New Internationalist

America’s Working Poor

Issue 086

Richard Kaziz surveys some encouraging and innovative attempts to organize low-paid and unemployed workers in the U.S.

Hard times always hit those at the bottom of the ladder first. In America today, they are the unskilled, the unemployed and the ‘working poor’ - those who are poor not because they don’t work but because they don’t earn enough.

This ‘secondary labour force’ is made up largely of young racial minorities - blacks, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans - and women. Official estimates claim that about 35 per cent of these young people in American cities are unemployed. Including those discouraged workers no longer looking for work, the figure in many cities jumps about 50 per cent.

Few are able to climb to high-paying, secure skilled employment. Most simply move from a low-wage job to unemployment to welfare and around again. They face a constant and difficult struggle to rise above poverty. For people who work minimum wage jobs, at $2.90 an hour, their yearly salary is not enough to keep a family of four above the federal poverty level.

In the light of further gloomy predictions about the U.S. economy there is a new interest in organizing the unorganized and building grassroots pressure among the poor to fight for the secure jobs with decent wages. This activism is still embryonic, but there are several healthy signs of public concern.

In the Southwest, several unions have been able to organize ‘undocumented’ workers, those Mexicans who cross to the U.S. to find work. In Compton, California, the United Electrical Workers spent $60,000 to tide over the 350 striking families at the Kraco auto accessory plant until workers won a contract with a 30 cent raise, a cost of living raise, limited medical benefits and an established set of grievance procedures.

In Arizona, the Maricopa Country Organizing Project (MCOP) formed in 1976, has helped local farm workers to win some important victories. In the fall of 1977, workers at the Goldmar citrus ranch, owned by Robert Goldwater (brother of conservative Senator Barry and a director of the Arizona National Bank), went on strike. After 22 days, Goldwater agreed to negotiate and workers won a 25 per cent wage increase, daily pay, toilets on the worksites, showers, blankets and protective clothing. This settlement set the standard for others negotiated in the area. Wages tripled from an average $12 a day to $30 and $40 by the spring of 1978.

In urban areas, organizing minimum-wage workers and the unemployed is also picking up steam. In San Diego, the United Domestic Workers of America (UDW) has begun to organize cooks, maids and cleaning help who are among the lowest paid workers in America. Initial plans are modest, limited to small grievances, like helping someone who’s been cheated out of a day’s pay. But the union also hopes to purchase a group health plan for members and to bargain for some fringe benefits and better wages.

Recently, in Philadelphia, United Labour Unions won the right to represent workers at two low-wage factories: one a metals factory with 45 workers and the other a 130-worker (all black, 75 per cent female) rag recycling plant. At the rag factory, where the union won by an overwhelming 86-2 vote, the owner refused to negotiate on wages and workers were forced to strike. For people with little or no savings, the decision to strike was not easy. But it is an indication of their belief in the potential of the union.

It is difficult to build stable leadership among the unemployed and organizing is slow. Unionizing drives among low and minimum-wage workers are unlikely to provide more stable membership, for they face long, difficult - and sometimes violent - struggles.

Still, as Robert Garcia, United Electrical Workers organizer at the Kraco plant in Compton, California, explained, ‘defense of the lowest-paid worker is the best defense of all.’

Richard Kaziz is co-director of the Institute for Self Reliance, Washington D.C.

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