A Cry in the Dark? Q & A With Alabama Living-Wage Activist

Kari Lydersen

On Monday night, bus drivers for the Crimson Ride service at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa celebrated their first contract with an Ohio-based company, after a brief strike which I wrote about last week.

While the drivers’ strike got national attention thanks in part to Fight Back newspaper and the Network to Fight for Economic Justice, a school nutritionist in Alabama contacted me to point out how many workers in Alabama labor long hours in obscurity for far less than a living wage.

Peter Engstrom is passionate about contributing to the health and well-being of school kids in Huntsville, Ala. But even with a master’s degree, he doesn’t earn enough as a cafeteria cook to support a family without working another job as a healthcare attendant. He is part of a living-wage campaign in Huntsville that hopes to follow in the footsteps of campaigns that have gained living-wage ordinances or other measures in other cities.

But as Engstrom describes in this Q & A with Working In These Times, Huntsville workers have a big challenge ahead of them.

WITT: By your calculation, you are making about a third of a true living wage, right?

PE: Well, not really — even less. My W2 statement for 2009 was about $9,000. But take-home pay after taxes, insurance premiums, union dues and the like was about $7,000. A living wage is at least $22,000, or about the line drawn by the federal government as the beginning of the poverty level for a family of four. And, I mean $22,000 take-home - not gross. Pay for workers has not really grown for 30 years, while of course the cost of living has.

It is important to talk in specific numbers because it helps bring the discussion into a tangible, concrete picture. What is a living wage”? If an individual works a full-time job, the money from that job should cover at least the five following necessities: food, medicine, housing, transportation and utilities.

People interested in the issue of a living wage must read the book put out by ACORN called, Living Wage Campaigns: An Activist’s Guide to Building the Movement for Economic Justice by David Reynolds, updated in 2003. The book is an activist’s guide to building the movement for economic justice.” It is excellent.

What is it like trying to survive on the salary you make?

PE: Well, no one can survive on $700 per month. I work another job as a healthcare worker in an assisted living facility. Pay is $8.50 per hour. This month I am working seven days a week, five days at the school and Saturday and Sunday at the assisted living facility. My wife works a part-time job at about $8 per hour. That’s still nothing near enough to even pay rent, food, gas, etc. We rely on relatives for the difference. Without money from close family, we would be on the streets.

People have no means of rebellion against such poor pay. If the Huntsville City School system decided today to pay all support workers $3 per hour, plus benefits, people would keep the jobs — BECAUSE THERE IS NOTHING ELSE. When I tell others of the pay I make here, they say a couple of things.

One, well find a different job. Or two, yes that is low, but the benefits are great.

Well, the benefits aren’t exactly great.

Huntsville City School workers receive Blue Cross Blue Shield health insurance. Family and dental monthly premiums for workers are about $200 a month. I cannot put gas in my car with benefits.” I cannot pay the utility bill, with benefits.”

As people have asked you then, have you thought about switching professions or relocating somewhere else?

PE: Yes I have looked for other work, and I am looking now.
I have a couple of master’a degrees so I possess a good education, but that doesn’t matter nowadays. Also, I LIKE working with kids and making food for them everyday. It is an honor and an honest job. So why doesn’t society and the public-school system pay people well to do a job that is so important: feeding children every day?

I imagine living-wage jobs are scarce in Alabama, as in so many places. What do you think it will take to pass living-wage legislation or otherwise win a living wage for workers in Alabama schools?

PE: Passing a meaningful living wage law in Alabama will be a huge struggle. But the action has started. For example, the largest union in Alabama, the Alabama Education Association, made up of over 100,000 teachers, administrators and support workers, has unanimously passed resolutions in support of living wages for all workers. In fact, the AEA lobbyists are now mandated by the members to actively lobby Alabama legislators on the living wage issue. But much more needs to be done, The biggest issue is communication between workers. It does not exist. And I am not sure how to open communication up.

Are state or local politicians at all responsive?

PE: Actually, no. Even the AEA really does not want to touch this issue, particularly now in an economic depression.

How do you think the low wages for school workers like yourself impact the children in the school system?

PE: Low wages have a devastating effect on the school system. But it is hidden. Poor pay affects morale. Poor pay costs the system money. Because I make such low wages, my kids in another school system qualify for free lunch offered by the government. Workers do not see doctors for problems because they can’t afford the co-payments. Then they become sicker, miss work, and service to kids suffers. I know of someone who needs knee replacement surgery, but cannot afford to miss three months of work.

Do you have any key allies in terms of other community groups or unions?

PE: The National Education Association (NEA) does push for a living wage for support workers.

But my attempts to contact them to support Alabama workers have been unsuccessful. The local Living Wage Campaign, started by lunchroom workers, has been active over the past three years. We have sought out allies.

For example, we met with the editorial board of the Huntsville Times, and they published in support of our actions. We have also sought out support from members of the school board, with little success. We have actively sought out support from local politicians — mayors and representatives. Again, with little concrete support.

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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