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Stateside With Rosalea: Make Work Pay

Stateside With Rosalea: Make Work Pay; Make Ends Meet

At 2am each morning, and from three or four blocks away, I can hear the progress of one local entrepreneur as he makes his way west towards the Golden Gate. His shopping trolley looks like an orbital diagram of the water molecule, huge plastic rubbish bags bulging from its every side and another bulging rubbish bag squeezed into the trolley itself. The bags are full of cans and bottles he's taking to sell at the recycling plant, and which he's gathered during the day from rubbish bins. It seems scarcely possible that he can have gathered so many himself in one day; it's more likely that he's bought them from some other homeless person, hopefully for a fair price. Gosh! To think that I witness daily with my very own eyes in my very own neighbourhood such a glowing testament to the success of free market forces and the wonder that is the U.S. economy!

This is not a new thing. I moved to the Bay area in December 1999, at the height of enthusiastic hysteria about what the "new economy" was achieving, and there were homeless people, beggars, and the 2am Market Force Express here even then. So for me the real story this week wasn't the 4.9 percent unemployment rate; it was the release on Monday - the Labour Day holiday - of a report by EBASE entitled 'Decade of Divide: Working, Wages and Inequality in the East Bay'.

The East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy brings together labour, community and faith-based organisations and leaders to end low-wage poverty and create economic equity in the San Francisco East Bay region. Low-wage poverty is the often unseen and usually unspoken-about "other side" of the economic boom of the '90s. The percent change in real wages (counting for inflation) rose by 17.3 percent for those in the top fifth of the local economy, and fell by 2.2 percent for those in the bottom fifth. At the same time the cost of living soared, in keeping with the increased income at the top and the pressure on housing brought about by the influx of people seeking jobs in the boom time. That's how a free market works, right?

And of course, the free market also ensures that greater productivity leads to higher wages for the workers, right? Gee, you could have knocked me down with a Macaroni to discover that it doesn't. Partly that's because nearly one out of ten new East Bay jobs were created in the temporary help industry, so the extra productivity is paying for Manpower, not manpower. (If you get the chance to see 'Secrets of Silicon Valley' - an independent movie about the South Bay's "success" story - don't miss it. You'll never buy an HP printer again. And the industrial practices used there are used here in the East Bay as well.)

The creation of tens of thousands of poverty-level jobs is what made the "boom economy" of the past 10 years possible, the report says, pointing out that currently one of three jobs in the East Bay won't allow a family to meet their basic needs unless they get government assistance. Organisers are calling for East Bay policymakers to take immediate action, including passing Living Wage laws at the Port of Oakland and the City of Richmond, which they say would help ensure that thousands of low-paid workers make enough to stay out of poverty. Two parents working full time and raising two children need to earn $12.92 an hour each to meet their basic needs - 65 percent of all East Bay jobs pay less.

So says the media advisory sheet handed out at the Labour Day Hearing at which the report was released. It was an interesting event, unexpectedly the victim of world events when U.S. Representative Barbara Lee couldn't attend because she was detained in Durban when the Congressional Black Caucus became the "unofficial official US representation" at the UN Conference Against Racism, as her assistant described it in giving Lee's apologies for her absence. In fact, there were no less than five audience members who were elected representatives on East Bay councils. That's how many stood up and had their say, anyway. No politico here misses the chance to sing their own praises and attach themselves to some bandwagon or another.

The panel discussing the report included an Alameda County councillor, two Labour Council representatives and the pastor of a local United Methodist Church. It was with a sense of deja vu that I listened to Judy Goff, from the Alameda County Central Labour Council, speak about the labour agreement that has been reached on the Port of Oakland expansion project. As part of the social justice component there will be pre-apprenticeship programmes for locals and hiring of those apprentices for five years, so that the developers leave behind a pool of skilled workers. Gosh. Isn't that what happened for the unemployed in Taranaki when the methanol plant was built? How many of them went on to jobs as tradespeople, I wonder, or did they just have something other than "labourer" to write on the dole application after the "boom" moved elsewhere?

Most interesting to me was Rev. Phil Lawson, who quoted Martin Luther King's "justice is indivisible" as he broadened the discussion to say that "the US cannot be an imperial nation in its foreign policy and a social democracy at home", referring to globalisation. He was concerned that the US will soon lose its credibility on the world stage: "How audacious to think we can stay away from a conference on racism and still influence what people think and decide about racism. How arrogant!"

He pointed out that since 2000 the United Methodist Church has been creating justice ministries for workers, and, as a result, 90 congregations in the East Bay already exist with this "impetus towards a movement for social justice". He went so far as to say that the seeds were being sown for a revolution towards a real democracy in the United States. My, my. Good old President Bush for wanting to give faith-based organisations federal funding, is all I can say!


Lea Barker
California
Saturday 8 September 2001

(EBASE doesn't have a web presence, but can be emailed at eballiance@aol.com; you can go to www.secretsofsiliconvalley.org to find out more about conditions in the South Bay.)


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