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Why workers are coming together

REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
Activists in Los Angeles march during a nationwide protest demanding better wages for fast-food workers.

If you have caught the news over the last couple weeks, you probably noticed a surge in stories about worker-led movements on the rise here in Minnesota. 

On Aug. 26, home care workers announced a historic victory in the largest union election in state history. Last Thursday, fast food workers in Minnesota went on strike for the first time, joining a national movement calling for $15 per hour and union rights.

Shaquonica Johnson

Ours are two separate campaigns, but workers are united in our struggles to make ends meet for our families. We are united in our understanding that our economy’s priorities are upside-down, that working families in Minnesota deserve far better, and that workers can only win real change by standing up and fighting. 

We hear too many stories from our fellow workers about fathers who hold two or three jobs, rarely see their kids, and yet are still struggling to put food on the table. We hear too many stories about mothers who put love and care into both their jobs and their families, yet still have to rely on the state for food stamps because they are paid poverty wages.

Intertwined struggles

Guillermo Lindsay

Our struggles are intertwined. In many cases, home care workers end up picking up a second job at a fast-food restaurant, and vice-versa, just to scrape together enough to support their families. It is just plain wrong for people who work full time (or much more than that, as so many of us do) to live in poverty. It’s just plain wrong for our employers to disregard our voices and treat us as though we were invisible – especially when you consider how many of us “invisible” workers are people of color, when nearly all of our employers are white. 

If you are not a low-wage worker, you may wonder, “Why does any of this matter to me?”

Well, our work is the “future of work.” You may know that unemployment is down, but you might not know that many of the new jobs created since the Great Recession are jobs like ours. Three of the five fastest-growing occupations between now and 2022 projected by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics are our jobs: home care aide, personal care assistant, and fast food worker. Average pay for these occupations? $19,662 per year.

By any fair definition, this is a poverty level for a family. And not only is the pay obscenely low, but many of us are unable to get full-time — or even any consistent — hours scheduled for our work.

The new reality

Jobs like ours are becoming the new reality for millions of workers. As the New York Times recently pointed out, employee compensation is at the lowest level in 65 years, while corporate profits are at their highest level in at least 85. The piece of the pie for workers has been dwindling for years as unions have lost power and corporations have had no one to check their greed. We’ve seen how that has turned out for the majority of us, and we know that if we don’t fight back, nothing will change.

That’s why we are coming together. As different as our industries are, we face similar struggles and we have the same basic demands: respect, a voice, fair pay and union rights.

It has been a remarkable end to the summer here in Minnesota, with workers, elected officials, clergy and community allies rallying together to boldly assert that it is time for low-wage workers like us to take action, demand respect, and change our economy. When we win, our victories won’t just benefit us. They will grow the middle class and provide a needed boost to our whole economy.  

We still have a lot of work to do, but we won’t stop until we win. After many years of effort, home care workers have won a union, and will soon begin bargaining with the state. We will work to win improvements both to our working conditions and to the care received by the people we serve. Fast-food workers have just begun the fight here in Minnesota, but we are amazed by the support and energy we received from the community during our first strike.

We deserve more — and have waited far too long

It is clear that organizing by low-wage workers is on the rise in Minnesota and across the country. We deserve more, and we’re not going to wait around for someone else to give us what we deserve. We waited for far too long. Nothing happened. Now we’re taking action ourselves.

You can expect to hear a lot more from us in the weeks and months ahead. And we hope you will join us as we fight – together, across industries and types of work, across ethnicities and languages and genders — for a better future for all Minnesota families.

Shaquonica Johnson is a home care worker from Brooklyn Park, and Guillermo Lindsay is a fast-food worker from Minneapolis. 

WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?

If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at salbright@minnpost.com.)

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 09/11/2014 - 11:12 am.

    One step

    This is just one step, but it is a step forward. The most telling part of this is that these are the kinds of jobs that are “reducing” our unemployment rate. This isn’t about teenagers getting jobs for their first spending money. It’s about families, often including those teenagers, being able to afford to live independent lives by being able to afford the basic needs, including housing, food, and healthcare. It’s not too much to ask for a dignified wage and dignified treatment. I’m not afraid of the threat of the supposed $15 Big Mac. Fast food prices are already way higher (beyond inflation) than they were 10 years ago while wages have stagnated or dropped (in fixed dollar terms), so I’m not convinced that McDonald’s can’t afford to pay its workers more.

    • Submitted by Luke Ferguson on 09/11/2014 - 01:46 pm.

      I’m convinced they can

      McDonalds had profits of $5.5 billion in 2012. That’s 20% profit on $27.5 billion in revenues.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McDonald's

      I’m convinced they can afford to pay their workers more.

      And let’s not forget the indirect government subsidies McDonalds gets by inordinate numbers of their workers being forced to also rely on government assistance to feed their families and keep a roof over their head.

  2. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 09/11/2014 - 02:12 pm.

    Wages

    Corporate profits are the highest in 85 years? That takes us back to 1929 and includes the boom years of WWII through the ’60s. If businesses are making that much money, they can afford to pay their employees a couple more dollars in compensation. If they’re worried about staying rich like the executives at the Blue Plate restaurants, they can always raise the price of a burger by a dime.

    Keep fighting the good fight, guys. You’ve got my support.

  3. Submitted by James Hamilton on 09/11/2014 - 02:23 pm.

    A suggestion from a supporter.

    I believe unions have done much for our society and have a place going forward, even though I may not agree with some specific goals and arguments put forth in support of those goals.

    I questioned the broad assertion, above, that “employee compensation is at the lowest level in 65 years.” Clicking through to NYT piece on which it is based, I found that the claim relates to employee compensation as a percentage of the economy:

    “The Commerce Department also said total wages and salaries last year amounted to $7.1 trillion, or 42.5 percent of the entire economy. That was down from 42.6 percent in 2012 and was lower than in any year previously measured.”

    It also ignores fringe benefits:

    “Including the cost of employer-paid benefits, like health insurance and pensions, as well as the employer’s share of Social Security and Medicare contributions, the total cost of compensation was $8.9 trillion, or 52.7 percent of G.D.P., down from 53 percent in 2012 and the lowest level since 1948.”

    Historic lows as a percentage of the economy may or may not be reasons for concern. You haven’t made that case. By merely parroting a single line in the NYT piece, however, you open yourselves to legitimate criticism.

    Labor doesn’t need to inflate its claims or rely on misleading statements to make its case. Don’t rely on them in the future, if you want the support of those of us willing to look beyond the headlines.

  4. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 09/11/2014 - 09:14 pm.

    Ouch!

    “Three of the five fastest-growing occupations between now and 2022 projected by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics are our jobs: home care aide, personal care assistant, and fast food worker.”

    Yet the answer is to make college more affordable (subsidized). This is our future, embrace it rather than pretend that it will get better.

  5. Submitted by Les Jobst on 09/12/2014 - 10:53 pm.

    Be the Boss / Business Owner for a Day!

    Ms. Johnson & Mr. Lindsay, I will throw this challenge out to you! I run a one man trucking operation. Each weekday when I wake up I know if I do not work I still have $140 in fixed business costs that need to be paid for no matter what I do. Should I decide to work that day, I plan on $95 in fuel for on the average 200 miles that I might drive for that day. So on any given work day I risk at a minimum $235 just to get started in hopes to make a profit for the day.

    So here is my offer to either or both of you to experience what it s like to be the Boss / Business Owner for a Day and the opportunity to make the $15 per hour you demand if the market calls for it on that work day! You show up at 5:30 AM to start the day with me in my truck with $307 cash to cover the operating costs ($140 + $95 + $73 (see below)) for the day & be prepared to work 8-12 hours.

    I will do all the work for the day based on the current MN minimum wage of $9 at a maximum of 8 hours pay ($73) no matter how many hours we work that day. My company usually generates on average $425 per day in revenue (probably a 9.5 hour day) and on a great day upwards of $700 day (usually with 12+ hours worked). After 8 hours work we will evaluate the revenue. You could be running a profit of $15 per hour for yourself, you could be at a break even point or you could be at a loss (most possible result)! At that point, only YOU will decide – do we work a few more hours for your profit or do we go home?

    Should you decide to take this assignment – you could spend the day making the effort for FREE (which some days I do), make the $15 per hour you demand or live high on the hog @ $300 – $400 in your pocket for the day. Only you will be in control if you put some “Skin in the GAME ($307)” to start the day! There are two stipulations to this offer: A) You write an Opt Ed in “MINNPOST” sharing your economic results on the experience and you go on the “Up and At “EM” morning radio show to share your experience.

    What say you?????
    Les Jobst
    763.300.9766

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