Wednesday, October 27, 2010

University Employees Hard Work Should Be Rewarded With Fair Pay

    Last night members of Workers Interfaith Network joined together with the United Campus Workers and the Progressive Student Alliance to kick off a campaign for a living wage wage at the University of Memphis. The heart of the community forum we held were talks given by two courageous custodial workers who spoke out about the poverty wages and unfair conditions that come with their jobs.

   As I took part in the forum, I felt a lot of different emotions at the same time. I was angry at the conditions that Emma Davis and Thelma Rimmer described. All workers at the University have faced a pay freeze for over three years now. While a lack of a raise is a challenge for anyone, when your pay is around $8 an hour, it becomes a crisis. Ms. Davis shared how painful it is for her when one of her two children ask her for something that she can't provide. "When you're making $80,000 a year, you don't have to turn your kids away," she said. "I have to because I have to pay my bills.

    At the forum, we talked about Dr. David Ciscel's study produced earlier this year, that shows that a living wage is $11.62 an hour in families of four, where two parents are able to work. But since publishing the study, family health care premiums at the University have jumped 32 percent, to $335 a month.  

   When your pay is just $1,300 a month, this is an unbearable burden. Ms. Davis is now facing a crisis of how to care for her health problems because she makes too much to get TennCare coverage, but she can't afford the University coverage.

   Equally upsetting is the attitude of some supervisors that Ms. Rimmer and Ms. Davis described. They both said that when they have asked about pay raises, supervisors have told them "you should be happy to have a job." Ms. Rimmer put it well when she said, "yes it's good to have a job, but you need a paying job." Supervisors have also told them that they can't do anything about the fact that when they arrive at work at 3:00 a.m., there is no air conditioning, even in the hottest days of the summer.

   There was plenty to be upset about. But I was also inspired at the courage of these two women in speaking out. It would be easy to keep silence out of a fear of losing their jobs in these tough times. But as Ms. Rimmer said, "I'm speaking up for those who are afraid to speak up. I'm standing here to make a way for the next person, for my kids, and for your kids." 

    All of us who care about workers rights need to be prepared to take action with these workers if they experience any retaliation for speaking out at last night's forum.

    And I was inspired by the response of the students, staff, faculty, and community members who took part in the forum. Progressive Student Alliance member Gaby Marquez wanted Mr. Davis and Ms. Rimmer to know that even though their work goes unnoticed, that it is appreciated by students like her. "My mother cleaned houses, so I know some of where you're coming from. I can promise you that when I see President Raines, I will be bringing up the living wage with her."

    While campaigning for a living wage in this economy is an uphill struggle, we also reflected last night on other wage victories in our state. I shared the story of how the campaign for a living wage ordinance with the City Council was long and hard-fought, but successful. Tom Smith, an organizer with the United Campus Workers, shared how organizing at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville significantly raised workers' pay there. When he worked at the UTK Library, he saw his pay raised $3,000 over a three year period because of organizing for a living wage by the union and community allies.

   Even if you couldn't join us, I hope you're inspired to join these workers in taking action for a living wage. 

Ready to join the struggle? You can start by signing our electronic petition to President Raines. And, if you're not already on the list to get email alerts from WIN, sign up now so you'll know about future actions in this campaign. 

Thursday, October 21, 2010

What Moses is teaching me about organizing

    Every night before bedtime, my husband, stepson and I read a Bible story together. Right now we're reading Exodus, and I've been reminded how much Moses can teach us about doing organizing. 

     For years, I've found comfort in Moses' reluctance to be sent by God to Pharaoh. Even after God tells him all of the wonderful signs Moses will be able to do in order to convince the people that God has sent him, Moses still says "O my Lord, please send someone else." As an introvert who has spent most of my life avoiding conflict, I often find myself mouthing those words along with Moses.

    But last night what caught my attention is the advice that Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, gives to him after the Israelites have left Egypt. In Exodus 18:13-24, Moses is becoming exhausted because he is trying to take care of all the community's needs by himself. Whenever there is a dispute among the people, they come to Moses to have it resolved.

    Jethro gives Moses a couple of pieces of advice that I think have relevance for any of us who are organizing for justice:

1) Jethro says that Moses should teach the people the statues and instructions that God has for them. It seems like Moses has been giving these statutes out one by one as people come to him to solve a conflict. But this gives people little power to solve their problems themselves. The more people in the community there are who can teach each other, the stronger the community will be. 

   We try to live by this principle in WIN's Workers' Center. Workers usually contact the Center for the first time because they've experienced wage theft, or have had some other abuse of their rights. Before workers begin a case with the Center, they have to participate in a training on what labor rights workers have in this country. As time has gone on, we've moved from staff leading these trainings, to experienced workers leading them. Workers leave these trainings knowing what their rights are, but they also leave better equipped to inform other workers of how to stand up against abuse.

2) Jethro pushes Moses to give up the illusion that he can take care of everything himself. He tells him "what you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone." So Jethro suggests that Moses train other Israelites who are trustworthy to be judges. 

    It seems like pretty obvious advice, but how often do we try to do things alone, or with just one or two other people? The strongest community organizing groups are ones that are continually building up new leaders who do everything from speak to the media to recruiting members.

   I'll be honest with you. At Workers Interfaith Network, we need to do a better job of finding new leaders to add to those who've been with us for the last 5 - 8 years. For most of the folks who are in leadership positions today in WIN, they started off as volunteers who helped when they could with phone banking, picketing, delegations to business owners, sending mailings, and more. If you'd like to volunteer, please fill out our interest form to let us know the specific ways you'd like to help.

   When I think back over the last eight years, since I founded Workers Interfaith Network, I'm amazed to think of all the people who have shared the task of leading our work. So many people have given sacrificially of their time and their skills to seek justice with low-wage workers. Alone, it would have been too much for any person. Together, we have accomplished much more than we dreamed was possible.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

How To Document Abuses of Your Rights at Work

1. Pay records: Keep a record of the days and hours you work, and how much each of your paychecks are. Keep all copies of your pay stubs, or your record of what you were paid in cash. If you discover that you are a victim of wage theft, these records will be very important for your case. Keep these at home, not at work. (Contact WIN for a booklet like one of those pictured above that you can use to keep track of your work hours.)

2. Employer information: Write down the full name, address, phone number, and license plate number of the person who hires you, and the person who is your supervisor.

3. Sub-contractors: If you work for a sub-contractor, find out the name, phone number, and address of the company that pays your boss.

4. What papers to keep: Keep copies of any personnel policies, contracts, union cards, papers or letters you receive from your boss, and copies of any documents you give to your boss. Keep these papers at home, not at work.

If you are having a specific problem at work, such as not being paid all you are owed, harassment, or being told to work in dangerous conditions:

1. Keep a diary of all incidents that happen. Write down the date, time, location of the incident, any conversations you have about it, and the names of other witnesses. Keep a record of any phone calls you make to lawyers, insurance agents, or government agencies. Make your notes as soon as possible, because it's easy to forget details.

2. If there are any witnesses to your incident, ask them if they are willing to write down what they saw and ask them to sign their statements. Get their phone numbers and addresses, in case one of you quits.

3. Don't sign any documents that are written in a language you can't read. Ask for a copy in your own language, or ask to take it home where someone can translate it for you. After you've done this, if you are asked to sign the document, ask for a copy that you can keep for your own records.

4. Find out if other workers are having the same problem. Talk with your co-workers about how you can protect your rights together.

Have more questions about your rights? The website canmybossdothat has a wealth of information on many different worker rights topics. If you live in the greater Memphis area and you are a victim of wage theft, or are being forced to work in unsafe conditions, email Workers Interfaith Network or call us at (901) 332-3570

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Community Foundation Will Match Your Gift to WIN

    I have some great news. Workers Interfaith Network has been awarded a $5,500 challenge grant from the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis! The grant will increase our ability to bring together even bigger numbers of workers and people of faith to act for justice.      

     But the grant comes with an important requirement that I need your help to meet. In order to receive the grant, WIN must raise an equal amount - $5,500 – from generous members like you. Can you make a gift of $30, $50, $100, or more to help us reach our goal? If that’s more than you can afford, a gift of any size will help.
    And remember, whatever amount you give, it will be doubled through the challenge grant from the Community Foundation.
    Through your generosity and your action, you have helped WIN accomplish so much through the years. Thank you for standing up for justice with workers here in the Mid-South.
    Because we’re so busy at WIN acting for a living wage, working to stop wage theft, and training workers on their rights, sometimes other things have to wait.
Important things like purchasing a computer server that will save our files in case a computer crashes. (Unfortunately a crash happened last year. It wasted a lot of time I would like to have used to take action for workers’ rights!)
Important things like developing a Spanish-language newsletter to keep our Workers’ Center members up to date on WIN’s work. We have 35 worker members now, but we aren’t doing a good enough job keeping them informed.
    But the great news is that the Community Foundation’s grant – and the gift that you give – will help us take care of some of those important things that we have always had to wait on in the past.

    The grant is for “capacity building.” The term may sound complicated, but what it means is making sure that WIN has the basics covered so that we’re strong enough to take action with workers. Because I have a computer that is so slow that I can’t always access email, sometimes it keeps me from sending out an urgent action alert to you. Then you miss out a chance to stop wage theft with a worker who is counting on your support.

    Up-to-date technology and better English and Spanish communications with all of our members will allow WIN to do more in the fight for workers’ rights. We can build a bigger movement of more Mid-Southerners who will:

  • Organize with workers at the University of Memphis for a living wage. Every University worker should be paid enough to at least meet her basic needs, without having to work more than one full-time job.
  • Press members of Congress from the Mid-South to co-sponsor new federal wage theft legislation. This ground-breaking legislation was introduced last week. It will help the Department of Labor stop employers who steal workers’ wages from them.
  • Train workers on how to stay safe on the job. WIN’s trainings teach workers everyday safety skills. Most importantly, workers practice how to say no when the boss orders them to do something so dangerous that it could kill them.
     Please help us build a stronger, more efficient Workers Interfaith Network so we can tackle these worker rights’ struggles. Each dollar you give will be matched by the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis’s challenge grant. Thank you for helping WIN take advantage of this incredible opportunity.

Want your gift doubled by the Community Foundation? 

Our progress in reaching the goal for the Community Foundation grant (as of 10/20/2010):

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Got questions about the living wage at University of Memphis? Get them answered on October 26th

    A couple of months ago, I had the chance to talk with a University of Memphis worker who I'll call Lisa. Now, whenever I step on to campus, I think about her. About the work that she does. About how invisible she is to most people at the University, even while they depend on her labor to keep the place running.

    Each morning, Lisa arrives at work before 4:00 a.m. She and her co-workers make a long walk in the dark from the least expensive parking at the University to the buildings that they clean. Because Lisa makes minimum wage - $7.25 an hour - she has to choose the cheapest parking even though it means an unsafe, lengthy walk to work.

    Lisa knows what it's like to have more month than she has money. "With the money we make, it's impossible to make a living. I really do not want to work a second job, but as a single parent I have to. You have to juggle bills. It is really hard. Something has to change," Lisa says. Yet, because of the odd work schedule the University has for Lisa, she has not been able to find a second job that she can work while keeping her University job.

    But the point is that she shouldn't have to work more than one full-time job just to meet her most basic expenses. Hearing Lisa's story first hand brought home to me the importance of the new living wage campaign that Workers Interfaith Network and United Campus Workers are launching at the University. 

    I want you to have the opportunity to hear from workers first-hand too, so that you can ask your questions and hear what it's like for them to try to make ends meet on what the University pays them. That's why WIN, United Campus Workers, and the Progressive Student Alliance are sponsoring a community forum about the living wage campaign at the University on Tuesday, October 26th at 6:30 p.m. The forum will feature U. of M. workers who are paid poverty wages, students, and economist Dr. David Ciscel, author of "What is a Living Wage for Memphis: 2010 Edition."

     We'll talk about what conditions are currently like for workers, whether the University can afford a living wage (read my take here), what the current living wage rate is for workers in our city, and what it will take to win an agreement to pay a living wage from the University. If you have questions, this is your chance to get them answered! If you have a topic you want us to cover at the forum, leave it in the comments section, and we'll do our best to address it.

Can you join us at the October 26th forum? Sign up here

    The forum will be held in the University Center's Bluff Room. The UC is located off Walker Ave., just north of J.M. Smith Hall. Parking is available in the garage on Zach Curlin, or in the parking lot on the other side of the railroad tracks on Southern. View a map of the campus with all buildings and parking.

    If you can't make it to the forum, but want to launch the campaign, sign our petition to U. of M. President Shirley Raines. 

Friday, October 1, 2010

Ground-breaking wage theft legislation introduced in Congress

Wednesday was an exciting day for those of us fighting wage theft in the trenches. After almost two years of organizing by folks like you, the Wage Theft Prevention and Community Partnerships Act was introduced in the House of Representatives.

The bill is exciting because it would establish a competitive grants program for community organizations like workers' centers and legal clinics to partner with the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL). One thing that workers' centers like WIN's have learned in the fight against wage theft is that we have special knowledge about which companies and industries in our community are committing wage theft. We also have trusting relationships with low-wage workers. Too many times, the USDOL does not have either of these. That knowledge and those relationships can be a huge asset in reaching workers who are most likely to be victims of wage theft.

Plus, even with Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis' increase in the number of Wage and Hour investigators who follow up on wage theft claims, there are still only 1,000 investigators to cover the entire country.  A landmark study by the National Employment Law Project finds that two out of three low-wage workers have experienced wage theft. 1,000 investigators is  clearly not enough to serve the two-thirds of workers whose wages are being stolen. Just like police in Memphis and throughout the country have become better equipped to stop crime because of community policing, community partnerships like the ones proposed by this legislation can reduce wage theft.

But this legislation will only be passed if we create a cacophany of voices calling for it in the halls of Congress. You can help by emailing your Representative today and urging him or her to co-sponsor the legislation. We're especially hopeful that if Congressman Cohen hears from enough constituents about this, that he will come on board.