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Labor Day report on wage disparity isn’t news to area’s working poor

Tuesday September 04, 2001

By Hank Sims 

Special to the Daily Planet 


The temperature Monday was a Labor-Day perfect 70 degrees, and plenty of people were on their way to Cesar Chavez Park with their kites and rollerblades. Or else they were headed up to Tilden to throw the Frisbee, fire up the grill and drink to the summer of 2001. 

Meanwhile, about 60 dedicated souls gathered at North Gate Hall, on the UC Berkeley campus, to talk labor issues and to hear a presentation on a major new economic survey of the East Bay. Among those giving up the peak hours of the holiday were city councilmembers Linda Maio and Kriss Worthington.  

The survey, just published by the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, is titled “Decade of Divide: Working Wages and Inequality in the East Bay.” With charts, statistics and first-person narratives by workers below the poverty level, it argues that the phenomenal economic boom of the last decade was actually a disaster for the East Bay’s working poor. 

Amaha Kassa, EBASE’s co-director, welcomed those who attended the discussion by congratulating them on their political involvement. 

“Today is a day that people tend to spend with their families, barbecuing or playing at the beach,” he said. “But we felt that it was important to spend at least part of the day talking about labor.” 

Howard Greenwich, EBASE’s director of research and principal author of “Decade of Divide,” presented the major points, and some of the more alarming findings, of the new study.  

“In the 1990s, overall prosperity could not bridge the gap between rich and poor,” he said. 

The top 20 per cent of East Bay workers saw their paychecks rocket up 17 percent over the last 10 years, when adjusted for inflation. Meanwhile, the bottom 20 percent saw their real wages drop by 2 percent.  

Equally disturbing, said Greenwich, was the fact that while the state of California added around 900,000 jobs to the economy in the last decade, the number of jobs that paid between $25,000 and $55,000 actually decreased by 100,000. Jobs that paid less than $25,000 increased by 700,000. 

“The days when you could find a good blue-collar job with a high-school education are gone,” Howard said. 

After the part of the presentation concerned with quantifiable data was over, Kassa invited some of the people whose personal stories appear in “Decade of Divide” to speak to the assembly. 

Han Yan Wu, of Oakland, talked about the difficulty of covering the bills and the impossibility of getting ahead on her family’s three full-time salaries. 

“Over the last three years we have shared an apartment,” she said. “Besides what we need for food, transportation and housing, there is no space to move forward in our lives.” 

Wu, who is 55, said she feels lucky to earn $7.25 per hour – minus the $81 per month she remits to her employer for health care – in an electronics assembly plant. 

The EBASE report ended with a series of recommendations, including living-wage ordinances for the Port of Oakland and the city of Richmond, affordable housing and stronger anti-discrimination workplace laws. 

During the discussion, Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson, whose district includes Berkeley, thanked the EBASE members for their work, and said that given his experience in government, he could support their recommendations “without exception.” 

“Government clearly does have a role in stepping in and dealing with these issues,” he said, and in fact has a mandate to provide essential services, including transportation, education, and food and housing assistance for the most needy of its citizens. 

“Do I pay for health care? Do I pay for child care? For transportation? For food? Those are the kind of issues that we see on the county level.” 

Carson added several recommendations of his own to the EBASE list, including the reintroduction of education in the trades at the high school level, more efficient and effective public transportation and affordable health care. 

“We’ve gotten away from universal health care in this fight, and we need to get back to it,” he said. 

Kassa ended the presentation by announcing that on Sept. 11, EBSE would appear before the Oakland city council to ask support for a “living wage” ordinance for the Port of Oakland. Three thousand of the port’s 22,000 workers are currently earning below-poverty wages. 

As the event was breaking up, Judy Goff, the executive secretary-treasurer of the Alameda County Central Labor Council offered all present $10 tickets to a Labor Day rally and a baseball game, the Oakland Athletics versus the Baltimore Orioles, at the Coliseum. The A’s were to honor nine “iron men” of the labor movement, including Elena Griffing, who has worked at Berkeley’s Alta Bates Hospital for the past 49 years. AFL-CIO president John Sweeney was to throw out the first pitch. 

The East Bay Alliance for Sustainable Democracy can be reached at 893-7106.