Organize for a Living

Orell Fitzsimmons sees 200,000 people in Houston working for little more than minimum wage. He wonders how many of them would like a raise.

He also sees 90,000 Houston children under the age of 6 living in poverty. He wonders how a minimum-wage job for a parent is going to lift those kids out of poverty.

Then he sees municipal elections turning out only 80,000 voters in this city of 1.6 million people. So Fitzsimmons, an organizer with the Service Employees International Union local 100 in Houston, and other local activists set up the Campaign for a Living Wage. They collected signatures from 47,000 people to call a citywide referendum Jan. 18 to raise the local minimum wage to $6.50 an hour.

If progressives are to reconnect with the people, it will be through bread-and-butter issues such as providing good jobs for working people to provide for their families. The Campaign for a Living Wage in Houston and other places around the country is one way to do that.

Fitzsimmons believes that if a mother works 40 hours a week she should not have to raise her children in poverty. Yet if she works for the minimum wage, even at the modest increase to $4.75 an hour that Congress enacted in October, she would be earning only $9,880 a year. That is still $2,310 below the poverty level for a family of three. The proposed $6.50 rate would erase that gap.

"Maybe everyone thinks having 90,000 kids living in poverty will teach them a lesson, but I don't think so," Fitzsimmons said.

The Living Wage movement is being promoted around the country by organizations such as the Service Employees, the New Party, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), the Industrial Areas Foundation, Sustainable America, Jobs with Justice, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, and various state and regional bodies of the AFL-CIO. State or metro campaigns have been active in Arizona, Buffalo, Chicago, California, Idaho, Jersey City, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Missouri, Montana, New York City, Oregon, Oregon, St. Louis, St. Paul, and Washington D.C. as well as Houston.

The movement appeals to the 11.6 million adults in the labor force who live below the poverty level (4.7 million of them working full-time). Oregon voters in November approved a measure to increase the minimum wage there to $6.50 and California voters approved a minimum wage increase to $5.75. Baltimore approved a higher minimum wage for city contractors or businesses that receive tax abatements. A statewide minimum wage proposition in Montana lost by only 53-47 percent. A Texas Poll last July found that 80% of Texans believed the minimum wage should be increased.

A business group, led by restaurants, grocery chains and other retailers and calling itself the "Save Jobs for Houston Committee," has raised more than $160,000, including $100,000 from the National Restaurant Association. It has started airing TV ads attacking the pay raise on the familiar grounds that it would result in a loss of jobs.

But recent studies refute that canard. Three separate studies, conducted by Princeton economists David Card and Alan Krueger, examining the 1988 increase in California's minimum wage, the 1990 and 1991 increases in the federal minimum wage and the 1992 increase in New Jersey's minimum wage, found the higher wages did not result in a higher jobless rate.

Instead, with 200,000 Houstonians currently earning less than $6.50 an hour, Fitzsimmons figures the increase would pump at least $200,000 into the local economy every hour. "And it's going to be pumped in where it will help most - the lower-paid echelon," Fitzsimmons said. "Those people are not going to take that extra dollar an hour and go to Tahiti with it. They're going to go to the local restaurants, the department stores and grocery stores to feed their children better."

The Campaign for a Living Wage, which is operating out of the local Service Employees' and the Central Labor Council offices, had raised $20,723, mainly from unions, through December. But he has a 10-person phone bank identifying potential supporters and 500 volunteers, each assigned to contact 100 homes, to get out the vote. (For information on the Houston campaign call 1-800-322-7348.)

If the campaign can turn out just the 47,000 who signed the petition, Fitzsimmons figures they have a good chance to win in an election that is expected to turn out 80,000 voters. And, win or lose, they'll still have those 47,000 names to build on in future elections.

[Editor's Note: Houston voters on Jan. 18 defeated the minimum wage initiative. A larger-than-expected turnout -- approximately 126,000 -- voted 77% against the higher minimum wage. Approximately 30,000 voters supported it. Citywide, only low-income blacks supported the issue, but it is expected to be a factor in a City Council runoff, the Houston Chronicle reported.]

[In a related issue, the St. Paul City Council on Jan. 2 adopted a policy that requires companies receiving assistance from the city to pay their employees a living wage (100% of the poverty line for a family of four for firms that provide health benefits and 110% of the poverty line if they don't). In 1995, the Living Wage coalition's initial attempt to implement a living wage policy in St. Paul by means of a ballot initiative went down to defeat in the face of well-financed corporate opposition. But the Minneapolis and St. Paul city councils set up a joint citizen's task force that, after months of debate and intense lobbying, arrived at a set of recommendations that were eventually revised and adopted in St. Paul.]

Fitzsimmons said the Living Wage organizers took a page from right-wing religious groups that have used social issues to rally churchgoers behind conservative candidates and issues. He aims to bring working people back into the political process.

"We're not in this for the short haul. We're in it for the long haul, raising economic issues in politics," he said. "Politics as it is practiced today is way too much of a personality cult rather than dealing with economic issues."

Like the Christian Coalition, he said, "We collected signatures in church pews at Sunday services as well as at the polling places. It's old-fashioned politics - our side just hasn't been using it lately."

He added, "We think it's the beginning of a resurgence of a progressive movement. Everywhere we go this issue sparks people's interest. Even when we lost big-time in Denver [by a margin of 70-30 percent in the general election], we believe it's a good issue to bring together people in our part of town.

"We're activating people again and getting them involved in the process. We're not sweet-talking them over the phone and we're not handing out cards at the polls. That's a waste of time. We're going to their homes. You've got to pull 'em out of the house and put them in the van and go vote 'em."

Labor needs new approaches such as Living Wage campaigns to mobilize voters. Unions made some inroads in the past election, ousting 19 of the 45 Republicans where organized labor activity was heaviest. They helped mobilize working-class voters in California to unseat Andrea Seastrand in Santa Barbara and Robert Dornan in Orange County, districts whose conservative voters had been eclipsed by the growing and previously largely unregistered Latino population.

Organized labor also showed its strength in two Texas congressional races in December, getting out the vote to defeat right-wing freshman Republican Steve Stockman in Southeast Texas and re-elected moderate Democrat Ken Bentsen in Houston.

As Harold Meyerson noted in LA Weekly, for all the press coverage given to the AFL-CIO's ambitious "air war" this past year - the federation's TV and radio spots - the greatest potential for changing both labor and American politics is with the federation's "ground war," its mobilization of volunteers. Of its $35 million war chest, the AFL-CIO allocated $15 million to grassroots campaigns in 102 congressional districts as the federation built a political infrastructure virtually from scratch.

There are signs of life. The federation's issues-oriented campaign forced a national debate on protecting education and Medicare and raising the minimum wage. But, as Meyerson noted, Congress remains in the Republicans' hands and labor's liberal allies, despite the unions' campaign efforts, are in eclipse in the next Clinton administration. "In the election's aftermath, the best that can be said is that labor learned how to campaign again - how to get out of the offices and onto the streets, how to reach members on issues. The leaders' hope is that they can now use these techniques to reach non-members, too - that the lessons of the political campaign can offer some guidance as they turn to the more daunting task of reorganizing America's workers."

Capital offenses

When Newt Gingrich was haranguing then-Speaker Jim Wright in 1989, the righteous Republican insisted that a House Speaker should be held to a higher standard than other members. Now that Gingrich is the one caught in an ethical lapse, he hopes that his apology will suffice.

Gingrich admitted on Dec. 21 that he had provided the House ethics committee with "inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable statements" about a course he taught at two small colleges in Georgia. In other words, he lied to a House panel investigating whether he improperly used tax-exempt programs for partisan purposes.

The GOP worked furiously at damage control in an effort to hold the House majority together to narrowly elect Gingrich to a second term as Speaker while the ethics committee was still considering disciplinary action.

Using a tax-exempt foundation for political purposes is not a hanging crime, or else the streets of Washington would be lined with gallows. However, selling books to get around a limit on honoraria isn't normally considered criminal activity, either, but that didn't stop Gingrich from branding Wright a crook and hounding him out of office.

Molly Ivins noted that when Gingrich's GOPAC was shy of dough, Gingrich used money from the Abraham Lincoln Opportunity Foundation, which was supposed to help poor, inner-city kids, to finance some of his televised town meetings, "apparently on the assumption that poor, inner-city kids would watch them and be greatly enlightened. It's this kind of record (combined with Gingrich's nauseating, self-righteous piety) that makes him so easy to dislike. Earning for Learning, another of Gingrich's spider's-web of foundations, seems exist mostly to pay an old friend of his a handsome executive secretary's salary."

Similar foundations exist on the left side of the aisle but they get only a fraction of the funds that flow to right-wing groups. The National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy, which analyzed reports filed with the Internal Revenue Service for the years 1992-94, found that 12 key conservative foundations provided a whopping $210 million to fund right-wing activities in a three-year period. Much of this went to undermine organized labor, social programs such as Social Security, Medicare and welfare, and government regulations to protect people and the environment. [See stories on pages 12 and 13.] And most, if not all, of that amount was written off as charitable donations.

There are plenty of scoundrels to be examined in Washington. But there is little to suggest that Congress or the White House for Rent is seriously interested in reform. That will have to come from the bottom.

-- Jim Cullen

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