Our new war on poverty

December 12, 2013

Bob Simpson reports from Chicago on a new show of strength by low-wage workers and their ongoing struggle to win a living wage, in an article written for Daily Kos.

"Poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings."
--Nelson Mandela

THE U.S. has a new "War on Poverty." But this one isn't being led by a U.S. president, but by the low-wage workers of this country.

The Workers Organizing Committee of Chicago (WOCC) is a part of this national movement, demanding a minimum wage of $15 an hour and a union for retail and fast food workers. This Fight for 15 campaign is a key part of the larger low-wage workers' movement.

Way back in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared in his State of the Union address, "This administration today, here and now, declares an unconditional war on poverty in America."

As part of his War on Poverty, Johnson proposed an ambitious set of social programs rivaling those of Franklin Roosevelt during the Depression of the 1930s. But Johnson's War on Poverty ended in surrender beginning in 1968 because of the costly Vietnam War and the election of Richard Nixon.

Chicago protesters rally in the Fight for 15 at low-wage employers
Chicago protesters rally in the Fight for 15 at low-wage employers (Bob Simpson)

Although it did not end poverty, the first War on Poverty was not the total failure that many critics label it. Largely a response to the civil rights movement, it gave us critical social programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start and the Food Stamp Act. Today, the U.S. has some of the worst poverty of any wealthy nation, but it would be far more devastating without these programs.

Just ask today's fast food and retail workers, many of whom depend on Medicaid and food stamps because of their poverty wages. Now low-wage workers' groups like WOCC are taking up the unfinished business of ending poverty in this country by raising wages and organizing unions.

The low-wage workers' movement is very diverse and includes adjunct college professors, car wash workers, port truck drivers, janitors, farmworkers and more. I recently learned that one-third of bank tellers live in poverty. Maybe they'll be the next to join.

A Day to Fight Poverty in Chicago

"I get paid on Thursday and I'm out of money by Thursday."
--A Chicago Sears worker and WOCC member

I hopped off the Damen Avenue bus into the 6 a.m. frigid darkness of West Side Chicago on Thursday, December 5. It was the national "McStrike Day," when fast food and retail workers in approximately 100 towns and cities were expected to walk off their jobs. The bright lights of the corner McDonald's were augmented by those of TV camera crews.

I could hear chants from the handful of Fight for $15 demonstrators already on the sidewalk: "Beat back the Mac attack!" "Hold on, wait a minute, let me put some $15 in it!" "Hold the burgers, hold the fries, I want my wages super-sized!"

A few minutes later, three school buses pulled up, packed with WOCC members and supporters. More people continued to arrive, and I counted over 200 people on the sidewalk and on McDonald's property, holding signs and chanting. A 10-foot handmade puppet of the Grinch was the center of much attention and many cell phone cameras. Trucks, buses and cars on busy Chicago Avenue honked their horns in support, gaining cheers from the picketers.

There were a few workers inside the McDonalds, despite the call for a strike. Because of the artificially high unemployment in Chicago, some workers are afraid to protest because they fear being replaced in retaliation.

Local TV stations had set up microphones on the sidewalk as other media people walked about conducting interviews. Jessica Davis, who is a single mom with two children said, "It's embarrassing to go home to your family with how little [money] you have to bring to the table...I'm six credits away from a Bachelors degree in sociology, but I can't finish because I can't pay for it."

Davis must rely on food banks and Medicaid to survive.

Akilarose Thompson told Britain's Guardian newspaper, "It is so depressing. You put a smile on because you're in customer service and you have to. But on the inside, it really breaks you down when you're always at work, but you're always broke." Another McDonald's worker facing a wage cut told the crowd, "Stand up and fight because we can't take it no more!"

As the sun rose over the buildings to the east, WOCC organizer Caleb Jennings led the Grinch and the WOCC picketers in a march around the McDonald's before stopping at the drive-up window, effectively closing that service for about 20 minutes.

Shortly afterward, WOCC members boarded the buses for the next destination, Snarf's, a sandwich shop a few blocks east. Snarf's had already been shut down by the workers when we arrived.

I spoke to Snarf's worker Kate Ziegler. Ziegler, who is also an actor and an artist, explained that Snarf's has no clear policy on raises. Everyone starts out on minimum wage, but according to Ziegler, many people have never received any raises. After two-and-a-half years, she still only makes $9.50 an hour. She went on to say, "Chicago is an expensive city to live in, and I think it's unfair how low the minimum wage is. Also, who decided to quantify retail and food industry workers to be paid so low when all of us work so hard?"

After saying good-bye to Snarf's with the chant, "We'll be back...we'll be back!" we headed for North Michigan Avenue and a march through the Loop, Chicago's traditional downtown area. We loudly repeated chants like, "We can't survive on $8.25! Fifteen dollars will keep us alive!" as we visited McDonald's, Walgreens, Macy's and Nordstrom, with longer stops at Sears and Wendy's.

At Sears, workers eagerly took the bullhorn to lead chants and tell their stories as we crowded around the State Street entrance, with the police keeping us from totally blocking it.

With the beat of WOCC drums and the sounds of chants as background, I spoke to Elmer Rayhead Jr., a worker at Walgreens. When asked why he became involved with WOCC he said:

I've got to make a stand for my family, so meeting up with WOCC, I finally have a voice, and I can actually use it with a group of people who are on the same wavelength as I am--people who are trying make something better for our families. It's a voice that is going to be heard, instead of just me fighting up against the wall for a better living and a better wage.

Alfred Dellahousaye, a worker at Forever 21 on Chicago's Magnificent Mile told me that he was one of the original members of WOCC when it consisted of only 22 people. "I joined just for respect in our workplace and unity and a living wage," Dellahousaye said. "I believe everything is going up except wages. Gas is going up. Rent is going up. It's really hard to manage your bills making a low wage of $8.25." WOCC membership is now over 2,000, according to one WOCC activist I talked with.

At Wendy's, WOCC members had slipped inside before the main group arrived, and according to a WOCC member, had attempted to pay for their orders with a massive amount of pennies. I watched as they were escorted out by police with no arrests. Although the police tried to keep the entrance open, the sidewalk was so blocked I saw very few customers going in.

I had to leave when the Wendy's protest ended, but after a lunch break, WOCC headed for Chicago's South Side and the south suburbs for more actions.

Poverty Is as Serious as a Heart Attack

"We are the backbone of the company. We watch the money come in every day, only to go home with just a fraction of it."
--A Chicago McDonald's worker

Poverty is no joke in Chicago. This is a city where 87 percent of the public school students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and over a third live under the federal poverty line. Poverty is the biggest enemy of Chicago school student performance as outlined in a report by the Chicago Teachers Union and Stand Up Chicago.

Poverty results in foreclosures and homelessness. It is associated with malnutrition. It destabilizes families and entire communities. It is associated with domestic violence and street crime. Poverty also creates high stress levels, which are exacerbated by the stresses of Chicago's traditional racism and segregation.

Stress contributes to the health problems created by poverty by directly attacking the immune system. Rates of stroke, diabetes, coronary heart disease and cancer are much higher in Chicago's poorest neighborhoods. Poverty also contributes to more homicides.

Poverty kills.

Poverty as a Policy

"I want to say that we won't stop until we get a livable wage. We're out there in the cold. We've been out in the rain. The strikes will never end until we get what we are looking for."
--WOCC member Alfred Dellahousaye

WOCC members are all too familiar with the little ways powerful corporations enforce poverty in addition to their refusal to pay a living wage. Poverty is profitable.

Kate Ziegler described how Snarf's set up a complicated rating system for determining raises where workers had to score at least the 90th percentile. It turned out that scoring that high "might possibly result a raise, so people still don't get a raise." Snarf's workers got 500 people to sign a petition supporting their strike for better pay from people in the large office building where the shop is located. According to Ziegler, "We sent them to corporate [headquarters], and we didn't hear anything."

Sears worker Roy Jackson is a commission employee in the Sears electronics department. He makes $6 an hour plus 1 percent commission on what he sells, which comes out to $7 on a $700 TV. He asked, "And just many $700 TVs do you think I sell in a week? Or even two weeks?"

Elmer Rayhead Jr. is a worker at Walgreens. He started at Walgreens in 1996, but has only seen small raises of 8 cents or 15 cents, so not much has changed for him. According to Rayhead, "Walgreens came to the conclusion this year that they are not going to be doing raises."

Companies will often refuse to give workers regular hours and will change their shifts arbitrarily, making it difficult for them to go to school and improve their job skills. They can fire workers who become ill rather than extending them sick leave.

Companies will also retaliate against those who speak out to frighten others into silence. According to Tyree Johnson, a McDonald's worker with 21 years experience, his hours were cut to 12 a week. "I gave the managers the respect, but as they see me on TV, and they see my protesting and talking to the media about McDonald's, they hold that against me," Johnson said

Then there are the big ways corporations enforce poverty: All in the name of neoliberalism, the latest incarnation of capitalism, with its egregious excess for the wealthy and ruinous austerity for the working class. For example, the CEO of McDonald's saw his income tripled to $24 million this year.

A portion of the mega-profits collected by corporations that pay poverty wages are invested in think tanks that put out misleading propaganda against raising the minimum wage, against unions, against Medicaid, against food stamps, against Social Security, against Medicare and against any efforts to overcome racial and gender discrimination.

Fast-food and retail workers are stereotyped as deserving nothing but poverty because of their supposed lack of ambition, their supposed lack of education, their supposed personal irresponsibility and the unspoken inference--because since so many of them are female and/or workers of color--of their supposed social inferiority.

High-powered corporate law firms are hired to file lawsuits against efforts to limit poverty. Legislators are bought off through campaign contributions to pass laws that keep poverty firmly in place. Attempts to expand public employment to reduce joblessness are stymied. Social programs like unemployment compensation and food stamps are slashed. Money that should be going to pay a living wage to retail and fast food workers is instead being converted into weapons against them.

Our high rate of poverty is a policy of mega-corporations and their allies in government. As a lifelong socialist, I personally believe that poverty is an integral part of the capitalist system, yet some capitalist countries have a much lower poverty rate than we do.

So yes, our high rate of poverty is a policy. And it is a policy that kills. It is societal mass murder. Yet those most responsible walk free and are rewarded handsomely for their efforts.

So What Happens When We Win?

"I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win!"
--A popular chant at WOCC picket lines and rallies.

I've been a supporter of WOCC almost since its very beginning. While no one believes that winning this new War on Poverty will be easy or that the struggle will be won quickly, people are optimistic. And $15 an hour would be a good start toward making further gains through the union that WOCC members are organizing.

When I interviewed workers, I asked them how their lives and the lives of other low-wage workers would change when they do win that $15 and a union.

Alfred Dellahousaye said:

Man, that would definitely change the world. We would each have enough money to buy presents. Pay bills on time. Fill up the refrigerator. It would be great for everybody, considering that minimum wage hasn't been raised in I don't know how long.

Kate Ziegler said:

I know that when people have more money to spend, it's better for the economy because they spend it more. I know that if I had more money, it would make my life better, and if it were more widespread, there would be better for the thousands of people who are worse off than me...I feel it would make the city feel happy overall because a lot of people are collectively disgusted about the low wages.

Elmer Rayhead Jr. said:

Oh wow! For one thing, we wouldn't have to juggle. We have to decide whether it's going to be rent or health insurance. Or car insurance. Or do we cancel the car insurance and the health insurance to pay rent. So we don't have to juggle all that, or we won't have to tell our kids who will be disappointed that I can't do Christmas or birthdays this year because I don't have enough.

As for me, I see people with more time and resources for their children, their schools and their communities. People with more to spend in their neighborhood, helping small businesses stay alive and creating jobs. Fewer evictions. Fewer foreclosures. Less need for public assistance. Better physical and mental health. A reduction in personal violence. People furthering their education, becoming involved in hobbies and recreation, which besides being personally fulfilling, can also be job and income creators.

I'll end with words from Julie McKelphin, words that so emotionally moved me as we stood shivering at the corner of State and Madison next to the downtown Sears:

I believe in the humanity of man. I believe that people just need to be enlightened. I think at times people get so misguided by greed that they forget we are all connected. When one person suffers, everybody suffers...We're all here together on this planet. We all breathe the same air. When people start realizing that, maybe there will be more compassion.

First published at Daily Kos.

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