Bread and Roses

Article from Houston Chronicle. View original article at http://blog.chron.com/thepeacepastor/2012/09/bread-and-roses-for-houston%E2%80%99s-low-wage-workers/.

 

I am excited to share this guest post from Laura Perez-Boston, Director of the Fe y Justicia Worker Centershe is a long time friend of mine who has taught me a lot about wage theft, effective protest practices, how to sustain love for the least of these, and the importance of faith in walking the long journey of justice. Follow the Worker Center’s twitter feed @EndWageTheftHTX. Happy Labor Day!

 


These are exciting times in Houston. The U.S. Mayor’s Conference recently declared our metropolitan area the leader of gross metropolitan growth in 2012, and projects that Houston will grow faster than any other city[1]. Houston-based Fortune 500 companies saw their profits increase 30% in the past year. We are expanding, diversifying and attracting employees from all over the country and world. These are exciting times, but we have to pause to ask how the city will grow. Will we continue to lead the nation in highest percentage of minimum wage, dead-end jobs, who will benefit, and what is our plan for ensuring an improved quality of life for the poor and vulnerable of our city?

 

As we take a step back this Labor Day to survey the state of basic workers’ rights in our community and ask these questions, it turns out the prosperity of our city is not shared.  The economic inequality[2], the pervasive exploitation of low-wage workers in the form of wage theft[3], and high incidence of injury and workplace fatalities[4] remind us more of the early 1900s than of a booming 21st century Houston.

The stories Houston’s low-wage workers bring to the Fe y Justicia Worker Center indeed also echo the voices of the young Italian, Jewish and Irish immigrants working in the garment industry in the early 1900s. The methods of how employers manipulate working conditions to make an increased profit off of the backs of their employees have changed, but essentially the strategies are the same. Too many Houston employers cut corners refusing to rent or purchase the trench box or scaffold base necessary and required by law to protect their workers. A recent study estimates that $753 million dollars in wages are stolen from low-wage workers each year whether in unpaid tips, overtime or simply weeks of work. Above all else, the worst part is that many times employers get away with it.

 

My friend Carol [name changed at her request], has years of experience working in the floral industry, but even her experience and knowledge of the industry wasn’t able to shield her from her employer’s greed and schemes at her last job at D’Elegance Florist who withheld over $7,500 of her earned wages. Carol is independent and proactive and filed a wage claim with the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC).

The TWC’s investigation concluded that she was owed $7,602.70 for back pay and overtime violations. However, what seemed like an initial victory proved to be a frustrating ordeal for Carol when she was met with the harsh reality of many workers in her situation.

The owner of the shop, Melissa Bates, not only refused to pay but also astutely changed her bank account creating a moving target for the Texas Workforce Commission. The TWC was only able to recover $985.07 out of the total amount owed to her. After almost a year of the initial wage theft incident, Carol still has not been able to collect the more than $6,000 remaining on her case.

Carol lost her home and her car because of this theft of wages, and now finds herself staying with her mother and her daughter, switching off so as not to overburden one or the other.

 

You might imagine the unpaid wages were Carol’s main motivation for coming into the Worker Center, but what she most desired was respect. She did, of course, want to recover the wages since we all need to put bread on the table, but the lack of appreciation for the value of her efforts was what bothered her most.

Carol took a stand devoting her time and limited gas money to filing the wage claim in order that that specific workplace would improve after Ms. Bates learned that workers will stand up for themselves. She took a stand at Houston City Council meetings in tandem with the voices of other Fe y Justicia Worker Center members in order that the mayor and council members might pass an ordinance to put real consequences in place for unscrupulous employers who steal their employees’ wages. She marches and gives her testimony because her vision is that one day all work would be valued and provide for a family’s basic needs.

We still want bread and roses, too, just like our immigrant brothers and sisters of the first half of the 20th century who fought to win us the 40-hour work week, basic safety and health standards, and this glorious weekend that I hope you each enjoy!

The following poem by James Oppenheim was written between 1908-1912 and is called, Bread and Roses

Massachusetts National Guardsmen with fixed bayonets surround a parade of peaceful strikers in the famous "Bread and Roses Strike"

As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses
For the people hear us singing, bread and roses, bread and roses.

As we come marching, marching, we battle too, for men,
For they are in the struggle and together we shall win.
Our days shall not be sweated from birth until life closes,
Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread, but give us roses.

As we come marching, marching, un-numbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread,
Small art and love and beauty their trudging spirits knew
Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses, too.

As we go marching, marching, we’re standing proud and tall.
The rising of the women means the rising of us all.
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories, bread and roses, bread and roses.

 

 

Marty Troyer is the pastor of Houston Mennonite Church: The Church of the Sermon on the Mount, a church connecting faith and labor.  You can join us anytime in Spring Branch, or visit us online athoustonmennonite.org.Marty tweets @thepeacepastor.

You might also like my previous posts on Wage TheftLabor, and Economic Injustice (all of which were new for me until I met Laura!).

[1] http://houston.culturemap.com/newsdetail/07-23-12-unstoppable-national-mayors-conference-projects-houston-will-grow-faster-than-any-other-city/

[2] http://www.nelp.org/page/-/Job_Creation/LowWageRecovery2012.pdf?nocdn=1

[3] http://www.hiwj.org/images/stories/Wage_Theft_Report_May_2012.pdf

[4] http://www.buildtexas.org/Building%20_Austn_Report.pdf

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