4.25. In the Bay Area, experienced janitors on average earn $8.48 per hour. Beginning janitors in the Bay Area earn less than the federal poverty level. A janitor working full time and earning $7.28 per hour makes an annual salary of $15,142.

Many workers, even those earning in excess of $20 per hour, do not receive employer paid benefits such as health benefits, or a sense of job security. They lack reasonable working conditions, suffer demeaning treatment and work in unsafe and unhealthy places.

Following the large scale downsizing of the 80’s and 90’s, the U.S. workforce now includes millions of temporary, contract and part-time workers. The term used to describe these workers is that they are “disposable.” There is no company loyalty to the workers nor are the bosses interested in anything concerning the workers other than how to best maximize their labor to enhance the company’s profit margin. Too often, that is achieved on the backs of the workers. Until recently. U.S. companies and industries generally took pride in realizing their profits and success as a consequence of their companies’ superior technology and processes, rather than how clever they were in demeaning the dignity of the Nation’s workers by exploiting them.

In the meantime, the CEO’s (Chief Executive Officer) who carry out the downsizing, contracting out and shipping of jobs to cheaper labor markets are rewarded with double digit increases in their salaries. In 1995 alone those increases averaged 15%.

According to New York Times writer Louis Uchitelle, in an article he wrote entitled “1995 was good for companies and better for a lot of CEO’s,” “the average annual salary was over $2 million for the top executives in the top 150 large corporations (in the U.S. ).” When their other incentives and compensations were included, the median pay increase was actually 31% for an annual average earnings of over $5 million per year per CEO. The study found that, “these increases were paid (the CEO’s) even though the company did not perform well.” These astronomical salaries have resulted in an income “spread of the typical worker and chief executive of 30-1 in the 1960’s to one of 100 to 1 today”, Uchitelle writes.

The A.F.L. C.I.O., currently the nation’s largest union, has embarked on a national campaign to “return dignity and fair pay to workers in America.” Amy Dean, the Director of the local union office, pointed out that the Monday gathering was intended to “shine a light on the darker side of the ‘Miracle of Silicon Valley,” where 40% of the jobs are filled with ‘at will workers’ who are not enjoying job security, benefits, daily face the threat of unemployment, and are often under paid. Many of the jobs that are available today are for temporary, part time and contract employees.” This is so even for people with advanced technical degrees.

Last week numerous elected officials and political hopefuls appeared at the 5 p.m. kick off at the front door of City Hall to personally sign a pledge of support for the workers’ platform. Dean explained that this campaign is intended to represent workers, whether or not they were paying union dues, and that the Union would no “longer automatically endorse candidates unless they signed on to labor’s platform.”

Unions have come under severe criticism in the last decades for being more interested in achieving specific self-serving interests rather than in the broader issues that affect the workers of the nation. Under new leadership, the AFL-CIO is determined to become a force that is more inclusive and dedicated to a broader range of interests, including the fight for improved education, access to health care, environmental justice, social justice and as ever decent pay, safe working conditions and dignity for America’s workers.

Social unrest is often the result of such glaring disparities and disregard of the dignity of the worker, as is occurring today in the United States. Regardless of the role of a worker in the labor force, many believe that honest labor demands a living wage and respect. Few people will disagree that every job is important. Few want poorly prepared food, unclean restrooms, buildings, restaurants or inadequate health care and filthy, or inadequately trained medical personnel – yet many people now fulfilling these jobs remain in poverty – hardly able to afford housing.

This stage of the campaign is described as “Union Summer” and is intended to last until changes are realized. The union leadership is reaching out to young people, mostly college students on summer break, to launch the campaign across the nation. Last Monday night the summer interns coordinated the hearing held in the County Board Chambers where workers were able to testify regarding their work experience in the Valley. In 25 other major cities across the nation similar hearings took place.

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There were speakers from almost every profession. One worker, a janitor for eleven years, said that she and her co-workers at Pacific Maintenance, a janitorial firm that contracts with IBM in San Jose had just walked off the job in protest of low pay, the working conditions and limited benefits. Her hourly salary is $8 an hour.

A worker named “Gloria,” described the demands on her as an office worker doing word processing in one of the local high tech companies. She explained that the company “downsized” its office staff and expected the remaining workers to do the work of two people. She said that it was not unusual to be given a major job two minutes before closing time and then told the job is required by 8 am. the next day, thus requiring her to stay after hours with no recompense to complete the job. The unspoken threat as if she were to complain she would be laid off and another person would replace her. She concluded by saying “an injury to one worker is an injury to all workers.”

Another worker and teacher’s aide in the Alum Rock School District, explained that, after 18 years on the job, her hours had been reduced to 2 hours. She pointed out that, in her instance, the shortened hours, though not desirable, concerned her less for her loss in income than for the effect of the shortened hours of instructional assistance on her students many of whom have special language and learning needs.

Several public sector workers spoke of the repeated efforts of some politicians and bureaucrats at the local and state level to contract out vital government services, including such major operations as jails, prisons, social services and other departments such as the DMV and EDD, as a way to save money. Some states have tried this with disastrous results as the poorly trained and demoralized staff fail in their tasks and, ultimately, costs rise above the anticipated savings and the missions of these operations are not achieved.

A former farm worker and now farmworker organizer, Maria Carmona, described the continued exploitation of farm workers in the Watsonville-Salinas area, where workers are forced to live in the fields due to their low pay and children are hired to pick strawberries at far less than the minimum hourly wage. The workers still earn salaries that do not even match the minimum wage and, in the instance of the children, the child workers are subjected to physical and verbal abuse.

Another man who identified himself as “Melvin,” a Pacific Bell employee, raised his hands for all to see his hands, both of which were missing fingers that had to be surgically removed. He explained that he had just recently been informed by his company that he would no longer receive health benefits, even though he continues to have health problems requiring expensive medical attention.

Another young woman named “Imelda” explained that she had worked as a home health care worker at a salary of $4.25 an hour, caring for a home bound senior. Her hours were reduced to only 2 hours per week. She had to quit because of the low pay, and few hours.

Another man spoke on behalf of his sister, who took a job with a catering company where she too received the minimum wage but was expected to work 10-12 hours. Her low salary and long hours precluded her from obtaining any education and training that would enable her to qualify for a better paying job. He explained that she is unable to prepare for her old age and retirement.

Another woman, a union member for 24 years, says that even after her years as a union member she finds herself unemployed today. Speaking in Korean through an interpreter, she explained that the company she had worked for sent its manufacturing operations abroad in search of cheaper labor costs. She asked, “what am I to do-at my age I’m not young and I’m not old.” Her current job pays the minimum wage and she now has no benefits.

Her lament is similar to that expressed by the famous, now dead, protest folk singer Woody Guthrie who often sang at rallies during the last big labor movement of the 1930’s. A phrase in that song states, “what do you do when you’re too old to work – and too young to die?”

In those years, the labor struggle was so bitter that many workers lost their lives in the struggle for justice. That movement began well before the turn of the century due to an abuse of labor that became intolerable. In those years there had been a huge surge of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Germany and China. Companies competed with each other in lowering the wages they paid and ignored the conditions of work in their operations.

It was not until the late 20’s and the early 30’s that the labor movement was ultimately successful in obtaining labor laws that require just pay, safe working conditions, curbing of the worst examples of the exploitation of workers, an end to the use of child labor and a restriction of the flow of immigrants.

Testimony was limited to two minutes at the hearing. Each story was different, but all illustrated a lack of respect for working people. Linda Chavez Thompson an officer in the AFL CIO national leadership, pointed out that conditions “faced by today’s worker-that of low pay, job insecurity and the growth in the use of ‘disposable workers,’ has to do with corporate greed and making a buck at any cost.” “Workers,” she points out, “are tossed out of a job after 20-35 years on the job.” Chavez Thompson adds, “We’ve had enough-Ya Basta!”

Chavez Thompson explained that the union rank and file are reaching out to community groups, religious leaders and all workers, whether or not they are members of unions or in professions that have until now eschewed union membership.

With the recent dramatic and startling changes in medical practice, even some medical doctors on the East and West Coast are feeling pressured. Today, even this once privileged profession is under attack and some doctors are unionizing in order to protect their sense of duty as medical professionals. Cost cutting by HMO’s and insurance is making demands contrary to their Hippocratic oath. Doctor’s feel that their services are compromised when some ‘for profit’ health companies are dictating how medical services will be delivered and even determining-according to cost-prescriptions and therapies for the patient.

Throughout the country a populist movement is emerging. It appears that the nation is facing again the issues that plagued Americans at the turn of the century when a few captains of industry, abetted by ambitious and corrupt politicians, subjected American workers to virtual slavery. Then, as now, there was a great concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. Many of these business people were ruthless and, when laws did not protect their interests, they hired their own thugs to harass and sometimes murder protesting workers.

It was at this time that creative strategies were developed to protect the interests of the largest corporations. There were the Robber Barons, who were granted huge public gifts (subsidies) in the form of free land and were given a territory free of the “menacing Indians.” Immigration was encouraged in order to provide cheap labor. Today, the electronics companies claim as the railroad companies and others did in those days that they could not succeed without unlimited legal immigration.

It was then that corporate interests obtained a legal ruling that “restrained trade” was unlawful and used this concept against railway strikers. It was then also that corporations used the 14th Amendment, an amendment enacted to protect the rights of the freed slaves, to protect corporations. The law was used to grant corporations all the “rights and privileges” of citizen.

In the late 1800’s corruption prevailed in Congress and these large corporations were able to bribe or buy the legislation they desired. Today, newspaper headlines often announce that one or another politician was sent to prison for accepting a bribe or was found to have misused both office and government funds for personal gain or that of a major contributor. Even though laws were violated, much of the legislation that carried their votes still stands.

Unions and other concerned citizens are determined to fight on until honest labor is respected and properly rewarded.

If you are interested in “Union Summer” contact Cindy Chavez or Anabel Ibanez at 266-3790. For more information on the “Justice for Janitor Campaign” telephone 280-7770. © La Oferta Newspaper.