Josh Downey is political director of Service Employees International Union Local 105, where 56 percent of SEIU’s members are women, and 40 percent are people of color.
“…most of the studies we’ve seen at the union point to the fact that as the decline in union goes, so too goes the decline in the middle class…”
For us at SEIU, we certainly recognize that during this recession there was a key hit to Hispanics and African Americans. One of things that we attributed it to and have really focused on is the reality that the fastest-growing jobs in this country are service industry jobs, which tend to be low-wage jobs, and then the fastest-growing job markets tend to be in the South, which frankly are predominantly anti-union.
And so, because so many of the fastest-growing industries are predominantly low-wage and then predominantly in areas that are anti-union, we’re finding that more and more workers don’t have a voice on the job.
One of the things at SEIU that we have focused on for the past 10 to 15 years is our South/Southwest region – 14 states in the South that are primarily right-to-work states, or as we call it, “the right to work for less.” Colorado, we’re slightly different. We’re not a complete right-to-work state, but you know there are challenges when it comes to workers standing up and having a voice and saying, “No, our work is worth more than minimum wage. We should have health care, or we should have the right to a dignified retirement.” But unfortunately, in so many of these areas, in so many of these states, that’s not the case.
Janitorial is primarily Latino and immigrant. Security is primarily African American. SEIU has 2.1 million members across the country. Here in Colorado we have about 6,000 members. (Service sector jobs) are the fastest-growing jobs, so they are jobs that people can actually get. And then they tend to be low-wage jobs, so, unfortunately, it’s easier for minorities to get into those jobs. Take janitorial, for example. Before we started to organize the janitorial industry, before we launched our Justice for Janitors campaign 20 years ago, janitors around the country were making as little as $4. Obviously it was not considered a dignified job, let alone a profession. And so that was part of the reason why we focused in on helping to organize those janitors, to make sure that we were actually working to professionalize the industry.
We’ve certainly made strides. Here in Denver, for example, our average janitor is making about $11.17, which is about three and a half dollars higher than the Colorado minimum wage, which is good for sure, but it’s still a low-wage job. I would like to think the gaps are going to start narrowing again, largely because of the fight for a fair economy that I think really kicked off this last year. We call it the fight for the fair economy. Occupy calls it the fight for the 99 percent, but ultimately it boils down to the same thing. Frankly, there’s too many people at the top, the one percent, that are making money hand over fist at the expense of our workers. And I think the workers in general are starting to recognize there has been a divide and conquer mentality for far too long and that rich CEOs and big corporations have gotten away with pitting workers against their fellow workers, saying no you don’t deserve a pay raise or no you don’t deserve a pension.
And I think that while it’s only just begun, there are some tremendous seeds of hope around workers actually starting to stand together, whether you’re Latino, or white or black, actually coming together and saying you know what, we’re all in the same boat and if your ship is sinking, my ship is sinking, too. I think that the wealth gap between workers and CEOs is extravagant, outrageous, and I think that workers are starting to come together to bridge that gap and as we bridge that gap we’ll also start to bridge the gap among the races.
It’s not just wealth. It also comes down to respect and dignity on the job. So many workers are in low-wage work where their employers basically run roughshod all over them, where their employers don’t give them the opportunity to advance into management, or advance into the next economic (level). Then you’re going to continue to see that wealth gap grow and grow. In fact, most of the studies we’ve seen at the union point to the fact that as the decline in union goes, so too goes the decline in the middle class. In our high water mark of about 35 percent union across the country, in the ‘50s, the middle class was really at our peak, really thriving. But then today, as we’re in one of our low-water marks, at just 12 percent union density across the country, we also see the gap between middle class and wealth has taken off dramatically.