I would like to set the stage for this evening’s film by drawing some connections to Rochester.
The film we are about to view depicts the struggle of a group of low wage workers, mostly immigrants, many of them undocumented, working on the east side of Manhattan. They’ve been ripped off in their pay, not paid even the minimum wage, and they’ve received no overtime compensation. Their working conditions are all too typical of employment in 2015.
In December, 2013, the Rochester Area Community Foundation issued a detailed report on the region’s poverty, with an emphasis on the concentration of poverty within the City of Rochester. Depending on the source, Rochester has the 3rd or 5th worst child poverty rate of the top 100 cities in the United States.
In researching a response to the study, later published in City Newspaper, I found, contrary to common perception, that poor people had been fighting back in what amounted to an invisible class war. Nearly 4,000 workers, mostly low wage and disproportionately people of color, had attempted to form unions in the previous ten years. Fierce employer resistance had stopped them from improving their economic standing.
You will see some of the typical dynamics of worker organizing in the film. Most workers do not make it through the gauntlet set before them.
As a result of the Rochester establishment’s “rediscovery” of poverty, Professor Peter Edelman was invited to town. He spoke to more than 500 individuals in a downtown hotel last January, including many of the very villains who break up union organizing and others who pay poverty wages. Edelman said, “We have become a low wage nation.” Of nine factors he cited as contributing to poverty, by far the most important was low wages. Fully half of all full-time jobs pay an annual salary of less than $35,000, an income too low to be self-sufficient in Rochester today.
A high level commission was formed that has focused on bringing people out of poverty. But in this initiative, there has been little talk about raising wage levels for the tens of thousands of workers who head households and work in fast food, health and human services, retail, and hospitality — jobs that are not going away any time soon.
We in the labor movement know that the only real solution to poverty is to dramatically increase wages, and that can only be done by the workers themselves.
The Hand That Feeds documents one approach to worker organizing. Our post film discussion will talk about the Fight for $15, another approach to worker organizing; and what is happening right here in Rochester.