New Report Details Plans for Low-Wage Worker Justice

Categories: Labor, Wage Wars

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Jason Lewis/Village Voice
A panel of labor policy experts dicuss the plight of low-wage workers at yesterday's symposium.
When a worker in this city has to endure a three-hour walk to work because his minimum wage salary doesn't allow for him to afford public transportation, that's a problem.

Low-wage workers across the city have stood up in the past year to demand that such insecurity be eradicated and to pressure employers to finally begin to provide them with just compensation for their labor.

Building on the progress generated by these worker-led movements--in industries such as retail, fast-food, airline security and car washing--UnitedNY, the Center for Popular Democracy and other advocacy groups held a symposium and released a report yesterday analyzing the state of the city's low-wage worker movement.

"It's very difficult to try and make ends meet on $7.25 minimum wage in New York City," Alterique Hall, a worker in the fast-food industry, said during a news conference following the event. "Some nights you want to lay down cry because you [feel] like 'what's the point of going to work and putting all of myself into a job, [if] I'm going to be miserable when I get off work, miserable when I go home...and don't want to wake up and go to work the next day...to get disrespected, treated poorly and paid poorly.'"

Hall, who's been active in the push for fairer wages in the fast-food industry, is the worker who is often forced to embark on the three-hour treks to work. Hall said that his boss will sometimes said him home as a penalty for his tardiness--without considering the ridiculous journey he has to travel just to get to there.

"Working hard, and working as hard as you can, isn't paying off for them," mayoral hopeful and former City Comptroller Bill Thompson, said during the news conference. "They're being underemployed, They're being underpaid. They're being taken advantage of. They're being ignored. They're becoming a permanent underclass in the city of New York."

The UnitedNY and CPD report lays out four specific initiatives that workers and advocates must pressure the city to implement in order to help better the plight of low-wage workers. The reports calls on the city and employers to :

  • [Raise] standards for low-wage workers.
  • [Regulate] high-violation industries where labor abuses are rampant.
  • [Establish] a Mayor's Office of Labor Standards to ensure that employment laws are enforced.
  • [Urge] the State to allow NYC to set a minimum wage higher than the State minimum--due to the higher cost of living in the City.

The report pays close attention to the need for City Council to pass the paid sick-leave bill, and increase the minimum wage in the city to $10/hour--a salary that would net a worker with regular hours about $20,000/year in earnings.

"We can't continue to be a Tale of Two Cities, where the path to the middle class keeps fading for thousands of New Yorkers," said New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio. "We must break the logjam and pass paid sick leave in the City Council. We have to protect low-wage workers fighting union busting employers. We can't tolerate inaction any longer. It's time for real action to fight for working families."

During one of the symposium workshops, a panel of labor experts discussed the obstacles facing low-wage workers in their fight to obtain such rights.

"[We've] shifted from a General Motors economy to a Wal-Mart economy," Dorian Warren, a professor of public affairs at Columbia University, said during the discussion. "[The job market is filled with] part-time jobs, low wages, no benefits, no social contract, no ability to move up in the job the way 20th century workers were able to."

Warren says that the quality of jobs in the American economy will only decline if something isn't done. He noted that 24 percent of jobs were low-wage in 2009. By 2020, that number is expected to nearly double and hit 40 percent. To make matters worse, technological "advances" are expected to increase unemployment rates by 3-5 percent moving forward.

"We're looking at an economy only of low-wage work in the future, but also of high and permanent levels of unemployment," Warren said.

The panel was moderated by acclaimed labor reporter, Steven Greenhouse of the N.Y. Times and included Angelo Falcon, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy, Deborah Axt, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, M. Patricia Smith, the solicitor of labor for U.S. Department of Labor and Ana Avendano of the AFL-CIO.

Several panelists stressed the need to combat attacks from right-minded forces seeking to erode worker wage and benefit rights. Falcon says that those fighting for worker rights must correct popular narratives, many of which categorize wage and benefit increases for workers as business-killers.

"When we talk about the minimum wage, the immediate response from business is, we're going to lose jobs because, we're only going to be able to hire a few people. We have to have an answer to that objection," Falcon said. "Through raising the minimum wage, you create job growth in terms of people being able to put more money into the economy. You're [putting] less pressure on social welfare systems...the system is still subsidizing business [when the public provides] welfare and other social services."

Warren* argued a similar point.

"I think we have to be much more explicit about targeting the right the way that they've targeted us. There's a reason why the right has gone after public sector unionism," Warren* said. "They know that's where the heart of the labor movement is in terms of funding and in terms of membership. We have to get smarter about which parts of the right do we target to destroy ideologically, organizationally so that we can advance further our movements. "

*Correction: The article previously attributed the quote to M. Patricia Smith.

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