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Living Wage for All: A Plan for a New Living Wage Movement


May 12th, 2006

A public address by Maria Elena Durazo

Ancient prophets like Jesus and those prophets of our time, like Martin Luther King, have each told us, “We will be judged by how we treat the poor.” This is a proclamation so great, yet so unrealized by even the richest and most powerful countries in the world, including our own.

I want to talk for a moment about Hurricane Katrina, because unlike others, I see something positive and truly historical coming out of this natural disaster. Katrina was one of the worst tragedies in American history. A whole city was literally wiped out, with most of its buildings, its jobs, and its economy washed away in the flood. Thousands of people died. Hundreds of thousands lost their homes. But something else happened. The eyes of the nation focused on the victims of this tragedy. And they saw the invisible. They saw the most miserable, the most marginalized. They looked into the face of race, and into the face of poverty.

Everyone knew before that there were poor people in the United States. But poverty has changed in America in the last 20 years. Katrina was the first time in our generation that the whole country saw the poor anew. Articles came out in every magazine and newspaper in America about poverty. There was television coverage for days on end. So many people, including myself, had a reality that America tries to hide projected directly into their living rooms. I was moved.

Who were these people living in poverty? In New Orleans, the largest industry is the hotel and restaurant business, and a majority of the workers in that industry makes wages of 8 dollars an hour. Many of those workers lived in poverty, and they were among the greatest victims of Katrina. And what moved me to tears was recognizing that, in truth, New Orleans was a symbol of the poverty that exists all over the country. Like in New Orleans, America’s poor are women, people of color, and immigrants. They are a hardworking, dignified, courageous, and beautiful people. They work primarily in the service sector. And the largest concentration of them works in the hotel and restaurant business, which is the fastest growing industry in America.

And you know what? The poor are not as we were told. The poor are not what the Republicans told us during welfare reform debate in the 90s.

Who are the poor in America?

So who are the poor in America? I’ll start with an amazing fact. Though we are the richest country in the world, per capita we have the greatest number of people living below the poverty line compared to almost every industrialized country in the world. Thirty-seven million people live below the poverty line. Thirty-seven million. A number greater than the population of California, the most populous state in the union.

You would think that this reality would have improved since the 1970s, because our country has accumulated so much wealth since then. But it hasn’t. The truth is that we have more people living in poverty now than we had in 1973.

What is more shocking, and what has really changed about poverty, is that the poor are now working men and women. We have to wake up to something that is happening in America. The foundation of America, the jobs that created a stable and prosperous middle class, has been totally destroyed over the past thirty years. This has been truly a historic happening, and some of us are still in shock from it.

The manufacturing jobs that were the cornerstone of middle class America left this country. They were replaced by low wage jobs in the service sector. Jobs at McDonald’s, or McJobs, were once just a fringe of the economy. Only kids in high school worked those kinds of jobs. But now McJobs are a reality for a good portion of the American public. One in eight Americans now lives in poverty, according to the Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The majority of those who live in poverty, work. Fifteen percent of the homeless make $15,000 per year; they work, but they cannot afford decent housing. Fifteen thousand dollars per year is what a housekeeper makes in the majority of hotels, in the majority of cities in our country. Volunteers who serve food at soup kitchens for the poor have told me that people from this new demographic–the working poor–are beginning to fill their lines. Working poverty also means a healthcare crisis. In California, majority of uninsured children are in families in which the head of the household works full time, all year round.

Unfortunately, this situation does not look like it is going to change soon. In fact, the future looks bleak. Almost all the jobs that are being created are in the service sector, and if this means McDonalds-level poverty wages, we are in big trouble. We are looking at an America filled with poverty, and illness from the lack of healthcare. Already, this is becoming a reality. In the last four years poverty rates have increased dramatically, more than at almost any other time in the last forty years. According to the federal census bureau, Five million more people live in poverty now than four years ago. If this disturbing trend continues, in 30 years the number of people living in poverty in America will have doubled. The size of the urban ghettos will by many estimates double in size too, and with them the crime, gangs, and despair. One in eight Americans now live in poverty, in twenty years, at this rate– one in five will live in poverty, according to the Conference of Catholic Bishops.

A New Living Wage Movement

So what is the solution to this problem? How are we going to change the direction that history is now pointing?

If we look to history for an answer to this question, we find that progressive social change in the past has come from social movements. The most dramatic social changes of the past did not happen because of few politicians and rich people took pity on black people or workers. It did not happen in Congress, or in the White House. It happened in the streets– churches, unions, and workplaces. And it needs to happen there again. We must build a movement with thousands of leaders and millions of supporters that can pressure elected and corporations to do the right thing. When we build a movement of the working poor, we will have the power to end poverty.

Many people will say that this vision is crazy, that it is not practical, that it is impossible. They will say that ending poverty in America is daydream.

Why should it be? People would have thought I was crazy in the 1950s if I said that Black people were going to have equal rights, and that some people of color were going to become the most powerful mayors in the country. Because of the civil rights movement, that dream has become a reality.

In the 1930s the workers that entered the auto factories were living in poverty, making just dollars a day in truly horrible sweatshop conditions. Just twenty years later their jobs were some of the best middle-class jobs in America. Why? Because of the labor movement—because of the unions, churches, and families of that generation that organized for change. So. . .

Why can’t we dream that the richest country in the world be without poverty?

Why can’t every hard-working person in America get paid enough to raise them out of poverty? Why not?

I have reflected how to build a movement of the working poor. I have learned something from Dr. Martin Luther King, and especially from one of his mentors and a personal mentor of mine, the Reverend James Lawson. In 1967, after seeing the passage of civil rights legislation that would assure the end of segregation, Martin Luther King took time to reflect and re-evaluated the civil rights movement. After the “first phase” of the civil rights movement had addressed the problems of segregation through non-violence, King hoped to address what he called the “limitations of our achievements” with a second phase of the movement. He thought that poverty was the greatest problem of our nation. So, he posited that the next phase civil right movement should focus on economic inequality and poverty. He emphasized, “It must not be just black people, it must be all poor people. We must include American Indians, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and even poor whites.” Dr. King also knew that we had to build a movement that is not based solely on massive national protest or passing legislation. Rather, we must build permanent organizations, which include unions, which could demand changes to the economy over time.

Dr. King had a vision of a new civil rights movement that would embrace the tactics and philosophy of non-violence that were used in the first phase of the movement, but that would take up the cause of the poor in America. He died by an assassin’s bullet before his vision could be realized. His vision was for a poor people’s campaign, which he believed would spark this new stage of the movement and include “the most massive, widespread campaign of civil disobedience yet undertaken.” Martin Luther King died but his vision for the next phase of the civil rights movement did not. His vision of a movement of the poor has become ever more needed. We must make Dr. King’s dying vision our own.

We learned something important from another prophet of our time, Cesar Chavez, We learned from Cesar that unions can be more than just a narrow organization that defends its members. Instead, labor unions can be leaders in Martin Luther King’s movement of the poor. Cesar Chavez proved that unions could be the backbone of this social movement of the poor and that they could awaken the conscience of the nation. His union turned the nation’s attention to farm workers, the poorest and most ill treated workers in America. Although he focused his struggle on the plight of the farm workers, he kept alive a vision of a wider movement of the poor in America. For this we should be grateful. Cesar Chavez also died before his vision of a broader movement of the working poor could be realized. We must make his dying vision our own.

Both Movements sparked a broader consciousness for equality and dignity for all people. Programs that opened the to a college education, to decent housing, to woman’s rights, to more humane immigrant rights, sprouted all over the country. We proved the greatness of this country. Prosperous corporations, strong infrastructure, quality education, middle class jobs, and a social service network for seniors, disabled, and disadvantaged.

A Plan for the New Movement of the Working Poor

I want to make clear a plan for a new stage of a living wage movement. I believe that in order to have a real social movement of the working poor, we must have four things:

First, we need a clear demand: No one in America should work and live in poverty. We must reward work, which was broken promise of welfare reform.

Second, we Need to focus on steps that will lead to historic change: To start, we can support the tens of thousands of workers struggling, and organizing in the hotel and restaurant industry, the largest and fastest growing industry of the working poor.

Third, leadership from the working poor themselves, must unify tens of thousands of working poor in this industry, clergy, unions, elected’s, civil rights groups, women organizations and build a broad public support for their call.

Fourth, we need to base our living wage movement on non-violent direct action. We must launch boycotts, marches, strikes, and civil disobedience. We have to go beyond legislation and use tactics that engage both workers and the public.

1. We need to clarify our demand

This movement must be based on one simple and morally invincible argument: that no one—no one—should work hard and live in poverty. We have to create a new moral standard, one that lives up to the American ideal of equal justice for all. No one who works full-time should live in poverty. We might not win every battle, or every campaign, but a movement will take on historic momentum as long as we build public support for this demand. The movement must be bigger than one city, one union, or even one person. We will keep on struggling, keep building momentum, until our demand becomes a historical reality. Our children will look back and say, “It is amazing that people who worked hard in the richest country in the world, lived in poverty in ghettos.” Our children will ask, “Do you remember that time?”

Any poll will tell you that the living wage is a winning issue among the American public. In 2004 when Bush won solidly in state of Florida, 71% also voted for an increase for a minimum wage in that state in a campaign that focused on poverty and the working poor. According to experts in Florida, this issue of minimum wage and poverty was more effective at moving working people to the polls than any other issue. This issue currently has wide and deep support, more than almost any other contentious issue in America.

In 1997, Columnist Robert Kuttner investigated the outbreak of active living wage campaigns and wrote living wage movement is “the most exciting and underreported grassroots enterprise since the civil rights movement.” We have made amazing progress in the last ten years as over 100 living wage laws have been passed in cities, and counties. These victories have shown us that living wages has support from a wide majority of people: in Republican and Democratic states, or among Catholics and Evangelical Christians. While the welfare debate in the 90’s made “welfare mom’s” and poverty into a unpopular issue, the current living wage movement has made fighting poverty popular by reframing the debate around the “working poor” and winning tremendous victories in local elections. Even our opposition like John Doyle, from a prominent conservative policy group, admits, “The phrase living wage is seeping into the political vernacular and changing the dynamics of political discussion.”

2. We need to focus

We will not win in one year, or even in one decade. And so, in order to build momentum, each of our victories needs to bring us closer to another, until we finally end poverty, as we know it. A key to doing this is focusing on one industry, the industry with the largest number of the working poor. This is also one of the largest and the fastest growing industries in America. It is the hotel and restaurant industry. We will start with the hotel corporations, which employ 1.3 million people. The hotel and restaurant industry as a whole employs over 11 million people, 8 percent of the American workforce. These workers include maids, dishwashers, food servers, waiters, and cooks.

The Living Wage Movement currently is focused on passing legislation that lifts city employees out of poverty. This has lifted thousands of city workers above the poverty line, but has left a majority of working poor behind—workers in the private sector who are employed by multinational corporations. Legislation has not proven effective at winning living wages for these workers all over the country. These workers work for very powerful corporations, which with money and time can defeat even popular legislation. Corporations are making billions of dollars in profits by paying poverty wages. Therefore, winning the next battles for living wages against these corporations is impossible without organizing their workers into strong permanent organizations. Unions are the only proven solution for a majority of the working poor to be organized and collectively gain a living wage.

The Unions all over the country have already raised hundreds of thousands workers in corporations out of poverty. The average wage of union hotel workers in the United States is 15 dollars an hour, while the average wage for non-union hotel workers is 8 dollars an hour. The New York Times said it best: “Las Vegas is the land of the Living wage,” it said, because the hotel and restaurant jobs there are union and pay well. While, in other cities non-union hotel workers live in poverty and collect welfare.

3. We need leadership from the working poor

A movement becomes a social movement not through the involvement of lawyers, elected officials, or professional activists. These people can play important roles. But a real social movement must have thousands of workers and ordinary citizens ready to make personal sacrifices. The good news is that we have already laid the foundation for such a movement. It has taken us ten years of incredible struggle and organization, but I am proud to say that our campaign—which we call Hotel Workers Rising–has united tens of thousands of workers in ten different cities. We are now ready to reach out to the American public. Sixty thousand workers in ten different cities are preparing for what could be one of the largest strikes in the nation’s history and certainly one of the largest of our generation. If they win, these workers will make it possible for thousands of other families to rise out of poverty. The corporations we are up against know well that this is a fight with incredible implications. They will fight us tooth and nail because they know that if we set the standard for one corporation, other corporations will fall like dominos. Like the Montgomery Bus Boycott, this fight has the potential of being the beginning of a truly non-violent social movement—a new stage of the living wage movement—led by workers against the multi-national corporations that are responsible for their poverty. In time, it will reach the largest corporations in our country, and Wal-Mart is one that is coming up.

4. We need non-violent direct action

The Civil Rights movement became a historical force not just through lawsuits, legislations, or political campaigns, led by non-violent direct action. It started with a boycott, the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The civil rights movement had a long history in America and had strong organizations like the NAACP since 1909. They engaged primarily lawyers and professionals in tactics that put the struggle in the courts, and the hall of congress. Then an activist Seamstress—Rosa Parks– in very personal act of resistance took the struggle and gave it to all the people in Montgomery. For months, thousands in Montgomery walked on tired feet rather then ride boycotted busses to work. It took a year of walking, but the boycott achieved what courts alone could not achieve, Montgomery saw its first integrated busses roll through the streets and a social movement was born. Non-violent tactics build movements by engaging tens of thousands in boycott, sit-ins, pickets, and protests.

Following the model of the Civil Rights Movement, Hotel Workers Rising will initiate nation wide boycotts, marches, and possible even strikes in the nation’s history. This is already becoming the largest living wage campaign we have ever seen, with thousands protesting and preparing for national actions. It will seek to lift more workers above the poverty line than any previous living wage campaign, and engage thousands in non-violent action in this industry. But this is just the beginning.

A Call of Conscience to America

We now seek to call outside of our union’s membership, to working people across America who share our desire to have our fair share of the American dream. We call you to join us, to be part of this movement, because our struggle is your struggle. Hotel workers hope to spark a new movement— and we hope it will grow like wildfire.

No one in America should work hard and raise their kids in poverty. No one should work for a corporation that makes billion in profits, and live in poverty. No one. This is the beginning of a new movement of the working poor, that starts here with over a million of hotel and restaurant workers, which are largest portion of the poorest workers in our economy, but it is bigger than this. This is just the start of something that will go on past my life. I believe that in my lifetime there will be a fight, a movement, a historical battle to determine what the future of America is going to look like. We have already set in motion a set of historical events, and a movement about Poverty in America –about the working poor.

We ask you not to support us; we ask that you join us. This is not just a movement of Latina hotel maids, it is a movement of black and white, Latino and Asian, women and men, middle-class people and the poor— all of us are deeply affected by poverty in America. And it is our movement. It is not just the poor that need to rise up and make personal sacrifices for our movement. It is not just hotel maids. All of us have a responsibility; all of us need to make personal sacrifices—if like me you really believe in this movement. This is the unrealized dream of America, it is the unrealized dream of every man created equal, it is the unrealized dream of the Dr. Martin Luther King, it is my unrealized dream, and I hope it will also be yours.

Thank You.

Maria Elena Durazo is the interim president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, and Executive Vice President for UNITE HERE—(United Industrial

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