Today it was announced that SEIU 503 supports a living wage for its workers and is taking it to the bargaining table. Hooray!! While President Obama has proposed an increase in the Federal Minimum Wage to $9.00 an hour, SEIU has a better idea. They don't believe that is the solution. Oregon's minimum wage is close to what Obama is proposing but 800,000 Oregonians are receiving food stamps and 30% of the applicants are currently working.
The union is saying that no state employee working full time should still qualify for public assistance. The proposal they are making is to raise the wages to at least $30,000 per year which would be slightly above the threshold for a family of four to receive food stamps. They estimate this would help 5.69% of the work force.
But there is another issue that hit some of us. Heather Hoffman, the Statesman Journal's columnist who is assigned to keep an eye on those pesky state workers actually dug up some interesting statistics. First she dug into a list of state employees and their salaries. She found that the lowest paid full time worker makes $23,340. But what was most interesting was that when she looked at salaries by agency she found that "many of the people in the pay sector below $30,000 worked for Department Of Human Services (DHS)". But what she didn't continue to pursue does not require a lot of research. The answer to the question is easy to find. What is the gender breakdown of those workers in the agency that has the most number of workers who could qualify for food stamps? Anyone who has worked for DHS knows that answer. Or anyone who has walked into an office where food stamps or other poverty level assistance applications are being received knows the answer. These workers are predominately women.
So here we are again. In 1987 when SEIU went on strike, (the historic rolling strike), one of the main issues was pay equity for women who were in job classifications that were predominately female and undervalued. In the preparation for that strike women workers spoke out in public hearings, met with women workers across the state and then voted overwhelming to strike. In fact Michael Krivosh, the chief strategist of the strike, affectionately referred to our strike as, "my mother's strike". Not only did we get pay increases for those undervalued job classifications it changed the face of the union - literally.
So now we are in 2013 and we are not looking at predominately female job classifications. But we are looking at the agencies with the most women workers and they are the same agencies that have the most workers who qualify for food stamps. We are living in a system that continues to use women as a source of underpaid labor. We fought against it in 1987 and we need to fight against it again.
No changes of any magnitude will come about without organized pressure from women themselves. Certainly no effective strike will happen without women activists stepping forward. And for those of us who have gone through this struggle 20 some years ago, we know that this fight requires a prolonged and consistent commitment. It didn't end in 1987 and it won't end in 2013 but we can achieve victories along the way if we just do not give up.