In the past eight months at least 10 reports were issued by statewide advocacy groups such as the Connecticut Housing Coalition, Connecticut Voices for Children and the Connecticut Association of Human Services, all focusing on the problem of persistent poverty in Connecticut's cities and the state's growing income divide between the rich and the poor.
One report said Hartford's poverty rate is even higher than pre-Katrina New Orleans. So what options are available to public and elected leaders to reverse this bleak state of affairs?
Many people believe that the best anti-poverty measure is a job. But any job, regardless of low wages and lack of benefits? Several of these reports note that close to two-thirds of low-income families have at least one member who works and yet they are still in poverty. If you are a mayor or elected official from Hartford or another city, do you want more for your residents?
Big projects such as downtown convention centers, sports arenas and entertainment venues are being built across the country to revitalize cities. Yet there is skepticism that these projects can do much to address the poverty in the neighborhoods that surround them, unless there are guarantees in terms of what kinds of jobs can be created and who gets the jobs.
Some policy-makers and analysts decry the decline of manufacturing jobs because they provide a decent living standard for workers.
Yes, they do - but why? What is intrinsic to manufacturing jobs that they bring higher wages? Manufacturing has been highly unionized and this translated into better wages, benefits and working conditions. With the decline of unionized manufacturing jobs and the disappearance of other so-called good jobs, fewer opportunities exist to provide economic mobility for those in poverty.
Service jobs are notoriously low-paying because there is less unionization among those workers. Unions such as Unite Here! (a hotel and restaurant workers union), the Service Employees International Union and others that organize service workers are trying to turn these jobs into family-supporting jobs.
And policy leaders - mayors and governors and local and state legislators - who think that unionizing low-paying jobs is a good thing can take a great deal of heat for their support.
The same folks who criticize leaders for supporting unionization are comfortable, however, supporting massive public subsidies and tax breaks for the developers of the projects that employ these service workers.
Statistics point to the difference a union can make to service and hospitality workers. According to the United States Department of Labor, in 2005 the median weekly earnings for all unionized service jobs nationally was $624, compared with $392 for non-unionized jobs. For leisure and hospitality workers the comparison was $510 for unionized jobs vs. $405 for non-union jobs.
Differences in some specific jobs were: for food preparation, $442 for unionized jobs vs. $392 for non-union jobs; and for building and grounds maintenance, $518 for unionized jobs vs. $378 for non-union jobs. Over a year, two years or five years, these differences mean thousands of dollars for an individual worker. If you break down workers by race, ethnicity and gender, the same patterns hold: Unionized workers earn more than non-union workers.
Why don't more workers join unions? Because our labor laws are very weak in protecting workers' right to organize. Employers flagrantly violate labor law with few penalties, especially during organizing drives. Human Rights Watch chronicles all of the ways in which the United States offers little protection to workers in its report "Unfair Advantage." Former U.S. Rep. David Bonior helped form an organization, American Rights at Work, that also reports on the difficulty of unionizing. It says that so far this year, 9,900 people have been fired by their employers for trying to form a union.
Given this backdrop, unions are trying to figure out how to level the playing field. A negotiated process in which both sides agree to standards of behavior and treatment of workers can alleviate a lot of stress and ill-will for all parties.
This is what labor peace involves and it has been implemented in other cities. This can help resolve the labor questions at the Connecticut Convention Center and the Marriott Hotel in Hartford.
The workers at Adriaen's Landing deserve no less than the best effort by all involved. It is sound public policy to defend their right to organize a union so that they, too, can get a bigger piece of the American Dream.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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