May 1st was International Workers’ Day. Some call it “The Real Labor Day.”
In 1886, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) called on workers to strike any business that refused to abide by an 8-hour workday. According to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, (1995, p. 264) on May 1, 1886,
“350,000 workers in 11,562 establishments all over the country went out on strike. In Chicago, 40,000 struck and 45,000 were granted a shorter working day to prevent them from striking. Every railroad in Chicago stopped running and most of the industries in Chicago were paralyzed. The stockyards were closed down.”
In 1880, The United States’ population was approximately 50 million and Chicago’s was 500,000. According to the 1880 Census Compendium Part II, there were 2.8 million men, women and children working in the nation’s 254,000 manufacturing facilities. Using Zinn’s figures then, approximately 13% of US workers went out on strike May 1, 1886.
Imagine if, in 2009, 13% of the US’ 140 million “documented” workers had struck for universal health care and a living wage. Go ahead. Imagine 18 million workers thronging the streets, hand-in-hand, to advocate for themselves, their children and the future of this nation.
In 1983, the year my oldest son was born, we were in the middle of another “economic downturn.” A gallon of gas cost $1.25, a Dodge Ram truck cost $5700 and the average monthly rent was $335. Cleaning toilets and pushing a lawnmower earned me $10 an hour. (When I saved enough to buy my father’s old riding mower, I was able to ask $15 an hour for larger properties.)
Seventeen years later, after the boom times of the 1990’s, most of us freelance “domestic workers” could make $15-20 an hour. Around that same time, our counterparts in New York City were being paid in the $25-30 range.
In July 2009 — the costs of most everything having doubled since 1983 — the US minimum wage was raised to $7.25 per hour.
This past May 1st, I worked and was glad for it though I know Grandma and Grandpa were rolling in their graves. (May 1st was the date my family eschewed labor for history; the day we remembered Samuel Gompers, the AFL and the perfidy of police officers who helped smother labor’s demands for living wages, humane working conditions and equal pay regardless of gender and race.)
On May 1, 2010, I informed a prospective employer that “I’d have to charge $20 an hour to clean his house” and cited to the round-trip travel time, cost of products, gas, fuel oil, rent, etc.
The weighty pause on the other end of the phone and the aghast rejoinder took me by surprise, “We won’t pay that. We don’t pay more than $15 an hour in the City.”
“That’s interesting,” said I. “A few years ago, the going rate for housekeepers in the City was nearer $25-30 an hour.”
“Not anymore,” came the smug-sounding reply.
There are times when my naivete is unforgivable.
I asked another “City dweller” — a member of a white collar union and gas drilling opponent — what the going rate for domestic services is in her neighborhood. “Ten dollars an hour,” she answered. “But that’s because we have so many ‘illegals.'”
“‘Illegals? You mean ‘undocumented workers?'”
So for those of you who oppose gas drilling and own homes in the City as well as in our rural Pennsylvania and New York communities, remember this simple action + action = results equation:
When you pay less than subsistence wages to the “undocumented human” who has to buy groceries and pay rent in Manhattan, Brooklyn or Long Island,
YOU DRIVE DOWN the wages of the person struggling beside you in Callicoon, Milanville and Honesdale and
YOU ENSURE MORE WORKERS WILL SIGN LEASES IN HOPES OF WINNING THE GAS LOTTERY.
When I raised this issue of wage depression with friends who live both rurally and in the City, I was told their ability to share the wealth is constrained by their loss of retirement funds; that their “disposable” income has been drastically reduced by cutbacks in their businesses and occupations.
I understand. My bank account plunged right beside yours and Sullivan County’s real unemployment figure is nearer 20% than the officially cited 10.9%
So given that we’re all in greatly reduced circumstances, here’s my deal: I’ll reduce my housekeeping charges by $5 to $15 an hour if you’ll promise to increase my counterpart’s wage in the City to a $15 cash rate.
If you can still afford to hire domestic help, for your own sake, pay them a living wage. Otherwise, whose disposable income will keep you in business?
I saved money during the 1983 downturn. I paid the hospital and obstetrician cash for their services.
The son born to me in 1983 was admitted to the New York State Bar last week. If he was born today, I doubt he’d ever see the inside of a law school.
Breathing is Political because our personal political, economic and social decisions influence the growth of a child in our neighbor’s womb. A child’s life depends, in large part, on the health of the mother and on the parents’ ability to provide nutritious meals, books, ideas, a secure home and a realistic dream for the future.
For all workers, the breadth of that dream and its attainability depend on you and me caring about equitable treatment for all. It does NOT depend on any one of us short-changing another simply because we can.
As for union workers who de-value the work and lives of others’, as I write this, America’s teachers’ unions are the new target of labor reforms. If the rest of us are busy scrabbling for each spare nickle, when will we have leisure to come to your defense?