Low-wage Workers Rise for Pay Equity, Justice on the Job

By Alicia Newton

Low-paid workers are fighting back.

The day before Thanksgiving 2012 in Atlanta, I joined the nationwide Black Friday protest against Walmart. 

The largest corporate employer and retailer in the nation, Walmart has aggressively resisted organizing efforts for decades.  While Craig Jelinek, CEO and president of Costco, came out in support of raising the minimum wage, Walmart is mum.  Despite its $15 billion in annual profits, the mega-retailer bemoans recent sales numbers that are lower than expectations. 

“At Costco, we know that paying employees good wages makes good sense for business,” said Jetliner. The average wage at Costco was $45,000 in 2011, according to Fortune, while the average salary at Sam’s Club was $17,486, says Glassdoor.com.  If the minimum wage were increased to an austere $9, the average Walmart employee would receive a raise.

Walmart employees and ex-employees with whom I spoke would agree to share their stories only if they could remain anonymous.  Uniformly, they said they struggle with fear and blatant disrespect at the hands of their behemoth employer, suffering low wages, overtime wage theft, erratic schedules, reduced hours and the threat of losing their jobs.

“I worked 98 hours in a two-week period during the holiday season last year at Walmart and was paid for 40 hours,” said an ex-Walmart employee. Walmart policy states supervisors have to enter overtime into the system each day an employee works over (base time).   My supervisor called me into work but never entered the time into the system and I never got paid.” Wage theft is not a new charge for Walmart.  In January, Walmart was added to another lawsuit alleging wage theft at a California warehouse in January. 

This movement has empowered low-wage worker organizing efforts across our nation.  

The fastest growing occupation in America is home health care aides.  Many home health care aides make less than minimum wage.   These workers who care for our most vulnerable and fragile citizens, our sick, disabled, and elderly, have no labor law protections.

“I try to find my own jobs because something has to be done about the agencies,” said one health care aide I interviewed. “Agencies like Senior Helpers in Atlanta charge clients $18 an hour and pay us $8.50 an hour with no benefits and no overtime.  I have two children.  Even when I find my own jobs, the pay rarely exceeds $10 an hour and a typical day is 12 hours, with no overtime,”

In March, health care workers rallied in St. Paul, Minnesota to win the right to organize.   Minnesota state law grants organizing rights to workers employed by home health care agencies, but not to workers providing so-called “self-directed” care, or services in which home-bound patients themselves direct their aides.  These workers are excluded from organizing because of the false characterization of their status as independent contractors.

Fast food workers make up another large group of unorganized workers. The Fast Food Forward campaign organized New York City fast food workers to strike. Targeting Wendy’s, McDonalds and Burger King, hundreds of workers participated in the first-ever strike demanding higher wages and the ability to organize a union without retaliation.

The most powerful lobby against restaurant workers is the National Restaurant Association.  Executive Vice President Scott DeFife sounded the same false alarm heard since 1938 when the minimum wage was enacted: “Any additional labor cost can negatively impact a restaurant’s ability to hire or maintain jobs.”  Pressure from the association, led by former Board Chair Herman Cain, continued to exclude tipped workers from minimum wage standards. Tipped workers’ wages have been stagnant at $2.13 an hour for two decades.  Organizations like the Fast Food Forward campaign in New York City leveraged the Black Friday worker strikes to continue momentum for restaurant workers.

In the summer of 2012, Georgia state Labor Commissioner Mark Butler defied federal law by denying unemployment benefits to seasonal school workers.  Contract cafeteria workers, bus drivers, crossing guards and custodians were joined by college students, Teamsters Local 728, Atlanta Jobs with Justice and other supporters to organize for workers’ rights.  In April 2013 the state Labor Department decided to comply.  This summer, workers received unemployment just like their publicly employed nonseasonal counterparts.

Domestic workers are also organizing, reviving the work begun by Atlanta native Dorothy Bolden when she established the National Domestic Workers Union in 1968.  For example, in February, a revived Atlanta chapter of the National Domestic Workers Alliance ssbegan organizing domestic workers and working to pass a “Bill of Rights” for domestic workers statewide.   At present, no laws or regulations protect domestic workers from discrimination or guarantee them a minimum wage, health insurance, sick days, overtime, or any other basic employment right.

A recent study of wage theft among low-wage workers, conducted by the New Jersey-based immigrant-organizing effort New Labor and by Jason Rowe of Harvard University, found an epidemic: 36.1 percent of low-wage workers surveyed were not paid in full for wages that had been promised.

Organizing efforts against a structure where the rich get richer and the poor scrape by are rising.  Low-wage workers are organizing in greater numbers and in sectors once immune because of company suppression.  Now, the need for survival is scaling the wall of fear.

Alicia_Newton2.jpgAlicia Newton is the lead consultant and owner of Learning Path LLC and a member of Atlanta 9 to 5. She blogs at alicianewton.com.






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