Journalists are fixated on union members’ donations to the Los Angeles mayoral race to elect Wendy Greuel, Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, writes in a Los Angeles Times column. But one issue is being largely ignored: the working poor.
“But if the discussion about the role of unions in the campaign is going to focus almost exclusively on money, shouldn’t we talk about money in its entirety?” writes Durazo. “What motivates me and so many others in L.A. labor when it comes to money are the hundreds of thousands of our fellow workers in Los Angeles who don’t earn enough of it.”
Los Angeles is the low-wage capital of the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau‘s American Community Survey. L.A. has more workers who struggle to survive on poverty pay than any other metropolitan area in the country.
During 2011, the most recent year for which data are available, 822,244 people working at full-time, year-round jobs earned less than $25,000 a year. That represented 28% of the labor force. These figures are for Los Angeles County.
I work for a large national retailer. How do you get them to remove caps on wages? I’ve been told that it’s “not a cap,” and that I just “chose not to advance”! There are not enough management positions for everyone. I have worked for the company for 26 years and now I will never make any more money. Is that even legal?
- Not living better, Kansas
It’s understandable that it feels like your wages are actually capped. After all, you’ve been with the same company for quite a while. That’s the problem you face when the power to decide whether or not you get a raise rests only with the boss.
In a way, there really is a cap on wages. And it’s not just happening to you. Worker productivity has increased steadily for the past forty years but wages have not. We’re working harder and creating more value, but we’re not getting any of that back. Corporations and rich CEOs are so out of touch that they no longer feel like they should have any responsibility to share the increased profits they earn. I know I keep citing the same statistics, but I think they’re key to understanding what change is needed.
Your prospects for a raise shouldn’t just be a limited number of management positions—especially when your advancement is completely in your boss’s control. Part of the reason why we’ve seen this rise in inequality is that workers and communities accepted that it just has to be that way. I say, no way! This is a big-picture problem, but one we can take on if we band together—like workers for one national big-box retailer or fast food workers in New York City have been doing. There is plenty of room even in this economy to treat workers with respect and dignity, and to do so through a fairer share of the profits they create. Ready to do something about it? You definitely aren’t alone.
With the federal minimum wage stuck at $7.25 an hour and an increase facing stiff opposition from congressional Republicans, coalitions of union, community, faith and other groups are mobilizing to win increases in state and local minimum wage levels. Here’s a look at some recent wins and campaigns where AFL-CIO state federations and central labor councils are playing big roles.
Raising the minimum wage will make a real difference in the lives of workers, many of whom are adults working full-time, and many of whom have families to support.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, raising New York’s minimum wage to $9.00 per hour will benefit more than 1.5 million New York workers—more than one in five workers in New York. The Fiscal Policy Institute estimates that increasing New York’s minimum wage to $9.00 per hour will generate more than $1.1 billion in new economic activity, supporting the creation of 10,200 new full-time jobs as businesses expand to meet increased consumer demand.
San Jose, Calif., recently increased its minimum wage to $10 an hour after a campaign that united the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council and San Jose Downtown Association in winning a ballot measure to boost the city’s minimum wage.
Meanwhile in Hawaii, the state House passed legislation to raise the Aloha State’s minimum wage to $9 an hour by 2017 in four steps. The state Senate is expected to vote on the bill next month.
In Maine last week, the state House also voted to boost the state’s minimum wage, from the current $7.50 an hour to $9 an hour by 2016 in in three steps. The bill also protects the wage from losing its value inflation by indexing it to inflation. The bill awaits state Senate action.
A bill to increase the Minnesota minimum wage to $10.55 an hour over three years is making it way through the House. It already has been approved by three committees and further action is expected later in the spring. It also is indexed against inflation. The bill is a key part of the Minnesota AFL-CIO’s Agenda for Dignity and Middle Class Fairness.
Looking down the road, New Jersey voters will decide this fall on a ballot measure to raise the Garden State’s minimum wage to $8.25 an hour and index it against inflation. The New Jersey State AFL-CIO plans a major effort around the measure. In January, Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a minimum wage bill.
There are also campaigns or legislation under way to increase the minimum wage in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Mexico and Rhode Island.
Juicy Couture, that hip, L.A.-centric, high-end clothing and apparel chain, is engaging in what can only be described as tragically unhip corporate behavior. It is, workers say, replacing its full-time workforce with part-timers in order to duck its obligations to provide paid leave and health care for the workers.
According to the women’s fashion, lifestyle and news blog Jezebel, the workers who were fired or saw their hours slashed say the peddler of $200 jeans and reviver of the velour track suit is deliberately back-dooring the Affordable Care Act, which requires employers with 50 or more employees who work 30 or more hours a week to provide basic health care coverage.
In addition, the workers’ hours have been capped at 21 per week—not quite enough to meet the 1,400-hours-a-year company benchmark to qualify for paid sick leave.
Two former employees (see photo) of the chain’s New York City flagship store have teamed up with the Retail Action Project to launch an online petition urging Juicy Couture to provide full-time opportunities for workers and lift the cap on hours:
When we began working at Juicy Couture, many of us were full time. Now, only 19 of the store’s 128 employees are full time! Not only are they firing full-time workers and replacing us with a part-time workforce, just this month Juicy capped all part-time workers’ hours at 21 hours per week.
We quickly realized that Juicy Couture is doing everything it can to not take care of its workers.Darrell and I are just two of the full-time employees that have been forced out of Juicy Couture by having our hours cut or being fired. Now we’re speaking out on behalf of co-workers who remain at the store, because we all deserve Just Hours.We know from experience that Juicy has loyal customers and dedicated employees—if enough of us speak out and demand Just Hours, they’ll have no choice but to act.
The company has more than 100 retail outlets.
BTW, Fifth and Pacific, Juicy Couture’s parent company, posted a $54 million profit in just the last quarter of 2012.
Amgen is the 31st corporation to announce publicly that they are cutting ties with ALEC, the corporate-sponsored bill mill responsible for Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, Arizona’s anti-immigrant SB 1070, and attacks on workers’ and consumers’ rights across the country.
Another large medical company, Johnson & Johnson, announced it would end its ALEC affiliation in June 2012.
As Amgen Assistant Secretary and General Council Andrea Robinson responded to an inquiry from socially responsible shareholders and investors: “After careful consideration, we have determined not to renew our membership in ALEC when our current membership expires this year.”
In the years since the vicious, recession-inducing collapse of the housing market, we’ve learned more and more about the irresponsibility and bad practices that caused the bubble and the crash. The banks and the mortgage-servicing industry abandoned all reasonable standards in their rush to turn people’s homes and debts into the equivalent of casino chips—and the consequences have been enormous.
Fortunately, California has taken the strongest step yet to hold financial institutions accountable for their wrongdoing and protect people from illegal foreclosures. Yesterday the state legislature passed a “Homeowners’ Bill of Rights,” which would give homeowners more power in facing the institution that holds their mortgage. The state’s Attorney General, Kamala Harris, sponsored the bill. The provisions include making sure homeowners have one point of contact and can’t get foreclosed while they’re pursuing a loan modification, stronger penalties for “robo-signing” of loans, and increased rights for homeowners to sue banks if they’ve been the subject of violations. (David Dayen, a Californian who follows this issue closely, has more analysis.)
The new law builds off of the multi-state mortgage fraud settlement negotiated this spring, but goes considerably farther. Critically, it actually provides a deterrent to bad practices by banks and mortgage servicers.
The biggest factor in the foreclosure crisis is the uncertainty that comes from a mix of shoddy paperwork, careless repackaging and resale, and dramatic decline in housing values. In many cases, people are paying much more than their home is worth and they don’t even know who owns their mortgage. Many people who are facing foreclosure or eviction have done everything they thought was required of them, and a wave of local, grassroots activism has sprung up to combat unfair foreclosures.
California’s move comes at a time when national politics is losing focus on this crisis. Foreclosure hurts not just families who might lose their home, but also their neighbors and the economy generally, and yet we still haven’t done enough to fix what’s wrong. “There has been no shortage of good ideas, what has been lacking is will,” says law professor Jean Braucher, who says that there’s a sense of “foreclosure fatigue” among Washington policymakers. Well, people in neighborhoods riddled with evictions are getting tired of it, too.
What should really happen is principal reduction—the banks and servicers who hold mortgages should write them down so that people are paying based on what their house is worth now, not at the height of the bubble. The fact that people are having trouble paying for their homes is a big drag on our economy and principal reductions would help give it a boost.
Still, California’s move to increase the power of homeowners is a big step in the right direction. We need to make sure the financial industry is doing its job, and that means putting real penalties on misconduct and giving it the incentive to help people stay in their homes. California is the biggest housing market in the country, and this new law should be a model for other states. Harris, and the grassroots activists who pushed for tougher laws on mortgage fraud, should be commended.
If you’re a regular reader of our AFL-CIO Now news blog, you might come to our site without stopping first at the AFL-CIO home page here. If you haven’t been there recently, you’ve missed a couple of additions and new features on how unions and union members are connecting with communities.
There is a great video addition to the “In Our Communities” section from the AFT that explores the work the union and its partners in the Reconnecting McDowell initiative are doing to improve education and the economy in McDowell County, W.Va., one of the poorest counties in the nation. After you watch the video, click here to learn more from AFT about Reconnecting McDowell.
In our "What I Do" feature, hear from James Petersen, head custodian—and more—in the Modesto (Calif.) City school system. Says Diane Scott, principal of Rose Avenue Elementary School:
Jim sees the big picture of education, not just ‘I’m here to clean the room.’ He understands the importance that the kids learn in a great environment. What he does is way beyond what he is contracted to do, it’s more than a job for him.
Find out how Petersen—a member of the California School Employees Association (CSEA)—helps kids learn and grow through his “From Rose Buds to Roses” school gardening project.
In July I wrote about folk stampeding for Section 8 housing vouchers in Dallas, when thousands of people showed up, some waiting all night, to get vouchers for subsidized housing. It was a terrible story.
Since then, nothing much has changed, other than the fact that even more people are in need of affordable housing. From The Nation:
In Oakland, California, which opened its waiting list in January, officials expected as many as 100,000 people to apply for 10,000 vouchers. In Atlanta, sixty-two people were injured in 2010 at an East Point shopping center where 30,000 lined up after the local housing authority opened its waiting list for the first time in eight years. Even small communities like Aiken, South Carolina, saw hundreds queuing up in October for a chance at housing aid about as likely as seeing three cherries in a row on a Vegas slot machine.
Another way you can find tangible evidence of the housing affordability crunch is by visiting one of New York City’s exploding number of homeless shelters, where a record 41,000 homeless people bed down each night, including more than 17,000 children. The New York Times recently told the story of one of those children, fourth-grader N-Dia Layne, who travels two and a half hours each day between her Upper Manhattan shelter and her school in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood. In Cleveland, the number of homeless families and kids grew so rapidly this past summer that for the first time shelters were forced to eliminate daytime meals, housing-search assistance and other services in order to move workers to the overnight shifts, according to Brian Davis of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless.
I had to read those New York numbers a few times. I can’t imagine that there are over 17,000 homeless children in New York City and this isn’t an issue being discussed in the endless presidential debates?
By nearly any measure, there are fewer and fewer homes affordable to working-class and poor Americans. The federal housing agency’s annual assessment finds that “worst-case housing needs” grew by 42 percent from 2001 to 2009, and nationwide there is a shortfall of nearly 3.5 million housing units for the poorest households. According to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, the share of renter households with the most severe cost burdens—that is, where more than half of income goes to rent and utilities—grew from a fifth to a quarter over the past decade and has doubled in the past half-century. And as household incomes stagnated for most of the past decade and then dropped during the economic crisis, the nation saw its already inadequate stock of cheap rental housing shrink even faster.
It’s pretty simple, really. The cost of living is increasingly high, while wages are increasingly low. It’s not a recipe for keeping a roof over one’s head.
All of the plans to “end homelessness in 10 years,” either are, or will be abject failures. The programs were all underfunded, and as the budget for federal housing programs continues to shrink, their failure is guaranteed. In the name of “deficit reduction” these programs are being cut, and cut again – with the goal being to eliminate them all together.
Despite the bleak policy landscape and the worsening affordability crisis, many local advocates and people working on the front lines talk about the renewed energy and hope generated by the nascent Occupy movement and the revived national discourse about income inequality. Donovan talks hopefully about the “other 1 percent”—the homeless and poor—saying that the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the superrich 1 percent is “causing the other 1 percent to agitate, and to show that homeless people are something other than a herded mass. They’re saying, Enough is enough.”
The Occupy movement changed the national discussion when it began last fall. Instead of deficits and debt, we’re now hearing about income inequality, joblessness, and a host of other issues that weren’t even on the horizon over the summer. It is my hope (as someone living with housing insecurity) that Occupy brings housing to the forefront of our national dialogue.
Despite the announcement at the State of the Union of a task force to investigate predatory lending and other sketchy bank practices, the settlement between the state Attorneys General and the five biggest banks is still on the table. Yes, we were successful in stalling the settlement, but that doesn’t discount the fact a deal is still being worked out, and that a draft has been submitted to the states AG’s for approval.
The deal calls for only $25 billion in assistance, which as we’ve said is a great deal of money until you compare it with U.S. homeowners $700 billion in negative equity. Despite the fanfare, that amount would only help a small percentage of affected homeowners – many Working America members among them.
Calif. Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris’ office has called a proposed $25-billion settlement with the nation’s mortgage industry “inadequate.”
“We’ve reviewed the details of the latest settlement proposal from the banks, and we believe it is inadequate for California,” Shum Preston, a spokesman for Harris, said in a statement. “Our state has been clear about what any multistate settlement must contain: transparency, relief going to the most distressed homeowners and meaningful enforcement that ensures accountability. At this point, this deal does not suffice for California.”
Kamala Harris, along with Attorneys General Schneiderman (New York), Coakley (Massachusetts), Biden (Delaware), and Cortez Masto (Nevada), have been leading the charge against a weak settlement for months. Harris’ statement is a big deal because California, in addition to being a big state with a great deal of resources, has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country. We agree with Harris – agreeing to this pittance of a settlement would be an abdication of her duties as California’s chief law enforcer.
If you want a great example of abdicating your duty as law enforcer, take a gander at Florida’s Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi. Bondi, a frequent Fox News guest and ally of the exceedingly unpopular Rick Scott, is also skeptical of a settlement, but not for the same reasons we are. She’s worried about the Big Banks being treated unfairly:
[With] a settlement taking shape last year, Bondi broke ranks with her counterparts and rejected it. That’s because the settlement would have mandated principal reduction—a measure that could help keep more homeowners out of foreclosure, but that would force banks and lenders to take a bigger hit on their balance sheets. “It seems like she’s balancing the interest of businesses with the interest of Floridians when it comes to principal reduction,” state Rep. Darren Soto (D-Orlando) told the Sentinel. “When you’re the AG, you have one interest: Floridians. You’re supposed to be the consumer advocate, first and foremost.”
We’re cheering this move by Kamala Harris, as well as the efforts of her fellow “Justice Democrats” Eric Schneiderman, Martha Coakley, Beau Biden, and Catherine Cortez Masto. Our members have acutely felt the pains of mass foreclosures in their neighborhoods, communities, and families. These AG’s shouldn’t stop fighting until we get a full investigation of foreclosure fraud; something with a strong budget, adequate staff, and the authority to go after the people accountable for kicking millions of Americans out of their home.
As for Pam Bondi, whether her inaction on the foreclosure crisis really is the result of her campaign contributions or mere negligence, it’s just a reminder of why people are so cynical. Owning a home used to be part of the American promise – this is an area where government needs to help, regardless of party.
“You have really been fantastic!” wrote William from Bearsville, New York, “Rarely have I been able to write that someone I voted for has actually acted as I would act…truly representative government! I love it!”
Congress is at record low approval, and distrust of government is at record highs. Occupy protesters have taken to the streets across the country to voice their anger at the current political system. In this day and age, what would possess William from Bearsville to gush over an elected official?
Turns out William was writing to Eric Schneiderman, the Attorney General of New York state. Schneiderman, elected in 2010, is one of a handful of state officials resisting a proposed “50 state settlement” with big banks that would amount to a slap on the wrist for years of unethical and sometimes illegal foreclosure practices.
The first reaction we all have to a politician doing anything we even remotely approve of is: What’s their game? What do they have to gain from this? Given what we’ve seen the last few years, it’s a fair question. Matt Stoller, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, gave his answer in an August blog post:
I’ve known Schneiderman for a few years, back when he was a state Senator working to reform the Rockefeller drug laws. And my answer to this question is pretty simple. He wants to. That’s it. Eric Schneiderman is investigating the banks because he thinks it’s the right thing to do. So he’s doing it. This guy has thought about his politics. He wrote an article about how he sees politics in 2008 in the Nation, and in his inaugural speech as NY AG he talked about the need to restore faith in both public and private institutions. Free will still counts for something, apparently.
It’s true that these seven AG’s happen to be Democrats. But foreclosure fraud is not – or at least it should not be – a partisan issue. Even our most conservative, rabid anti-Obama friends and relatives would probably agree that those who used dirty tactics to make a killing while millions of families lost their homes should be brought to justice.
The biggest reason that there are seven AG’s standing up to the banks instead of 50 is that the price for messing around with those large financial institutions – literally trying to extract more restitution and deny blanket legal immunity – can be very high. A bunch of these guys are up for reelection, and some of them have ambitions for higher office. In an age of Citizens United, tangling with the likes of Bank of America and Citigroup can put a huge pair of crosshairs on your political career; the banks don’t care whether there is a D or an R next to your name if you vote their way.