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History shows potential for mass struggle

Congress rejects minimum wage hike

Published Mar 16, 2005 1:15 PM

In one of the more despicable displays of capitalist cynicism and indifference toward low-wage workers, the U.S. Senate, accurately known as a “millionaires’ club,” refused in early March to raise the $5.15-hour minimum wage.

The anti-war and draft-resistance movements, along with other progressive groups and community organizations, should be sensitive to the potential for struggle arising from this refusal.

A look at the history of the battle for a minimum wage can give insight in this area today.

March 6 was the 75th anniversary of the unprecedented nationwide protest against unemployment and poverty that brought over 1 million demonstrators into the streets in 1930. It was a day to remember.

The protest came soon after the October 1929 stock market crash which led to the Great Depression of the 1930s. It was a militant response to the 1920s, when empires of wealth arose at the expense of the workers and oppressed. Under flowing banners emblazoned “Work or Wages,” over 110,000 poor and unemployed workers protested in New York City’s Union Square.

An estimated 100,000 demonstrators gathered in Detroit, over 50,000 in Chicago. A like number filled the streets of Pittsburgh and there were huge crowds of the unemployed in Milwaukee, Cleveland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Seattle and Philadelphia.

“In New York City, the rally was attacked by 25,000 cops. Hundreds were beaten to the ground with nightsticks, trampled by the charge of mounted police. ... A New York World reporter describing the assault at Union Square told of ... detectives, some wearing reporters’ cards in hat bands, many wearing no badge, running wildly through the crowd, screaming as they beat those who looked like communists ... men with blood streaming down their faces dragged into the temporary police headquarters and flung down to await the patrol wagons to cart them away.” (Boyer and Morais, “Labor’s Untold Story”)

Working-class history: guide to action

In spite of these vicious, unprovoked attacks that also occurred in other cities, a new stage in the history of the class struggle was in the making. It led to revolutionary working-class gains and progressive legislation—the Social Security Act and National Labor Relations Act, among many others.

From Unemployment Councils, orga ni zed by communists, socialists and militant class-conscious workers, Black and white, the Congress of Industrial Org anization (CIO) ultimately came into existence. Millions of workers rushed to join, following the general strikes and plant seizures of the mid-1930s. They fought for union recognition and won unprecedented contracts from a resistant, anti-union industrial sector of Corporate America. An army of industrial union workers was born, ready to battle for additional social gains.

In 1938, they won the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). It lifted the standard of living of the poorer and most oppressed workers, unprecedented for those days. Child labor, which had flourished among unscrupulous employers, was outlawed. The minimum age was 16 for work in most non-farm jobs and 18 for work in hazardous jobs. For students between 14 and 15, the law allowed maximums of three hours on a school day, eight hours on a non-school day, or 40 hours in a non-school week.

A minimum wage was set. Time-and-a-half pay was mandated for hours over 40, and other benefits and protections. The FLSA was the result of a decade of class struggle.

Today all these social and economic gains are under attack.

Since the recession of 2000-2001, real wages have continued to fall as wages have failed to keep up with inflation. The median wage for 2004 was $13.62, or $8.47 above the $5.15 minimum wage, which has been the same since Sept. 1, 1997.

At minimum wage, even at 40 hours per week, the annual wage is only $10,500—well below the poverty level of over $16,000 for a family of three.

In a phony debate this year the Democrats proposed a minimum wage increase in three steps of 70 cents each over the next 26 months, to $7.25. Republicans countered with two steps of 55 cents to $6.25 and with several pro-business provisions designed to increase poverty.

While the Republican proposals were more threatening, the Democratic provisions, even if they passed, would not slow the impoverishment of the working poor and the oppressed.

A September 2003 Merrill Lynch report compared the minimum wage to the rate of growth of CEO’s salaries: “If the minimum wage, which stood at $3.80 an hour in 1990, had grown at the same rate as CEO pay, it would have been $21.41, rather than the current $5.15 an hour.” Whatever the reasons this Wall Street Goliath made this comparison, it does expose the outrageous gap between rich and poor. And the 2005 figures are even more shameful.

In proposing a piddling increase in the minimum wage, both the Bush administration and the Democrats are acting from political expediency. But they may be playing with fire. Putting a few more bucks in the pocket of the working poor may have been the wiser thing to do.

Repression breeds resistance!

Over the years, as the service-oriented sector of the economy surpassed the industrial sector, there were more suits filed under the FLSA than any other agency of government. There are reports of child labor abuse, overtime and minimum-wage violations, lack of health and safety training and on-site injuries due to dangerous working conditions.

Today, the FLSA is a sham—an appendage to the anti-worker, anti-union policies of the Bush administration. Led by Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, most of the protective language for the lower paid, service-oriented working poor is ignored by the agency.

In a survey entitled “Behind the Kitchen Door: Pervasive Inequality in New York City’s Thriving Restaurant Industry,” a broad gathering of academics, community economic development organizations, policy analysts and policy makers, immigration advocates, worker organizations, unions and industry employers signed on to an overview of workplace conditions in the New York City restaurant industry.

The study provides compelling examples of employer trespasses against minimum-wage earners. The violations include non-payment for overtime (almost a majority worked more than eight hours a day). Some worked more than 50 hours a week and others complained of 60-hour work weeks. Many reported they were paid below the minimum wage and others claimed management demanded to share their tips.

They had no union. The overwhelming majority had no health insurance, no sick leave, no vacation pay, and were forced to work while sick. Many reported health and safety violations: overheated kit chens, slippery floors, lack of safety guards on cutting machines and other dangerous working conditions.

Their complaints ended up in the shred ding machines and waste baskets of the FLSA. The violations go far beyond the restaurant industry to other service-oriented workplaces: hotels, supermarkets, fast-food chains and retail stores, sub-contractors and temp agencies. Wal-Mart, a frequent violator of the law, operates with impunity.

Drawing on their bitter experiences, minimum-wage workers, overwhelmingly immigrant, undocumented, women and youth of color, coming out of high schools and colleges and those that drop out, may be running out of patience.

There is a large turnover among these workers, but there will be more stability as jobs become even more difficult to find. Spontaneous angry protests can break out at any time, particularly by youth, representing many nationalities in these industries.

The AFL-CIO has the potential to be a catalyst for unorganized workers. It is critical for the growth of the union movement that union leaders break out of their morass of debates and begin to build a class-wide, independent movement to deepen their roots in this important sector of the working class.

Deeds are more eloquent than words. History has confirmed, especially from the class struggles of the 1930s, that a rising tide lifts all boats.