Seattle workers use poetry to convey hardship, fight for higher wages

Walmart workers protested in November 2012 outside company offices in Bentonville, Ark. Credit: Credit: OURWalmart

As low-wage service jobs become the new norm for millions of families, more and more poverty-wage workers are rising up to demand good jobs and an opportunity for a better future. At a recent “poverty-wage story slam” workers from fast food, retail, home care and other poverty-wage industries talked about what it’s like to live “on the edge.”

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Mash up the political experience of low-wage workers with the art of a poetry slam, and you have “On the Edge,” a poverty-wage story slam. Here the work environment of low-wage workers is up-front and personal. Fast food workers, retail clerks, baggage handlers and home healthcare providers talk about what it’s like to make, on average, $10 an hour with never enough hours to try and make it work.

Take Daryl, who cares for the state’s Medicare and Medicaid clients. When across the board budget cuts forced the Department of Social and Health Services to cut services for clients, his hours were reduced by nearly 30 percent. Once he could count on 116 hours a month. “Two years ago they cut me down to 75 hours," he tells the audience. "Think about it, not just 75 hours for two weeks, 75 for the whole month.” Meanwhile the cost of living went up: the cost of food, gas, rent. The crowd understands.

A member of SEIU Healthcare 775NW, Daryl says the union needs support. “I can’t get caregivers out of poverty by myself because we are in poverty. Do we agree? Are we on the same page?” Take out your cell phones, he urges, plug in a number and call your legislators.

Last summer an arbitrator helped SEIU and the state reach an agreement of a 50-cent hourly wage increase for the next two years, the first since 2008. But funding hinges on what happens during the special legislative session. “We’re hopeful that [a] contract will be included and caregivers will have this modest first step towards lifting them out of poverty,” says Jackson Holtz with SEIUHealtcare775 NW. “What we haven’t been able to do is win back all the hours and we’re still going to be fighting that fight with the state based on determined need by DSHS.” 

Lost hours, part-time hours ranging on average from eight to 20 hours a week and even those in constant flux: These are common themes at this poverty-wage story slam. Brittney works at WalMart. She tells the crowd originally she was hired for 30 hours a week at $9.60 an hour. It was enough to start looking for her own place for herself and young daughter. "Then in January about six months into working there, they cut hours and they were like 'sales aren’t doing that good, Christmas just got over and in February your hours will kick back up.'” But they never did.

Brittney is a member of the worker-driven OurWalMart, Organization United for Respect at WalMart, which led a nationwide protest strike last November at 1,000 stores. Is OurWalMart recognized by the retail giant? “No,” she laughs, “you don’t use that word inside of WalMart.” As for the hours, “they don’t want to give out the hours we need to survive. Twenty hours a week just isn’t going to cut it.”   

Across the country the fight for higher wages and what many workers call respect is heating up. Hundreds of fast food workers in Detroit walked off their jobs last week echoing a rallying cry heard in Chicago, New York City and St. Louis, “Fight for $15” — $15 an hour and the right to form a union without retaliation. If we’re going to regain the American economy, says Tom Geiger with UFCW 21, representing local grocery, retail and health care workers, “then workers need to be respected and their work needs to be valued both in their pay and their benefits. That’s really the bottom line.” Low-wage jobs will continue to rise, says Geiger, because they can’t be offshored. Seven of the top 10 fastest growing jobs in the state pay low wages. Pay will remain flat and benefits lean to non-existent unless workers demand change, he says.

Spencer, who handles Alaska Airlines baggage, is the only one at the poverty-wage slam who works 40 hours a week.  He makes $12 an hour, but lives with six others to make ends meet and skimps on just about everything. Alaska contracts his work to Menzies, one of the world’s largest privately owned providers of cleaning and related property services. The majority of workers signed petitions to form a union, he says. ”It’s just that both Alaska and Menzies refuse to recognize that and come and talk with us like adults.”

They’ve got incentive to push Alaska: Baggage workers in Los Angeles demanded a living wage and now earn $17 an hour for the exact same work. (A 2009 Los Angeles law requires living wages at airports there; the Port of Seattle Commission has yet to act on longstanding requests for a similar requirement for Sea-Tac Airport workers.)

The National Employment Law Project works to raise the standards in low-wage jobs. They say the push by politicians and corporations for so-called austerity is slowing GDP and has cost 2.4 million jobs. As budgets are cut, so are jobs. Or they go part-time.

Current projections hold that by 2020, 28 percent of all jobs will be low-wage, often part-time jobs.  If the trend continues, the fight for a higher wage work environment with benefits has likely just begun.

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