Lost In The Supermarket #78

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Interview with Emily Harry of the Richmond Coalition for a Living Wage -Jan, 2004

1.What is a living wage? Why is it important? What are the issues at hand (in Richmond)?
    A Living Wage is the minimum wage plus the “Cost of Living” for an area. This is determined by things such as how much it costs to have an apartment and other living expenses. In Richmond, as in many other cities, the Living Wage Ordinance also includes basic healthcare. In the City of Richmond it is $8.70/ hr. plus benefits, or $10.50/hr.without benefits.
    A Living Wage is important because even though the Cost of Living rises on average 3-4% each year, most people are not getting raises to meet that inflation. In fact many people are seeing holds on wages for years, and also they have seen cut backs to more part-time work. In Richmond we have a lot of people sleeping in shelters, in the CARITAS system (church shelter program), or on the streets, while at the same time going to work for the City through contract at minimum wage. Many people are homeless, working through contract for the City of Richmond, while the city manager makes $70/hr. All current direct employees of the City of Richmond make a Living Wage, but there are still about 500-600 folks employed through contract to work for Waste Management, janitorial services, and leaf pick up at $5.15/hr and no benefits.
2. The Richmond Coalition for a Living Wage (RCLW) has been in existence for over four years now. If you could, please give a brief historical overview of the group. What were the initial objectives? How did the group come together? What has been accomplished thus far?
    The RCLW was successful in fighting for a Living Wage for all direct employees in May of 2001. The RCLW has always been focused on economic justice. The idea behind the strategy is that we work from the inside out, fighting smaller battles until we can achieve economic justice for all workers. We started with the direct employees of the City of Richmond because the City Council had to be responsive to taxpayers, after all, it is our tax money that pays (in part) the wages. During the first meeting, our current Mayor Rudy McCollum said that he was all for the Living Wage, “just give him something to sign.” It was in a time of an economic upswing, when most Americans were doing all right. The gap between rich and poor was slowly growing.
    The group has always been a small organization with many allies in the city, a Coalition of faith based, community groups, and individuals whose target has remained the City Council and its many (unsuccessful) “economic development” projects such as the Sixth Street Marketplace (failed downtown mall, now demolished) and the brand new Convention Center. The current fight, as hinted to before, is for the contract workers. Much of what we do is work with Day Laborers, folks who get a job just for a day making only minimum wage. The City hires through temp agencies for cheap labor and a disposable workforce.
3. The demise of the industrial sector in Richmond and most other former manufacturing cities has left a large population of skilled laborers relying on low to moderate skilled labor work, often in the form of temp labor pools. What are some of the specifics about how these labor pools operate? Who do they benefit? Who is the population that is employed through them?
    At most agencies, the company is paid about $12-15/hr for each worker, but then the person actually doing the job is only getting $5-7/hr. Our target however is not the Temp Agencies themselves, but the city who chooses to keep people in poverty.
    There are dozens of agencies all over Richmond, and the way it works is that anybody can walk into the establishment, fill out tax forms and their name is called to do any number of different jobs. If you ask anyone who works for the agency, they’ll tell you that the company, such as USA Staffing, is getting over on them. USA Staffing continues to make money when the City chooses to do business with them, sometimes even making about $8-9 dollars per worker per hour. The agency provides a van ride out to the job site and then the person doing the job gets a bus ticket back, both of which are taken out of their check.
    From getting to know a lot of the guys who come out at dispatch time, I would say that the majority of the people who take the jobs are black men aged 18-55. Many of them are clearly not sober, and often they do not have addresses to write down on our petition. Most of the Agency managers are white males. It seems that Temp agencies are profiting from addiction problems and if you ask any of the guys out there, they’ll tell you that there’s a lot of folks coming out to get their fix for the day.  Others say their pay won’t afford them housing, but it will buy beer to keep warm or self-medicate for depression. This is not nearly the whole population, and there are many people who do Temp work while in transition.
4. Richmond City Council, private investors and elite civic and business organizations have been (and continue to) pump[ing] hundreds of millions of dollars into the supposed "revitalization" of downtown. How is the city complicit in the exploitation of temp workers? How will all of the new downtown development impact the homeless and temp laborers in the city?
    About 15 years ago the city decided to move towards contracting work. Many of their contracts are with Temp Agencies. This is not new, a lot of major cities are doing just that. By continuing to use Temp agencies, the city is keeping people in poverty.  It’s the same ‘race to the bottom’ in wages being fought against in the global justice movement, only on a local scale.  The RCLW has continually tried to use the democratic process and bring this to the attention of the city. It hasn’t worked for some time now.
    After Sept. 11, state and city budgets were cut in order to gear up for the war economy. The money just isn’t there, is what city council says. However, the city finds money to spend on new Convention Centers for rich people from the suburbs to come in and spend their money. In fact, a shelter that was part of the Daily Planet (local homeless service center) system, specifically designed for homeless folks needing addiction help, was torn down to build the Convention Center. With the newly proposed location of the Freedom House to 17th and “O” streets, the city seems to find money for geographical segregation of homeless folks, and yet chooses to ignore real systemic change.
5. What level of involvement do the worker's themselves have within the organization?
    Since the target has been city council, we hold rallies and press conferences outside of city hall, where many workers have spoken out about the conditions. Also there are workers who have spoken directly to city council during the public comment period. We have monthly meetings, where there are usually 10-15 workers present. Since there are a lot of homeless folks that do Temp work, the field organizer for RCLW holds meetings at CARITAS sites in order to get people doing temp jobs involved.  This is just the beginning of a long term goal of developing real leadership among low wage workers and turning this into a worker led movement.
6. Where is the group today? What are the current battles and what's in store for the future?
    The group is currently still fighting for a Living Wage for all contracted employees. There has been discussion of starting something like a “nonprofit temp agencies,” owned and operated by the workers themselves, which would thus reduce the exploitation of workers. This agency would pay a living wage, but it is a long way off. The fight must continue to be against the city because the city holds the high dollar contracts that agencies want. The immediate goal is to have the
    City of Richmond pass an ordinance that would set a standard of decency to only higher agencies that would promise to pay a living wage, and not minimum wage, poverty wage or slave wage as many the workers say.  But long term, we’re working with lots of organizations for worker justice for all Virginians and in solidarity with people’s struggles around the world.
7. Contact/ Group Information
    To get in contact, email  Emily Harry at harryem@vcu.edu, or rclw@riseup.net. Monthly meetings are on the first Thursday at 7pm at the Pace Center for Campus and Community Ministry, 700 W. Franklin St. RVA 23220

Closing Notes: Complete Control #11 is now out and is available for $2 ppd. It's a tour journal from roadying with the band Operation Cliff Clavin in 1997. Speaking of zines, keep sending your zines, newsletters and pamphlets to our ever-growing radical library, The Flying Brick. If you're passing through and want to visit the library call 804-644-2544. For all orders, donations and correspondence please write to: PO Box 5021 Richmond, VA. 23220. Take Care, Greg