Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘minimum salary’

Stephanie Land's 'Maid' shows the limits of hard work in struggle to survive the U.S. economy

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2019

How could Stephanie Land’s book Maid not make a splash, with the opening sentence, “My daughter learned to walk in a homeless shelter,” and a follow-through that lives up to the impact of that sentence? A splash it has made, debuting at number three on The New York Times bestseller list over the winter, and now being turned into a TV show and making former President Barack Obama’s summer reading list. Land’s book tells the story of years spent scraping by as a single mother to her daughter Mia, patching together government aid and work cleaning houses while coping with inadequate housing, inadequate child care, an abusive ex, and the constant stress and pain involved in all those things. But it’s also a challenge to its readers, pushing us to reckon with the comprehensive stresses of poverty, the importance of government assistance, and—for those who can afford to have someone else clean their homes—how to do the ethical thing (more on that coming soon, at least for people living inWashington, D.C., Baltimore, and Boston).

Maid is a beautiful book and a sad book and even, at times, a joyful book—a story of a mother’s love for her daughter—but most of all it’s an important book about the U.S. economy and what it does to people. Maid is filled with keen observations of the houses Land cleaned—she first broke through as a writer with a Vox piece about what she saw in those homes—and devastating details about what it takes, as a low-paid service worker, to make comparatively wealthy customers happy: ignoring the copious amounts of porn in one house, or the pills in another, dealing with the dog poop on a beige carpet. Getting every last hair out of a tub coated in the owner’s bath oils.

Land also weaves into that narrative the insecurity, indignity, and fear involved in poverty—the doctors who suggest she’s a bad mother because poverty is making her daughter sick; the moments when a client does treat her as a human being, a peer, moments that shine through because they’re so unusual; the vulnerability to heat and cold and mold in a shoddy apartment; the need to keep an old car running; the physical pain and hunger. “I walked along a deep precipice of hopelessness,” she writes. “Each morning brought a constant, lip-chewing stress over making it to work and getting home without my car breaking down. My back ached constantly. I dampened my hunger pangs with coffee. It felt impossible to climb out of this hole.”

Part of the reason this works so powerfully within the framework of the stories the United States tells about itself, of course, is because Land is so middle-class in her tastes and aspirations—because the next sentence in the above passage is, “My only real hope was school: an education would be my token to freedom.” Because she wants her daughter to eat fresh berries and drink organic milk, because she see books in a man’s apartment as an attraction, because she is someone who can write her way out of poverty. She is tailor-made to appeal even to people who don’t support a strong safety net or who don’t see low-wage workers as worthy of respect. But Maid is an important book about U.S. politics precisely because Land is constantly aware of how exactly that works in her life—how the people around her don’t see her as someone who is, who could be, desperately poor. How her friends and employers don’t imagine her to be on government aid as they sneer at and insult people on government aid, people that she keenly points out are always seen as other in a way she is not.

Land is crystal clear that she survived with the help of government assistance: Chapter 5 of the book, in fact, is titled, “Seven different kinds of government assistance.” She shows powerfully how difficult that assistance is to access and how inadequate to her needs it is. And she is equally clear about who doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt while she, as a white woman working her way through college, did, writing about a cleaning client—someone from whom she needed employment—railing, “Last time I went to the big store, I got in line behind a Mexican family … They used food stamps to pay for their food. And those kids were dressed to the nines!”

In that moment, Land writes, she kept cleaning the woman’s house, biting her tongue and thinking “of how much Mia loved her fancy dresses and shiny shoes, which I purchased with credit from the consignment store. Maybe Donna didn’t realize I was on food stamps, too.” She goes on:

I wanted to tell Donna that it wasn’t her business what that family bought or ate or wore and that I hated when cashiers at the supermarket said “On your EBT?” loud enough for people in line behind me to hear. I wanted to tell her that undocumented people couldn’t receive food benefits or tax refunds, even though they paid taxes. They couldn’t receive any benefits at all. Those were available only for people who were born here or who had obtained the documents to stay. So those children, whose parents had risked so much to give them a good life, were citizens who deserved every bit as much government help as my daughter did. I knew this because I’d sat beside them in countless government offices. I overheard their conversations with caseworkers sitting behind glass, failing to communicate through a language barrier. But these attitudes that immigrants came here to steal our resources were spreading, and the stigmas resembled those facing anyone who relied on government assistance to survive.

That’s a passage that speaks especially loudly in the era of Donald Trump, of course, while reminding readers that Trump didn’t create this kind of bigotry.

In some of Maid’s most poignant moments, Land permits herself to dream, briefly, of luxuries not available to her. There are the tickets to a Mariners game, offered to her by a client, that are “a dream I’d had since I’d been Mia’s age,” but that she can’t use herself because she can’t afford the gas money. Or the time she “noticed the hot tub with an empty bottle of champagne sitting in the corner” at a home she’s cleaning and “My body ached, yearned for even a chance, just one opportunity, to drink champagne in a hot tub.” I dearly hope that the book’s success has let her live out those, and other, daydreams. But you shouldn’t have to write a bestseller to get a single afternoon or evening of fun and relaxation, and it would be difficult for me, at least, to enjoy a kitchen that’s clean because someone else was doing painful labor and still living in poverty.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on September 2, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

“We Demand Food for Thought”: UIC Grad Workers On Strike for Living Wages and Respect

Thursday, March 21st, 2019

In front of the historic Jane Addams Hull-House Museum on March 19, University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) graduate workers began an indefinite strike. The union is joining a national movement of higher education employees demanding livable wages and better working conditions in the often-unstable field of academia.

The strike is the result of more than a year of negotiations between UIC Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) Local 6297and the university administration. Since September 2018, over 1,500 teaching and graduate assistants have worked without a contract. An overwhelming 99.5 percent of UIC GEO members authorized a strike last month as part of a wave of educator work actions, from public school teachers in Los Angeles and West Virginia to faculty at Rutgers University and Wright State University. Jeff Schuhrke, co-president of the UIC GEO and labor history Ph.D. candidate, said the strike exemplifies the vital labor graduate students provide.

“The University of Illinois system just seems to not care about its employees and is always very hostile to collective bargaining and to unions,” Schuhrke told In These Times. “They just try to lowball us and they disrespect us. We’re fed up with it, obviously.”

UIC graduate employees make a minimum salary of $18,065 for two semesters of 20-hour work weeks, with $13,502 in fee and tuition waivers. Schuhrke said this doesn’t account for the amount and quality of labor, which can include teaching classes for up to 60 students. He said since the union was recognized by the university in 2004, “modest” raises haven’t accounted for increasing university fees, which cut into graduate employees’ salaries. Currently, UIC GEO is seeking a 24 percent pay increase over three years, with the university offering 11.5 percent.

“They can give us raises all they want,” he said, “but as long as they can just introduce new fees any time they feel like it or increase the fees, that just serves as a back door pay cut.”

In recent years, the university has boasted record-high enrollment and projects to improve existing infrastructure and invest in academic expansions, including recently acquiring the John Marshall Law School. Schuhrke said, “The reason students come here is for an education, not the shiny new buildings, and we’re the ones providing that education.”

The strike is already having an impact on campus with some classes canceled. On the sunny Tuesday afternoon outside the bustling UIC Student Centers, hundreds of graduate students and allies picketed with clever signs like, “We Demand Food for Thought,” and classic protest chants, such as, “This is what democracy looks like.” A giant inflatable Mother Jones representing the iconic socialist labor organizer watched over the crowd. UIC GEO also organized a GoFundMe to cover strike costs and potential docks in salary, which Schuhrke said the university might use as a scare tactic.

Many striking students said they don’t make enough to pay for living expenses and rely on food aid and other assistance. A Ph.D. student in the biology department who prefers to remain anonymous said he’s working on getting Medicaid for his young child, as he can’t afford campus health care, even with a waiver.

“Better salaries is an important step: lower fees, lower tuition,” he said. “Those things really impact us because we don’t have huge salaries, so every small amount that we can save is a huge help.”

International students who, according to Schuhrke, make up a little under half of the GEO UIC members, are also central to bargaining. They face an additional fee each semester, as well as work limitations, particularly during the summer.

Dominican Republic-native Natalia Ruiz-Vargas came to Chicago to complete a Ph.D. in biology, but said the financial strains can be alienating for people who are not U.S. nationals. “If you have family back home and you’re alone over here and someone gets sick, you can’t really find the money to go back, so it can be a little lonelier,” she said. “We can’t apply for any financial aid outside of what we already have from the university.”

When reached for comment, the university sent a press release that highlighted the union’s right to demonstrate, but stated, “We believe that this work stoppage is not in the best interest of the University, or our students.” While striking graduate assistants aren’t completing instruction, mentoring and coursework revision, many of their students are expressing solidarity.

English and political science undergraduate Joseph Strom is part of the UIC Student and Worker Advocacy Network. A resident assistant on campus, Strom said the strike is an opportunity to educate students about labor issues instead of pairing co-eds against their educators. He said some of his professors are expressing support by giving online work so they don’t have to cross the picket line. The UIC United Faculty union is also currently in negotiations, having worked without a contract since last fall.

GEO Co-President Schuhrke said, “We talked to a lot of our students beforehand and let them know why we’re doing this, that our working conditions are their learning conditions.”

Members of GEO University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in Southern Illinois are coming to Chicago to increase demonstration numbers, as they go up against the same administration. In February 2018, the UIUC GEO led an almost two-week long strike for higher salaries and guaranteed tuition waivers. The plastic buckets that provided a soundtrack to their picket are now being used by UIC students. UIUC GEO treasurer Allan Axelrod, who studies agricultural and biological engineering, is spending spring break making multiple trips with fellow graduate students.

“We understand all the issues that are going on there, especially things like the higher incidence of mental health issues that is a product of the poor working conditions of graduate employees,” said Axelrod. “When we show solidarity, we actually are paving the path toward improving our own working conditions because we’re under the same threat each bargaining cycle.”

For Axelrod and others, this extends beyond the public university system. A 2016 National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision granting private university students employee status has galvanized student workers to organize through collective labor. Only a few miles from UIC’s Near West Side campus, University of Chicago graduate students have fought since 2007 for recognition of their Graduate Student Union (GSU). Last fall, they participated in one of their school’s biggest demonstrations in recent years, a response to their overwhelming vote in favor of unionization despite administrative pushback.

GSU brought its case to the NLRB, but withdrew along with Yale University and Boston College, worried that under President Trump, a business-friendly Republican majority would overturn the 2016 precedent. Further, last year’s Janus Supreme Court decision prevents public sectors unions from collecting dues from nonmembers. Co-President Schuhrke said they saw a slight membership decrease following Janus, but it “made them more militant and more angry.” No matter how long the UIC strike lasts, graduate students are clearly using it as a teachable moment.

“This [university] administration has a great responsibility,” said Schuhrke. “We hope our students are learning by participating in this and watching this how to stand up for your rights, stand up for justice and organize.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 20, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hannah Steinkopf-Frank is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Atlas Obscura, Bitch Media, the Columbia Journalism Review, JSTOR Daily and Paper Magazine, among others.

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