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The Buck Starts Here

[whitespace] Building a local living-wage movement at the grassroots

By Janet Wells

WHEN AUTHOR and essayist Barbara Ehrenreich left her comfortable Florida home, her career, and her credit cards to become a Key West waitress making $2.13 an hour, plus measly tips, she set out to discover if it really is possible to make a living on the meager jobs available to much of the nation's unskilled workforce.

One month of low-wage drudgery later, Ehrenreich had her answer: An emphatic no.

"There are no secret economies that nourish the poor," she writes in the January issue of Harper's magazine. "This job shows no sign of being financially viable. You might imagine, from a comfortable distance, that people who live, year in and year out, on $6 to $10 an hour have discovered some survival stratagems unknown to the middle class. But no."

Ehrenreich is the keynote speaker at the second annual Labor and Social Action Summer School at Sonoma State University, from July 9 to 11, a weekend of workshops for youth, labor, and community activists, presented in conjunction with Santa Rosa Junior College.

Sessions on such topics as the living wage, movement, affordable housing, women and the labor movement, and organizing strategies focus on the social needs of Sonoma County, where the working poor face an increasing struggle even in the midst of a booming economy. While the county's $14 billion economy continues to grow, and unemployment is at an all-time low of 3.1 percent, 20 percent of the county's working adults cannot support themselves and their families, according to federal census statistics.

In addition to requiring that city or county employees are paid wages that allow them economic self-sufficiency, living-wage legislation--adopted in such communities as Boston and Los Angeles--usually stipulates that businesses contracting with the city or county pay their employees at the same living-wage level.

"We have the working poor, particularly part-time classified jobs like janitors and librarians, and part-time certificated faculty, who are not economically self-sufficient," says Santa Rosa Junior College history professor Marty Bennett. "I think it's a human rights issue, just like we have voting rights and rights to privacy.

"There's a very rich language and precedence for this in American history if you look in the 1930s or in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's economic bill of rights about the right to a living wage and the right to a job," adds Bennett, who also is president of the California Federation of Teachers, Local 1946, and a member of the North Bay Central Labor Council.

While the rich are getting richer, Bennett says, the poor are going down even faster. According to a report on the quality of life in Sonoma County released last week by United Way and the Sonoma County Community Foundation, the gap between the rich and the poor is widening, with food stamp use in the county 28 percent higher than before the 1980s recession.

In 1980, Bennett points out, the CEO of a major corporation made 42 times the wage of a factory worker. By 1990, that ratio had almost doubled to 85, and by 1998, the average CEO was making 419 times more than the grunt on the assembly line.

"Why don't we have a maximum wage?" Bennett wonders. "This is the whole story of what's called California's hollow recovery. For the upper 20 percent, they have done extraordinarily well. But when you look at the bottom 80 percent, you see growing income inequality."

That disparity spells trouble, says Ehrenreich.

"Greed undermines society when you have huge inequality," she says in a phone interview from her Florida home. "When you have very wealthy people who don't take much interest in the public sector because they can do everything themselves, fly to their multi-acre ranch in Montana in their own plane, private schools. They withdraw into their own world. The public sector then tends to deteriorate as the upper class withdraws.

"We have a culture that says work hard and you'll get ahead," she adds. "When people find out that they can work as hard as they can and still not live indoors, that undermines the entire social contract. It says to those people, 'You're not worth anything.'"

And when people feel as if they are going nowhere, the results are "pathological," Ehrenreich says. "There usually is some kind of social upheaval, revolution, virulent scapegoating of ethnic groups."

THE SOLUTION? In part, simply pay people enough to live on, say living-wage advocates. Bennett is one of a group of people from academia, labor unions, business, and social groups that has formed a committee to study the idea of introducing living-wage legislation in Sonoma County.

More than 20 communities nationwide have enacted such measures, which have the common goal of ensuring that full-time workers can support themselves. For a typical Sonoma County family, that means making enough money to rent a two-bedroom apartment, own a 6-year-old car, have full-time day care for the kids, and health insurance covered through an employer.

That quality of life requires a family income of $11 to $18 an hour. Yet, about 10 percent of California's workers earn the minimum wage of $5.75 an hour, and the average hourly wage for 20 percent of Sonoma County's work force is just $8.09 an hour.

"I think the living-wage approach is very good," Ehrenreich says. "It uses the leverage people have in the public sector. We can say to our municipality that we don't like the fact you are contracting with companies that don't pay people so they can live at any kind of decent level."


Barbara Ehrenreich will speak Friday, July 9, at 7:30 p.m. at the Warren Auditorium at Sonoma State University. Admission is on a sliding scale of $5 to $8. For more information on Ehrenreich's lecture or the Labor and Social Action Summer School, call 545-7349, ext. 1.

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From the July 1-7, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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