The Living Wage Movement:
A New Beginning

Bread, Power and Civil Rights in 19 Languages




In the streets of the megalopolis that stretches from the Chesapeake Bay to New York Harbor, janitors chant, “Puedo si” (Yes, I can!), demanding decent wages to clean the office towers of the New Economy.  On the West Coast, home care workers celebrate their hard fought victories in a score of languages.  In majority Black New Orleans, an entire city gives itself a raise.

These are just snapshots of the Living Wage movement that has, in just eight years, fought its way into nearly every corner of the nation. 

At the center of the movement are two heavily Black unions - both with African Americans as second in command - and the determinedly multi-racial Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). 

The Living Wage movement is guided by the principle that public policies and funds should not perpetuate poverty or stifle people’s abilities to organize their way out. In its most basic form, that means raising city, county and state minimum wages above the federal minimum, shamefully stagnated at $5.15 an hour.  Federal guidelines say that a family of four needs an income of at least $8.20 an hour to escape poverty.

In a broad sense, the movement is an effort to shape a public policy that encourages, rather than impedes, the organizing efforts of labor and community organizations. Living Wage campaigns create legal, economic and political environments in which workers and entire communities can fight the power of money.

So far, 82 cities and counties have passed some form of Living Wage law.  In addition to raising local wage floors higher than the federal minimum, ordinances mandate that private contractors doing business with public agencies provide their employees decent wages and benefits.  This makes it more difficult to contract out public services to low-wage firms by applying similar standards to businesses that get tax breaks or other subsidies from government.  It also knocks down the union organizing barriers.

The campaign’s constituencies are broad and deep. In some ways, support for a Living Wage rivals the range of forces aligned with the civil rights movement at its peak. Hundreds of organizations are on board, from the scholars and researchers of the Economic Policy Institute, to the business people of Responsible Wealth.

The movement is a vast landscape. It’s easier to tally the few states that are not home to a Living Wage campaign than those in which the movement is active.  Idaho, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Alabama, West Virginia, Maine, and Alaska are the seven that remain outside of the mainstream.

Politically, the movement should also include the many battles being waged by regional and local groups.  Consider the Georgia Poultry Alliance, allied with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, fighting against a powerful industry that holds entire towns captive as low-wage labor pools.  These types of struggles proliferate in the most oppressive anti-labor regions.

When the Twin Towers came down, and the Bush administration prepared to draw up the enemies list, a chill descended over many progressive groups and campaigns throughout the nation. But not the Living Wage movement.

David Swanson, ACORN’s Washington spokesperson stated, “It’s a progressive movement that is a success.  September 11 had absolutely no effect.”

Puedo si!

On demonstration days, Latin rhythms and Spanish affirmations echo from the luxury high rises and office towers of downtown Jersey City, a mushrooming outpost of hyper-active capital directly across the Hudson River from the gaping hole that was once the World Trade Center.  The marchers are overwhelmingly immigrant janitors who service the tax-subsidized towers nightly, as the white-collar employees and their corporate managers sleep.

Before the Justice for Janitors campaign of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) roared into northern New Jersey, this “Gold Coast” on the west side of the river was busy transforming itself into Manhattan without the unions.  The men and women, fighting for recognition and a contract under Local 32BJ’s banner, toil for their meager $5.50 an hour with few benefits.  This is roughly one-third of their New York counterparts’ salaries.  They clean the buildings of corporations that migrated from Manhattan for cheap space and cheap labor.  SEIU is adjusting the labor part of that equation by winning union recognition and agreements, sometimes one building at a time.

The 1.4 million-member union is hoping to organize 10,000 janitors in northern New Jersey, and many more through their Baltimore and Philadelphia command centers.

This is not just a workplace story. Over the space of several decades, much of the rooted, Puerto Rican population was exiled from downtown Jersey City to make way for office towers, hotels and luxury high rises.  Now, when the sun sets, ironically, Spanish is once again spoken on the waterfront.  This time it is the South American accents of Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador.  These people come to the river at night to work, but they live in the older city alongside politically ascendant African Americans.  Jersey City elected its first Black mayor, last year.

The marching feet and purple SEIU baseball caps represent much more than future union dues payers.  These are communities on the move.  Their children attend public schools.  When these newcomers are exploited, their neighbors’ wage standard is lowered.  When the children are left unsupervised because the parents must work more than one job to scrape together one, barely sufficient income, the quality of life of the entire city suffers.  When they have no power because they have no union, the rest of the populace is also weakened.

These are community issues.  Jersey City’s waterfront development is entirely tax-abated, a subsidy by the public.  If a properly written Living Wage agreement were in place, the corporate owners of downtown office towers would be barred from contracting out janitorial services at poverty wages.  With a decent wage floor in place, SEIU’s negotiators would bargain upward from, say, $8.20 an hour, rather than $5.15 or $5.50.  The entire city would benefit, at no cost to the public treasury. 

Black politicians should take the lead in such struggles, for reasons that have nothing to do with ethnic politics.

In a different time, it was common for African Americans to fantasize about the day when the cities would be “ours” to claim and develop, places where we would build our own, long-deferred castles.  We must now face the fact that this is a vision that must be shared with the newcomers. It is both our moral obligation and self-interested duty.

Hispanics almost certainly already outnumber Blacks in the U.S.  They have appeared in sudden, startling numbers, from unfamiliar nations, in regions and economic sectors where they had never before been a major factor.  Their ranks have swollen like rivers. 

The immigrant father hoists a daughter on his shoulders, high above the marching union line. In her little hands she holds a Local 32BJ sign, “Standing Up for the American Dream.”

In Memphis, back in the world-shaking year of 1968, the placards carried by Black sanitation workers read, simply, “I Am A Human Being.”

There are bridges of yearning that connect times and cultures.

Class, Not Ethnic, Politics

It was the Memphis garbage men’s struggle to gain fair wages and safer conditions through the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees that brought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

Bill Lucy was an AFSCME organizer then.  After King’s assassination, Lucy continued the union’s commitment in Memphis, and went on to become the 1.3 million-member union’s secretary-treasurer in 1972.  This was the same year he helped found the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU). 

His personal history embodies the confluence of civil rights and labor struggles.  “The rights of workers to organize has to be perceived as a civil right,” said Lucy, speaking from his Washington office.

Lucy was present at the birth of the Living Wage movement, in 1994.  An AFSCME-led coalition of labor and religious leaders in Baltimore won enactment of a law that required private firms to pay their workers a living wage, or lose their contracts with the city.

In the eight short years since that seminal victory, the demographics of the nation and the workplace have changed dramatically.  “It is really to our benefit to embrace the immigrant community and build alliances with them,” said Lucy. “Their growing numbers suggest a political shift in terms of who has the power.”

We must, however, “be mindful that we are talking about class politics, not ethnic politics,” he added, pointedly. 

There are commitments that must be affirmed and strengthened after the end of the shift, understandings that are not written into collective bargaining agreements.  “This is not just about how they assimilate in the work place,” said the trade union leader.

Assimilation is more than a union card. It may have nothing at all to do with the language one speaks.  Lucy’s remarks touch on the Great Fear that many African Americans harbor, with plenty of historical justification:  Will the newcomers switch to the side of our enemies when the opportunity is offered?  With whom will they assimilate, politically? 

Ethnic politics can be played by any ethnicity.  That’s why Lucy stresses class politics.  Retain your culture, but embrace your union.   

“It is a challenge” to labor organizers, said Lucy, “because the countries from which immigrants come have no history of trade unions in the kind of environment we have in the United States.”

True. The newcomers do not float across the border like blank sheets of paper.  They often bring a militancy of their own.  It’s part of the legacy of nations where organizing fellow workers can be a summary capital offense, administered by the boss’ armed thugs, soldiers or police.  Union activists don’t just get fired - they “disappear.”  Such experiences can produce broken men, or heroes and heroines.

Amidst the banners and hand-lettered signs that decorate the union crowd in downtown Jersey City are pictures and effigies depicting St. Martin De Porres, the Peruvian saint of the poor and of social justice.  SEIU’s office cleaners have dubbed him the Patron Saint of Janitors. That’s something that should be protected from the processes of assimilation.

Defending Black Gains

Patricia Ford, SEIU executive vice president and a blunt talker, is a compelling combination of African American advocate, union stalwart and grand political strategist.  She estimates that Blacks make up about 20% of union membership.  The SEIU’s Black caucus goes by the acronym AFRAM. 

Organizing immigrants is a “challenge and an opportunity,” said the Oakland native.  “The challenge to African Americans is: How do we maintain our status within the labor movement and within this country when we are no longer the largest minority?”

It’s a rhetorical question that only the future can answer.  This is North America, after all.  Race is the inescapable factor, the weighted chip in any bargain, the card the bosses always play, one way or another.

Pervasive racism hobbled the American labor movement from its very beginnings.  Trade unionists in Europe and elsewhere recoil at the crippling deformities that racism has wrought on the body of U.S. organized labor, often rendering it infantile, even reactionary.

The top-ranking African American at the nation’s biggest union speaks plainly on the subject:  “We’ve got to make sure that our contribution is not forgotten,” says Ford.  “In the labor movement we are the most likely to be organized.”  In the country at large, “we are the group most likely to be politically organized.  We should emphasize that.”

Ford stresses the importance of not allowing Black political gains to be diminished.  At the same time she forges ahead full throttle to bring immigrants into the movement.  Where total racial exclusion once reigned, divide-and-conquer will surely emerge as the strategy of choice of the previously privileged.

“They will have Blacks and Latinos fighting over those low wage jobs, and then [workers] will forget about who the real enemy is,” she warns. “When race becomes the issue, you have lost the battle.”

Ford sounded a similar alarm at last year’s AFRAM national convention, in Newark, New Jersey.  “People are talking about a horse race between Latinos and African Americans,” she told the delegates.  “A horse race for what?  For who can have less power?  Make sure they don’t bring that kind of madness into SEIU, into this union.”

No Employer, Hardly Any Pay

Madness once reigned in turf wars between SEIU and AFSCME, as both unions sought to organize home care workers in California.  Fortunately,  the internecine strife ended amicably in 2000, according to Ken Seaton-Msemaji, President and of the AFSCME-affiliated United Domestic Workers of America.  He unhesitatingly credits SEIU with making the greatest strides in coping with the new labor demographics.

“SEIU has done better than any union in America, at least on the visionary level.  They see that immigrants, Latinos, Blacks and poor whites are the future, and are signing them up,” says Msemaji, whose name means “orator” in Swahili.  “They don’t lose track, they see the total picture. 

“But,” he adds, “once they get the numbers, sometimes they don’t know what to do with them.”

Msemaji and UDWA Secretary-Treasurer Fahari Jeffers regard themselves as community organizers who work in the labor movement, rather than the other way around.  Their labor activism was inspired by the late Cesar Chavez, founder of the modern farm workers movement. “We were both involved in Black empowerment struggles,” said Msemaji.  “We saw Cesar as a civil rights leader, like Martin Luther King.  Cesar was convinced that the two worst treated groups in America were the farm workers and domestics.”

The United Farm Workers chief tried for years “to find people to organize a parallel union for domestics,” Msemaji recalls, “but nobody would do it.  Nobody thought you could organize domestic workers.”  The two young activists were also daunted, feeling out of their element among the largely immigrant home care workers.

“I’m Black.  I told Cesar I didn’t think Hispanic people would listen to me,” said Msemaji, now 56.  “Cesar looked at me and said, ‘That’s not accurate.  You have to ask two questions:  Are you committed to them and their cause?  And, Do you really respect them?  They will know the answer, intuitively.  The answer has to be Yes to both.’”

The Domestic Workers Organizing Committee was formed in 1977 in Chavez’s Keene, California, backyard.  Three years later, the nascent union won its first contract, in San Diego, as the United Domestic Workers of America, and affiliated with AFSCME in 1995, only to clash with SEIU’s organizing drive. 

Both unions confronted a rock-hard barrier while organizing the state’s home care workers, a problem that dwarfed their poaching of each other’s potential membership.  This was even more fundamental than communicating in the over nineteen languages spoken by a 90% female workforce.

These domestics, whose long hours of toil for the homebound, were not recognized as having any common employer. The state maintained they worked for their patients. How could a union bargain with hundreds of thousands of sick and infirm patients, most of whose home care bills were administered by local public agencies?

In 1999, the California legislature finally recognized that the public agencies were, in fact, employers who had to bargain with the unions.  Home care workers struggled over 20 years to achieve the employee-employer relationship that to other wage earners is a given. 

Between them, AFSCME and SEIU represent about 150,000 domestics, currently earning around $8.50 an hour.  SEIU’s Los Angeles territory accounts for the lion’s share. 

Another 100,000 remain unorganized, but AFSCME’s Msemaji, based in San Diego, describes the new relationship with SEIU as “very, very deep.  We borrow people from each other, we blitz county offices together, we share the same phone banks.  We’ve gone to jail together,” he says, vastly relieved that he and Fahari Jeffers can now spend their time empowering communities through the union, rather than fighting intra-union battles which are not connected to their member’s broad concerns, which range far beyond the workplace.

“Our vision as organizers is to find a way for our members to fulfill their vision for themselves and their families,” said the activist.  “This is not limited to health insurance and holidays.”

“Our members are most pleased when we fight for the elderly people they are taking care of.  They are concerned about the quality of life for them and their communities across the board.  They want to build and keep open libraries and have parks given back to recreation.  They are involved in education.”

Msemaji remembers his and Jeffers’ early days in Cesar Chavez’s back yard.  “Chavez believed that organized labor could, I emphasize could, be the apparatus to organize and empower masses of grassroots people, that it could transform their lives,” he recalls.

“We didn’t set out to build a union when we wanted all these workers to sign up with us.  We set out to build a living wage movement for all of these other purposes, all of these quality of life issues that go far beyond collective bargaining issues.”

Success in the South

In New Orleans, the troops of SEIU and ACORN set out to organize an entire city.

It wasn’t the first time that ACORN had spearheaded a citywide vote for a higher minimum wage.  Earlier efforts in Houston and Denver were smothered.  “We just got killed by the opposition, which spent tens of thousands of dollars on media campaigns,” said Jen Kerns, who runs the Boston-based Living Wage Resource Center.  “Basically, we were shut down.”

New Orleans would be different.  To an observer from outside Louisiana, it’s sometimes difficult to tell where SEIU ends and ACORN begins. The union and the community organization seem to merge. The relationship is easier to understand when one learns that Wade Rathke, who founded the New Orleans ACORN chapter 30 years ago, is also the chief organizer of SEIU local 100.  The two are fraternal, not identical, twins.

Beginning in 1996, with the core labor-community connection already in place, volunteers trudged from porch to church to worksite, talking up a referendum that would take advantage of Louisiana’s unusual home rule laws.  The referendum would raise would permanently raise both public and private employees’ minimum wage to one dollar above the prevailing federal minimum. 

ACORN organizer Steve Bradberry points out that “Louisiana has the highest proportion of minimum wage earners per capita in the entire country.”  New Orleans is among the poorest major tourist cities in the continental U.S.  It has also long had a hefty Black majority.  On the face of things, it might be presumed that class issues would not be easily muddled by race in the Crescent City. That may or may not be true. The events of 2002 are open to interpretation.

What is indisputable is that the Living Wage coalition, swelled by churches, women’s and civil rights groups and the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO, won a resounding victory on February 2.  It will surely be mined for gems of precious organizing experience in months and years to come.  Sixty-three percent of the voters backed the wage hike, affecting 75,000 workers.

Immediately, the wage increase faced a legal challenge from the same forces that had blared the issue into oblivion in Houston and Denver, filling the airwaves with warnings that higher wages lead to fewer jobs.  This right-wing mantra was presented to the Civil District Court as received wisdom from On-High, but the propaganda was backed up by virtually no data!  Apparently, Louisiana businessmen are not accustomed to having to explain themselves.

The labor-church-civil rights-community coalition came to court with facts in hand, including studies of the employment impact of the first Living Wage agreement, the prize won by AFSCME and its religious allies in 1994.  Not only had the higher minimum benefited Baltimore’s low-wage working families, but retailers in low-income neighborhoods also faired better catering to customers with more money to spend.

Business Week, which speaks to the saner sectors of the monied classes, said much the same thing about Living Wage laws two years ago.  “So far,” concluded the September 4, 2000 issue, “they have imposed little, if any, cost to the…cities that have passed them, the studies find. And they have led to few job losses and have lifted many families out of poverty.”  The headline read, “Paying above the minimum seems to do more good than harm.”

To the surprise of some, Living Wage advocates won the day in District Court, and the citywide raise was set to take effect on May 2. But rational arguments mean little to employers whose larger agenda is to lock masses of people in a state of economic desperation, willing to take any job, under any conditions. The Louisiana Restaurant Association and the Greater New Orleans Hotel-Motel Association convinced the state Supreme Court to review the case, putting the increase on indefinite hold while the judges decide whether a wage hike for New Orleans creates "negative statewide consequences."

If this final hurdle is overcome, New Orleans will join ten states and Washington, DC, which operate under similar legislation. This year the opponents of the Living Wage campaign also scored a major electoral victory. Their candidate for mayor, a Black man, won in a landslide.

Just one month after two out of three voters passed the Living Wage referendum, a large majority elected the only serious candidate who opposed the hike.

The Wrong Man

Ray Nagin is co-owner of the New Orleans Brass hockey team and vice president of the regional Cox cable system.   The city’s Chamber of Commerce endorsed him as “an excellent spokesman for New Orleans.”  He donated money to George W. Bush’s presidential campaign, prompting a group of Democrats to run radio ads dubbing him “Ray Reagan.”  His courting of conservatives included a call for repeal of the residency law for cops, provoking outrage from the head of the city’s Black Organization of Police. 

"We have to develop a strong African-American middle class," Nagin tells audiences.  What he means by that is unclear. How could a candidate, so singularly hostile to a wage increase that was embraced by the bulk of the voters, triumph?

AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer Bill Lucy closely observed the New Orleans Living Wage and mayoral campaigns.  He thinks there is no deep meaning in the city’s apparent electoral contradictions.  The voters rejected former Black Police Chief Richard Pennington, who was favored by most of the Living Wage coalition, based on unrelated local and personality issues.  “In the closing days of the campaign, Living Wage was not a debated issue,” said Lucy.  The referendum had already been won.

Still, Nagin’s ascension in the wake of massive progressive mobilization is disturbing.  On the other hand, if Lucy’s assessment is correct, the proper conclusion to draw may be that the Living Wage is so galvanizing an issue, it transcends petty, local politics. 

Steve Bradberry thinks so.  “It becomes a rallying point for different organizations to get involved,” said the ACORN organizer.  “The door is open for collaboration on a number of other issues.”  For example, “You would not normally be able to get welfare rights organizations to sit down with the unions.”  They did come together for a pay raise.

Bradberry explains, in pragmatic terms, what distinguishes the community-oriented union stalwarts of the SEIU from the labor-supportive community activists of ACORN.

“It depends on the issues,” says Bradberry, who is currently involved in tenant organizing.  “SEIU is doing daycare, for example.  We’re not involved with that.  We’re doing community issues in the neighborhoods, like the fight against the industrial canal.  They’re not involved in these issues.”

ACORN’s “depth” in poor neighborhoods places its troops in contact with horrors that assault contemporary notions of civilization, degrading not only the value of labor, but the human condition itself.  “The Hispanic community has a very large concern regarding the treatment of immigrants,” says Bradberry.  “People are brought in from Mexico and given room and board, and then find themselves in a kind of slavery.”  The Living Wage campaign creates “common ground.”

The February 2 ballot success must be measured in the context of labor’s many frustrations in New Orleans and the South in general.  As business writer Kathy Finn pointed out in a recent New York Times article, “Only one New Orleans hotel has ever been unionized, and that was decades ago.”

In Washington, the SEIU’s top woman and ranking African American views the referendum as yet more proof of the continued vitality of Black people as a whole.

“It shows that we are politically active and politically strong,” said Patricia Ford, proudly.  “We can’t just look at [union] member density, alone,” she insisted, referring to organized labor’s thin ranks in right-to-work Dixie.  Ballot-based mobilizations in areas of large Black concentration can have vast consequences nationally.  “If we’re going to take back the House, we’re going to have to take the South.”

The interviewer reminded Ford of the scene at last year’s SEIU’s Black caucus convention.  Delegations had stood by turn to affirm AFRAM’s growing influence in the union.  When it came time for the South to be recognized, a lone woman rose from her seat.  “As I said, labor has to move South,” Ford repeated, even more firmly.

Framing the Issue

New Orleans once again demonstrated that Living Wage campaigns are “uniquely capable of bringing together labor, religious leaders, and community organizations,” says Jen Kern, whose Living Wage Resource Center is closely associated with ACORN.  Churches readily join, alarmed that “the working poor can’t tithe or come to services.”  Unions need popular power to “raise the floor for all workers” and to resist the “contracting out of public jobs for low wages.”   Successful Living Wage organizers “tap into all of these urgencies.”

The keys to rejuvenating, or rather, re-making the American labor movement, may lie in the lessons being learned in Living Wage campaigns. They emphasize community empowerment and reciprocal respect among peoples.  It is in these struggles that lingering habits of narrow trade unionism may be broken.  Rigidity and destructive ethnic impulses, born of pain and prejudice, can be defeated when popular issues are skillfully framed and broadly engaged.

In the preceding brief and glancing views of three struggles; domestic workers in California; immigrant janitors in the Northeast; and the mobilization of a large, mostly Black city in the heart of Dixie, we begin to see the promise of grassroots Living Wage campaigns.

It has worked in 82 cities and is rising.  The figure is far larger, if the entire scope of the movement to organize the unorganized is added to the count.  This includes the jobless who would gladly work if social support mechanisms were adequate.

Labor and community activists are teaching and learning how to effectively resist the Race To The Bottom.   They are formulating strategies and tactics that create common ground, rather than conflict, with immigrants.  They are revisiting unfinished battles, such as domestic workers’ fight for dignity.  They are setting community-wide standards that no decent person can oppose.

The Living Wage movement is an opportunity for unions and energized communities to begin to recover from the hemorrhaging of decent paying jobs during decades of mad corporate globalism, by empowering the people flowing in from the other direction and the African Americans and poor whites who have been here all the time. 

Thousands of lifelong activists like Ken Msemaji are finding and rediscovering ways “to make mass groups of people stand up.”

The Black Commentator will treat the Living Wage movement as a regular beat.  This is the first of many commentaries on the subject.

Your comments are welcome. Visit the Contact Us page for E-mail or Feedback.

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Helpful sites for understanding the Living Wage movement:

Living Wage Resource Center

AFSCME Living Wage Page: 

Coalition of Black Trade Unionists

ACORN Living Wage page

SEIU Justice for Janitors campaign

SEIU Local 100

Baltimore Living Wage Study

Responsible Wealth, Boston

Economic Policy Institute


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Issue Number 2
May 8, 2002





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Other commentaries in this issue:

Newark: The First Domino? - The Hard Right Tests its National Black Strategy

A Letter from Harvard: "How to spot a "Black Trojan Horse." Dr. Martin Kilson, Guest Commentator

Reparations Part One: The True Value of Some Land and an Animal

Rep. Cynthia McKinney's Statement on the Events of September 11: The need for an investigation of the events surrounding September11 is as obvious as is the need for an investigation of the Enron debacle.

Condoleezza & Geraldo, a Fine Pair: The Role Models' Burden

Commentaries in issue number1 you may have missed are:

Make The Amendment: How to Get the U.S. Government Out of the International Drug Trade

Fruit of the Poisoned Tree: The Hard Right's Plan to Capture Newark NJ

Psychologically Unfit: The U.S. Can't Handle the Death Penalty

Linquistic Profiling: By Patrice D. Johnson, guest commentator

You can read any past issue of The Black Commentator in its entirety on the Past Issues page.