Workers fight for livable wage


On a hot May afternoon in a music store in a strip mall on the edge of Beaufort, four people relax in an air-conditioned shop and talk, of all things, about wages. As the conversation progresses, the oldest member of the crowd and the store owner, an African-American man, tells a story about growing up in Beaufort.

"When I was young they'd come out here in school bus-type things and pick us all up the mothers, the young boys and even the children, and take us out to pick tomatoes," he remembers. "They'd load us all up, take us out to the fields and you'd get a bucket. You'd fill the bucket, hoist it up on your shoulder and carry it must have been as far as across this parking lot and across the road. Then you'd dump out your tomatoes and get 10 cents for the bucket. Walk all the way back and start over again. Your arms would be covered in green dye at the end of the day, and us little kids would have lifted buckets and buckets and buckets.

"Then they came and started developing the hotels and the so-called service sector. People in the community said I'm not doing that back-breaking work when I can earn more money in the hotels.'

"But 30 years later we go to work as domestic workers on Fripp Island, busmen at the Hilton Head resorts or housekeepers throughout the Lowcountry. Much has remained the same. We are still picked up on buses and taken to work, and the wages are still too low for us to get ahead at the end of the day."

This sentiment is being echoed across the United States. From the halls of Washington, D.C., to the streets of Los Angeles these same issues of work and pay are on the minds of all sorts of people. And for good reason.

Between 1978 and 1995, the buying power of workers' hourly earnings fell 12 percent. In fact, after almost 30 years of income growth for most American workers, ending in 1978, the last decade and a half has brought a violent downturn, with the bottom 60 percent of all families seeing their income decline, even after adjusting for inflation.

This decline has real human costs; the rate of new home ownership among households headed by those between the ages of 30 and 34 fell from 57 percent in 1982 to 51 percent in 1994. The lost ground comes despite the fact that more than a quarter of all full-time workers spend 49 or more hours at work each week and more than eight million workers hold two or more jobs.

Things are even more bleak when you consider specific groups of workers. The median annual income for African-American workers is only 67 percent of white median household income. Married mothers are more than twice as likely to work full-time as they were in 1970.

Politicians are hearing the complaints stemming from this economic decline, and support is growing for an increase in the minimum wage. Since President Bill Clinton began a campaign last year to raise the minimum wage 90 cents over two years, a number of political leaders have stopped hiding behind the myth that only teenagers work minimum-wage jobs. In reality, 69 percent of minimum-wage workers are 20 and older.

Since 1978, the purchasing power of the minimum wage has declined 31 percent. Today, working year-round full-time for minimum wage would yield only $8,840 a year $3,000 less than the poverty level for a family of three. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that 60 percent of all high-school educated workers, including 72 percent of all African-American males, start at minimum wage.

Efforts across the country are underway to remedy this decline in wages at the local level. But it is not decline alone that has inspired local efforts to fight back there is another side of the coin that must also be understood.

Between 1980 and 1995 the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 404 percent, providing huge payoffs for investors but no wage gains for workers. Since 1980, CEO compensation has increased 360 percent and profits have risen 205 percent, while production worker wages rose slower than prices.

So, corporate profits have gone up. Government subsidies to corporations have gone up. Worker productivity has gone up (24 percent since 1979). But wages have declined.

Today, workers in manufacturing in the United States earn $4 an hour less than in Japan and $10 an hour less than in Germany.

The truth is that American companies can afford raises.

 In Baltimore, community groups and labor unions won a city-wide ordinance that guaranteed a minimum wage level higher than the $4.25 per hour guaranteed by the federal government for all workers employed on waterfront renovation and concession jobs.

 In Los Angeles, a living wage campaign is underway that would set a higher minimum wage for employees working for a company that receives $25,000 or more in government subsidies.

 The AFL-CIO has mounted a national effort called "America Needs a Raise" to pressure Washington to respond to the crisis workers face. At town meetings across the country, union members and nonunion members will "give voice to the real concerns of working Americans, provide avenues for action, and fight the despair that nothing can be done about the decline in the American way of life," according to AFL-CIO briefing papers.

Here in South Carolina, where wages have always ranked near the bottom nationally, efforts to protect workers are underway. This summer, the Union Summer program will send more than 30 young people, half selected locally, to fight for economic justice in the state. From the Lowcountry to Bishopville, they will reach out specifically to low-wage workers whose standard of living is eroding and who, by their own account, are ready to stand up and make a change.

Simon Greer is on staff at Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment (CAFE). For information on CAFE or Union Summer, call 864-235-2926.

Corporate profits have gone up. Government subsidies to corporations have gone up. Worker productivity has gone up. But wages have declined.

© Copyright by POINT, 1996
Last modified 6/13/96