Across the US, Low-wage workers take a stand

Car wash workers in the Bronx, New York and Walmart temporary workers in Chicago joined a growing list of low-wage workers who are standing up for their rights and respect on the job.

In the Bronx, workers at Webster Car Wash recently voted 23-5 to join the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). “The bosses will respect us better now and see us as people,” said Webster worker Francisco Lopez to the Daily News after  the results of the union vote were announced.

Webster is owned by John Lage, who owns more than 10 percent of the 200 car washes in New York City making his company the largest car wash operator in the city. Lage is currently being investigated by the New York attorney general for wage and hour violations. In 2009, he paid $3.4 million in back pay and damages to settle a federal wage and hour lawsuit.

“These brave workers fought back against their employer, like David slaying Goliath,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of RWDSU. “Across the city, car wash workers are standing up, speaking out and demanding that they be treated with dignity and respect.  This is a building movement.”

In Illinois, temporary workers at Walmart stores in the Chicago area filed a class action lawsuit charging Walmart and two of its temporary staffing contractors, Labor Ready and QPS, with violating federal minimum wage and overtime laws.

The suit alleges that the defendants required temporary workers at Walmart stores to report early for work, work through breaks and lunches, stay late to finish work, and attend training sessions all without getting paid for their extra work.

“I only get paid minimum wage and yet Labor Ready and Walmart still try to cheat me by not paying me for the times I actually work,” said Twanda Burk, the primary plaintiff in the suit. “I’ve proven that I’m a good worker, and they just want to take advantage of me.”

The suit also charges Walmart with failing to keep accurate pay records as required by federal and state law and for not paying temporary workers for the minimum number of hours required by state law when the workers are called to work but then sent home early.

When Walmart expanded in the Chicago area, it sought community support by promising to create thousands of jobs for residents in low-wage neighborhoods that paid at least $8.75 per hour. But Walmart has relied heavily on temporary workers paid only the minimum wage.

“By outsourcing these jobs, the company is taking advantage of Chicago residents in neighborhoods that had hoped Walmart would provide real employment opportunities, not the dead-end jobs that keep residents in a cycle of poverty,” said Elce Redmond, executive director of the South Austin Community Coalition, a Chicago low-income neighborhood organization.

The Walmart workers and the Bronx car wash workers joined other low-wage workers around the US organizing for better conditions on the job or taking class legal action to enforce existing laws that are supposed to protect workers.

At the ports of Seattle and Los Angeles, short-haul truck drivers have organized and taken collective actions for better pay and safer working conditions.

In Louisiana, workers at a seafood factory owned by a Walmart contractor walked off the job to protest slave-like conditions.

In Milwaukee, workers at Palermo’s Pizza factory went on strike to protest low pay and unsafe working conditions and have since organized a boycott of Palermo’s Pizza products.

In Houston, janitors who are members of SEIU Local 1 went on strike for a decent pay raise after the multi-national cleaning corporations for whom they work offered only a $0.10 per hour raise.

In Austin, Texas,  construction workers have organized large demonstrations at City Council meetings to demand that companies seeking city incentives and tax breaks agree to negotiate agreements that ensure that workers on the companies’ construction projects are paid a decent wage, work under safe conditions, and have training opportunities that make advancement on the job possible.

Workers at Darden restaurants such as the Olive Garden in cities like Chicago, Miami, and Washington DC have filed a class action lawsuit charging the nationwide restaurant chain with wage theft.

The idea that individual effort can lead to a better life has lost its lustre for many low-wage workers living in a high-priced economy.

At least a few of them have learned the lessons of the 1930s when collective efforts by low-wage workers in the country’s factories, mines, and transportation services over a period of time turned low-wage jobs into jobs with decent pay, benefits, and dignity.

Those of us working in moderate-pay jobs watching our living standards erode would do well to re-learn this lesson too.


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