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Fighting for Fair Wages


Judy Chu and Maria Elena Durazo

Fighting for Fair Wages

While the subject of the vanishing middle class has gained traction in recent years, there is an equally unnerving phenomenon that is keeping step even though it doesn’t get quite the same level of attention. That’s the plight of the working poor. Until recently, the term “working poor” did not have a place in the American lexicon. Now, it is commonly used to characterize an entire sector of our population. Like “jumbo shrimp,” “pretty ugly,” and other oxymorons, “working poor” is an accepted term in contemporary American vernacular. But, although the use of the term has only recently become commonplace, the economic trends and supporting policies that cause this phenomenon have been underway for quite some time.

[Shown here Board of Equalization Member Judy Chu and LAANE Board of Directors Chair Maria Elena Durazo at the LAX Hilton demonstration.]

Those of us who do not belong to the ranks of the working poor need to pay attention to what has been happening. Not so long ago, a single wage earner could support a family of five and also enjoy a pension and other benefits. This was considered normal—a “living wage,” so to speak, that provided a standard of living most Americans came to expect. But those days are gone, and more changes are coming down the pike.

According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI)—an organization founded by Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor during the Clinton Administration — America has failed to meet this standard for many years. In a recent report, EPI’s Thomas Kochan and Beth Shulman make the case that the U.S. has “relied on increased hours of paid work contributed by wives and mothers over the past two decades as the safety valve that kept society from imploding.” Furthermore, they contend that the challenge facing families today is that there are “no more hours available to further advance family income. Wages simply have to rise.”

Increasingly, it is becoming clear that U.S. governmental policies are not serving the needs of today’s working families. You don’t have to have a background in economics to see the relationship between the vanishing middle class and the growing numbers of working poor. Most people over the age of 40 have seen a change in their lifetimes. People are working harder, but aren’t advancing the way the generation before them did. At the same time, America’s safety net is disappearing even as jobs are becoming more insecure.

The EPI says, “The implicit social contract that governed work for many years—the norm that hard work, loyalty, and good performance will be rewarded with fair and increasing wages, dignity, and security—has broken down and been replaced by a norm in which employers give primacy to stock price and short-term gains, often at the expense of America’s workers.”

If the EPI is correct and there is a direct relationship between the vanishing middle class and the growing numbers of working poor, we owe it to ourselves and to our children to learn more and take action.

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One such organization that is taking action is the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. Maya Anderson, a senior organizer with LAANE, attended the California Democratic Council Convention in August where we all participated in a protest march supporting the unionizing efforts of the hotel workers at the LAX Hilton. It was at that march that we asked Maya if we could interview her. A couple of weeks later we met at Auntie Em’s Diner in Eagle Rock and had a leisurely lunch and chat.

Maya gave us a little of the history of the LAANE, which was founded in1993. She stressed that “LAANE was established to address issues affecting the working poor. LAANE has helped set in motion a movement based on the principle that hard work deserves fair pay, good benefits, and decent working conditions.”

Listening to Maya, it became clear that LAANE’s mission is closely aligned with the core values Bill Clinton’s former Secretary of Labor Reich said needed to be reestablished in this country. By building a new economy that restores the American dream of fair wages and benefits in return for hard work, LAANE believes we will be able to rebuild the middle class.

Maya explained that LAANE’s focus is currently on jobs in growing industries that can’t be exported such as those in the fast-growing service sector. Maya and her colleagues at LAANE believe that these jobs will serve as the foundation for rebuilding a strong and vibrant middle class. The organization was instrumental in helping to pass one of the country’s first living wage laws, raising wages for 10,000 workers. Since then, LAANE has joined forces with a coalition of unions and clergy to improve wages and working conditions for thousands of airport employees.

LAANE has led many efforts to defeat mega corporations who place bottom-line profits over community interests. “LAANE led the effort to defeat Wal-Mart’s $1.5 million initiative campaign in Inglewood, and helped pass the groundbreaking Los Angeles Superstore Ordinance, giving communities more control over the construction of big box stores,” Maya said. LAANE and its leadership have received numerous honors, including awards from the Mayor of Los Angeles, the Speaker of the California Assembly, and the UCLA School of Law.

Maya, who was born in the United States to a German mother, was raised primarily in Germany. She speaks fluent English, Spanish, and German. Having seen her in action on a couple of occasions, and seeing the passion that lies beneath her commitment to improve employment conditions for the working poor, we asked Maya what keeps her going. She told us that her grandparents lived in Germany during the Third Reich. One of her grandparents was born in Mexico and married a German attorney, who took her to Germany. Maya’s grandmother had to get a document to protect her from the Nazis. Her grandmother was fortunate in that she married a man of means. But for her husband’s position and connections, she might have ended up in a concentration camp. Her grandmother’s experiences led directly to Maya’s commitment to social justice.

With the combined onslaught of globalization, de-unionization, and deregulation, the middle class of America is at risk of losing its majority status. If Democrats can stand together as they did during the Franklin Delano Roosevelt era and support the efforts of organizations such as LAANE, we might have hope. Dick and I have decided to stand with LAANE. We hope you will learn more about the organization’s mission and projects and support them too.

-- by Dick Price & Sharon Kyle