Many Democratic policymakers will readily agree with low-wage worker organizers on some fundamental issues about the state of the economy: Too many people are unemployed or underemployed, African Americans and immigrants are disproportionately affected and factors like the mass incarceration of Black men make the problem worse.
But the fixes the two groups promote don’t necessarily look alike. On Monday morning, senior presidential aide Valerie Jarrett and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel talked jobs to a room full of Chicago’s civic and business leaders, emphasizing the importance of job-training in bolstering the city’s economic growth and touting several high-tech initiatives intended to bring jobs to Chicago.
Some 33 hours later and a mile south down Michigan Avenue, a host of Chicago’s top labor and immigrant organizers gathered for a forum, organized by Community Media Workshop, to showcase the vibrant range of policy and organizing work being done by restaurant, homecare, car wash and other service workers and their advocates.
The fact is, no matter how many people are trained to obtain well-paying advanced manufacturing or high tech jobs, someone still has to do the work of flipping burgers, caring for the elderly or unloading pallets in a warehouse. So labor organizers believe that more attention must be paid to enshrining and protecting the rights of workers in the service jobs that can’t be outsourced and will continue to make up the base of our economy.
In his typically brief remarks at the “Strong Cities, Strong Nation” event, which was sponsored by World Business Chicago, Mayor Emanuel touted the creation of jobs in Chicago through high-tech initiatives, including the city’s plan to institute widespread high speed broadband and the teaching of computer coding in public schools. Emanuel pledged to “move our city forward,” and “make sure every individual can participate” in the city’s new economy.
Jarrett, meanwhile, stressed the need for job training, preparing people for advanced manufacturing and other skilled jobs and pointing out that many companies offering good jobs have trouble finding trained people to fill them.
“You need a workforce that’s skilled — programs beginning with early childhood education, and working with our colleges to make sure they’re training people for jobs of future,” she told the audience. “Throughout history we’ve always had this burst of innovation that leads to greater efficiency, and then you have to retool… We have to work very closely with the private sector to realign all of our educational tools to the demands of the marketplace.”
Jarrett lauded the role of Chicago’s City Colleges and community colleges in preparing people for today’s labor market. And she also stressed the importance of addressing the high incarceration rates of Black men — rates which translate to lifelong struggles to make a living. She called for programs and reforms to help formerly incarcerated people find work.
The grassroots organizers talking to a smaller and less well-dressed crowd of journalists and activists at Community Media Workshop’s event at Columbia College likely also believe that job training is crucial to helping people move out of poverty and achieve their goals.
But their presentation dealt with even more immediate and pragmatic struggles: The fact that people who fill a wide range of crucial jobs — including restaurant, retail and homecare workers — labor long hours but remain impoverished, earning minimum wage or less in dangerous and grueling conditions. The erratic and long hours typical in such jobs mean that workers have trouble getting job training or more education even if it is available.
For example, the Fight for 15 campaign highlighted the situation of a woman working two different fast-food jobs, with constantly changing work schedules that make it almost impossible for her to succeed in school. And Leah Fried of Warehouse Workers for Justice described how workers in a Wal-Mart warehouse in Hammond, Ind. have been working without heat; one man got frostbite and nearly lost two toes.
“Last week we won a huge victory — they installed three torpedo heaters,” said Fried. “Now they just need to fix the dock doors so the heat doesn’t just fly out.”
A worker with the Restaurant Opportunity Center noted how restaurant employees in Illinois earn the “tipped minimum wage” of less than $5 an hour, without paid sick days or other protections. Jorge Mujica from Arise Chicago described systematic wage theft wherein undocumented immigrants and other Chicagoans are shorted more than a million dollars a day as employers large and small skirt and flout labor laws.
“There are a thousand ways you can steal wages,” said Mujica. “Why do they do it? Because they can get away with it. If I can make an extra buck out of a worker every hour, I will do it. It’s that simple. The Department of Labor in Illinois only has seven workplace inspectors. And they receive on average 125 claims a week for stolen wages.”
Chicago labor groups advocate raising the state minimum wage, an issue that’s entered the ongoing gubernatorial campaign. But Mujica and other leaders point out that employers regularly get away without paying even the existing minimum wage. For example, warehouse workers are often paid “piece meal” for the number of boxes they unload, often adding up to less than minimum wage. Likewise for domestic workers who may labor 16 hours or more a day for wages equivalent to $4 an hour or less.
Job training of the type that Jarrett advocated could open up new opportunities and better standards of living for scores of Americans, and the criminal justice system reforms she promoted could improve the employment prospects for many Black men. But the warehouse or other low-paying jobs that those men might otherwise have been consigned to will still be filled by someone else — be it an undocumented immigrant or another marginalized American.
Thus, no matter how many high-tech, flashy jobs are created in Chicago, workers will still have to struggle to ensure that the service industry provides living-wage and dignified work. As the organizers at the Community Media Workshop event explained, this struggle involves multiple fronts and tactics, from enforcing existing laws to passing new laws to pressuring businesses to treat workers better and encouraging workers to organize and stand up for their rights.
“It’s about creating a public problem for all of them, to shame all of them,” Mujica said. “To create such a big sound that they have to listen.”
Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.