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America's Working Poor

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.

Facts of life in US labour market

Youth with an empty future - Harlem, New York City

Photo: Gordon Parks

Dottie Thomas lives in Boston, Massachusetts. In her thirties, Dottie, who is black, supports her five children with welfare payments. She has worked at several low-wage retail and service jobs in the past but has found the low wages, poor benefits and job insecurity too frustrating. She has applied for the federal government’s public service job program but there have been no openings. She has looked for work in the private sector but has not been able to find another job.

Dottie is one of hundreds of thousands of Americans who make up what is called ‘the secondary labour market’, that group of unskilled, largely minority, workers who are the preserve of casual labour in the US. Sometimes surviving on government welfare or unemployment payments, sometimes working at low-skill, dead-end jobs, these people are caught in a revolving door’ with little opportunity for advancement. Their position is marginal. Whether working in a small, non-union factory or in an unskilled service job, these workers always face the immediate possibility of replacement, and loss of job. Then they may be forced to live on welfare until they can find work. Unskilled and poorly educated, the members of the secondary labour market climb a different employment ladder than do most workers in the American labour force. They are the reserve army of the unemployed, underemployed and working poor.

This army, which has an extremely high representation of blacks and other minorities, is large and is growing. In 1954 black youth employment was at 17 per cent, only a little higher than the white youth unemployment rate of 13 per cent. But while white youth unemployment has maintained its 1954 level, unemployment among black and minority youth has soared to 36 per cent.

Moreover, although white workers have recovered from the effects of the 1975 recession, black workers have not. Between 1975 and 1977, white unemployment declined by 16 per cent. In those same two years, unemployment among black workers rose two per cent. The strongest recovery among blacks was made by adult male workers, but even they showed significantly slower recovery than did adult white men.

As white women and teens become more active in the labour market, the result is a deepening employment crisis in the black community. The number of jobs available increases every month; but the new opportunities are not benefitting the unemployed minorities. And the only conclusion to draw is, as Robert Hill notes in his article, ‘The Illusion of Black Progress’, that the presistently high level of unemployment among blacks is primarily due to the unavailability of jobs to blacks rather than their unsuitability for those jobs. The problem is a combination of racial discrimination, depressed economy and ineffective targetting of jobs to the black community.

The federal government has tried to address this problem of structural unemployment through the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), which has provided up to 725,000 public service jobs in the past. Federal youth programs under CETA have accounted for most of the 56,000 person increase among employed black teens in the past year; but at the same time, at least 400,000 minority teenagers remain unemployed. 725,000 jobs are better than none, but CETA as it is funded, can never be a comprehensive program, In Detroit, Michigan, for example, there are over 113,000 adults who are considered economically disadvantaged and therefore eligible for a public service job under CETA. But CETA money in Detroit funds only 3,500 jobs, enough to employ fewer than four per cent of the city’s need.

Congress decided last year to shift the focus away from government jobs and toward the private sector. Arguing that four out of every five new jobs are created in the private sector, Congress established new guidelines and programs (including tax credits to private-sector employers who hire the economically disadvantaged) that are meant to involve business and industry in creating new jobs, training the unskilled hardcore unemployed and attacking the problem of structural unemployment.

The secondary labour market however, cannot simply be legislated out of existence. It is certainly difficult to convince the people who have been through ‘the revolving door’ that the private sector will begin to provide new jobs, let alone jobs with good wages, benefits and job security. And the existence of a reserve of unskilled labour serves an important function in the economy, keeping wages down for other workers and providing some employers with the labour flexibility they need to expand capacity when necessary.

*Richard Kazis* is co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, 1717 18th Street NW., Washington DC 20009, USA.

Where have all the flower children gone?

The generation of the Sixties has grown up, and many former anti-war and civil-rights activists now find themselves pushing for change ‘from within’. In cities and towns across the country, there are now city council members, mayors, state assembly members, and directors of planning commissions, housing departments and other executive offices who ten or fifteen years ago were demonstrating out in the streets.

Five years ago, the existence of a loose network of these progressive officials together with community organisers, lobbyists, academics and labour union representatives, was recognised and formalised with a national annual conference.

The premise of the conference was that like minded activists pursuing state and local strategies for social change should get together, compare notes and provide each other with concrete and specific advice and help. That people were eager for such a conference is clear from the conference’s progress since the first meeting five years ago. Each year there has been a national conference and several regional conferences. Each year the national conference has grown in size. This year, in early August, over 1000 people gathered on the campus of Bryn Mawr College, ten miles outside Philadelphia, to discuss an ‘Agenda for the ‘80s.’ Veterans of the 1960s are now looking ahead, not simply gazing back nostalgically. The focus of this year’s conference was on building a base and turning widespread citizen dissatisfaction into a positive force for change.

For five years, conference organisers and steering committee members have been developing a critique of ‘the corporate agenda’ as the basis for their activity. Gar Alperovitz of the National Centre for Economic Alternatives explained in his address how corporate domination in food, health, housing and energy have forced the rate of inflation in these basic necessities to be more than twice the rate for non-necessities. The theme was hammered home continuously during the three days of workshops and planning sessions. Many compared the 1980s to the 1930s.

They argued that the stag-flation that keeps both inflation and unemployment at high levels is a clear indication that the economic system no longer works and that the recession that is ushering in the coming decade is a portent of hard times - and of an angry, potentially activist citizenry.

Midway through the conference, though, it became clear that some conference­goers were dissatisfied. The general complaint was with a lack of concern for the issues that were so critical in the 1960s: social services, adequate health care, housing and income.

By the final day the discontent was clear. A caucus of feminists and welfare recipients decried the small number of presentations by women at the conference and complained that poor people’s issues were being ignored at a time when the budget-slashing backlash is wiping out many gains won ten years ago. One welfare mother suggested that the progressive officials and conference organisers should try living on a welfare budget before they go talking Washington Mayor Marion Barry, in the closing session of the conference, drove home the point. ‘I understand why a welfare mother cant get turned on by a discussion of "the corporate agenda",’ Barry said. ‘She cant understand what you’re talking about.’

In some ways the conference needed the dissent. Some of the participants sounded stale as if they had given the same talk too many times. What the bubbling-up of concern over the ‘old issues’ of the 1960s accomplished was to remind people of their goal: to alleviate poverty, to redistribute wealth and privilege, and to improve the quality of people’s lives. It brought anger and pain and urgency back into a discussion that had become too distant and academic.

The Conference on Alternative State and Local Policies is located at 1901 Q Street NW, Washington DC 20009.

*Richard Kazis* is co-director of the Institute for Local Self Reliance, 1717 18th Street NW, Washington DC 20009.