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Know Your Rights
Source: New York Times
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Planning a March, and Envisioning a Movement, to Unite Low-Wage Workers

The 25-cent raise was not nearly enough.

For six years, Julio Najera [member of Make the Road New York], 30, had earned $7.25 an hour working at a Key Food supermarket in Brooklyn, a wage that was bumped up to $7.50 a few weeks ago. He puts in 54-hour weeks in the store’s dairy department. Even though he is paid overtime, it is still a struggle for him to support himself — and his wife and son, who live in Honduras.

“I’m fighting for them,” he said, adding, “I am working to maintain myself here and my family there. We can’t live with what we make.”

Prince Jackson, 54, is in a similar position. He works 40 hours a week for $8 an hour as a security guard at Kennedy International Airport. He is on the graveyard shift, from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Low-wage workers like himself, he said, are “the real nuts and bolts of what it takes to run an airline.”

“I see these people every night,” he continued. “We’re underpaid, and we’re overworked.”

Labor organizers [including Make the Road New York] in New York City are embarking on an effort to bring together people like Mr. Najera and Mr. Jackson — workers who, though their jobs are distinctly different, share the economic challenge of living on modest wages and in sometimes poor conditions.

With the economy teetering, workers represented by different unions have spent the past year laying the foundation for an aggressive lobbying campaign to highlight concerns about low wages, the widening income gap and the overall workplace struggles faced by many New Yorkers.

They plan to promote their efforts on Tuesday, with a march from Herald Square to Union Square.

But beyond the march, organizers envision a future where grocery-store baggers stand alongside clergy members and electricians and where retail workers help fledging supermarket unions negotiate their first contract agreements.

“Imagine when the rich bosses come in from the airport after they drop their children off with the domestic workers and they’ve had their limos washed and their laundry pressed and they have reservations at the best restaurant and they’ve had groceries delivered,” said Bertha Lewis, a former chief executive of Acorn, at a meeting last week of low-wage workers in Manhattan where the coming march was discussed. “Every single sector, imagine thousands of people coming in from every direction.”

The planning meeting, organized by United NY, a coalition of workers across New York City, was held in a boardroom with one large executive-style table at its center. Instead of chief executives and other top officials, the seats were occupied by low-wage workers.

At the meeting, representatives from different organizations took turns complaining about labor abuse, low wages, lack of paid vacation time and wage theft. At the head of the table, a moderator jotted down notes and recorded what each representative said.

“So, what are your strategies going to be? ” she said. “How can the airport workers help the grocery store workers?”

With an interpreter standing by, attendees sat wearing headphones to understand both Spanish and English speakers. Many of them shared the same qualms.

“We need to collectively put our fights together,” said Camille Rivera, executive director of United NY. “Workers don’t want to live in a penthouse or to drive in a limo. They want to be able to provide for their families and have a decent wage.”

The minimum-wage battle has raged at the federal and state level. Representative Jesse L. Jackson Jr., a Democrat from Illinois, has proposed legislation that would increase the federal minimum wage to $10 an hour from $7.25. Proponents of a higher minimum wage point to the country’s crippled economy, and argue that paying workers more would help inject cash back into the economy. In Albany, the Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, has advocated raising the minimum-wage increase in New York State to $8.50 an hour from $7.25, but Mr. Silver’s bill has since been stalled by similar partisan opposition.

Historically, the city’s labor unions have worked mostly independently, particularly on matters related to contract negotiations. About 8,000 Consolidated Edison workers were locked out on July 1 after negotiations between the union and the company collapsed.

And in Brooklyn, supermarket workers voted on June 29 to join Local 338 of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union — a contentious move that has sparked racial tensions, pitting primarily Latino workers against South Korean store owners. The retail union plans to take part in Tuesday’s demonstration.

The campaign to organize low-wage workers is meant to focus on specific policies, unlike the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has been much more amorphous, said the Rev. Raymond Rufen-Blanchette, executive chairman of the Clergy Campaign for Social and Economic Justice. Bringing together different unions will give the group more muscle, he said.

Clergy members have been an integral part of United NY’s efforts since many have seen firsthand the struggles faced by members of their congregations.

“I’m sick of protests,” Mr. Rufen-Blanchette said. “It’s always a one-shot deal. When it comes to grass-roots movements, we have to get involved in electoral politics. This is the institutionalization of all the issues that Occupy brought forward. If we are successful, this is going to be something that is going to go for years and years.”

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