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Those with Least Are Doing the Most
Labor Notes

December 23, 2010
View the Original Article

During this holiday break it’s inspiring to remember that sometimes it’s those with least who are doing the most to fight for the ideals that many of us will celebrate in the coming days.

Workers on the bottom rungs who work hard for little pay, no time off, or no holiday pay have won several victories in recent months, and others have campaigns under way to bring living wages to retail work and give sick days to everyone.

Workers who wait on us in stores and restaurants, those who clean the floors where we shop, workers who pick, process, pack, and prepare our food—they are organizing to shape their own future.

Mostly, they’re doing this through worker centers and community-based campaigns, sometimes with the support of unions.

In New York, Make the Road New York and its base of largely Latino/a immigrant workers and community allies just celebrated passage of the Wage Theft Prevention Act. The act requires wage-thieving bosses to pay back double the amount of stolen wages if found guilty. The Economic Policy Foundation, a business-funded group, estimates that workers miss out on $19 billion a year in unpaid overtime alone.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida arrived at a far-reaching agreement in November with the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, the industry group most responsible for blocking farmworker progress. Because FTGE represents almost all tomato growers in Florida, CIW estimates the agreement will improve pay and working conditions in 90 percent of Florida’s tomato industry.

They Clean the Stores

In Minneapolis activists are calling on major retail chains to create a code of conduct guaranteeing fair wages and working conditions for the workers who clean their stores. They’re led by Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en Lucha/Center for Workers United in Struggle (CTUL).

CTUL has held many creative actions: bringing groups in to count out pennies at the register, as an illustration of the pennies that workers make, passing letters to managers, flyering parking lots, holding phone-ins, and putting up a picket line outside a Cub Foods store on a freezing and blustery winter day. On November 24, one of the busiest grocery shopping days of the year, activists dressed as turkeys in their actions at SuperValu stores in the Twin Cities area.

In Washington, D.C., members of the Food Chain Workers Alliance convened in mid-November. The Alliance includes organizations representing workers from all levels of the food chain: Brand Workers International, CATA Farm Worker Support Committee, Center for New Community, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, International Labor Rights Forum, Just Harvest USA, Northwest Arkansas Workers' Justice Center, Restaurant Opportunities Center of NY, Restaurant Opportunities Center United, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1500, and Warehouse Workers for Justice.

At the gathering workers from the harvest fields, meatpacking, food processing, grocery stores, warehouses, and restaurants all shared experiences and a common struggle. Their priority is to fight for legally required paid sick days for all workers, in the form of the Healthy Families Act.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 40 percent of private sector workers lack access to even a single paid sick day when they are ill. Only one in four low-wage workers have paid sick days—though many low-wage workers have jobs requiring frequent contact with the public: in hotels, food service, child care, retail, and nursing homes. The Healthy Families Act would guarantee workers up to seven paid sick days a year to recover from their own illness or to care for a sick family member.

In New York, labor, community, and religious groups from all five boroughs have formed Living Wage NYC, a coalition to achieve living wages for workers whose jobs are created through economic development subsidies. They say that tax breaks and other forms of city assistance that supports development projects like the Queens Center Mall should go only to projects that pay a living wage. Bringing higher wage standards to subsidized developments will lift the fortunes of retail and food workers throughout New York and prove a powerful example for the rest of the country.

For workers who have worked in retail for years, like JC Penney employee Larry, a living-wage job would make all the difference in the world. “If everyone in New York could make at least $10 per hour,” Larry told the Indypendent, a New York newspaper, “it would make a huge difference for all of us.”

As we take a few days to count our blessings, lick our wounds, and rest up for the struggles of 2011, we can remember these examples of hope, to support through our actions and solidarity.