Houston Chronicle L.M. Sixel column [Houston Chronicle]
(Houston Chronicle (TX) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Sept. 02--It was mostly janitors and fast-food and other low-wage workers on the front lines last week protesting their pay, but the movement for a "livable" wage may resonate with a broader swath of Americans who lost ground during the recent recession.
"We're in a situation where a quarter of Americans are earning poverty wages," said Arne L. Kalleberg, author of "Good Jobs, Bad Jobs." For a family of four, that's a little less than $24,000 a year.
The rallies across the nation last week focused on boosting wages to $15 an hour, which is more than double the federal minimum of $7.25.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that in the next decade, seven out of 10 of the fastest-growing jobs will be in low-wage industries such as fast food, personal services and retail, said Kalleberg, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina.
Middle-income jobs such as manufacturing, clerical and administrative roles are not growing as quickly.
"Lots of folks are working hard and not getting anywhere," he said. "Frustration is boiling over."
That growing sense of polarization gave rise to the not-so-distant Occupy Wall Street movement that spread around the country. While the rallies have stopped, the rallying cry about the "top 1 percent" lingers as shorthand to separate the highest earners from everyone else.
Those protests capitalized on the seeming inequality of working hard yet not getting ahead, said Kalleberg. The latest round of protests at fast-food restaurants for a $15 wage is an extension of that growing movement that's not as much about unions as it as about social values, he added.
Honking their support
On Thursday during the lunchtime rush in front of a Galleria-area Burger King, many cars and trucks drove by honking to show their support for the protesters. With each honk, cheers erupted from the crowd of 100 waving signs that said, "We can't survive on $7.25" and "Fight for $15."
"It's no longer a class-warfare argument," said Stephen Klineberg, Rice University sociology professor.
"It's a recognition of the condition of the working world and more people are saying it's not acceptable," said Klineberg, who has a wealth of data from three decades of annual surveys of Houstonians to gauge changes in their attitudes on the economy and other issues.
Earlier this summer, the Economic Policy Institute calculated that it requires an annual income of $63,600 for a family of two adults and two children to have an "adequate but modest living" in the Houston area.
Health care takes up the biggest chunk -- $1,380 each month to pay insurance premiums and out-of-pocket costs -- while child care is the second-biggest expense at $961 each month, according to the report based on a variety of government and private data.
"It's not going out to restaurants," said Natalie Sabadish, a research assistant at the Economic Policy Institute and co-author of the report. Or money for vacations, savings accounts, Internet, cable and cellphones.
People at every income level were hurt during the recent recession. Many lost their jobs and haven't been able to find new ones; others have suffered as their work has been contracted out to third-party operators that don't provide sick or vacation days. Raises are a distant memory for many.
Wages flat or falling
The National Employment Law Project grouped 785 occupations into five equal percentile groups, based on median wages.
Between 2009 and 2012, inflation-adjusted wages fell for every segment, according to the study. But declines were greater in the lowest-wage groups.
"There is something real about the wages story," said Christine Owens, executive director of the nonpartisan group that conducts research on issues affecting low-wage and unemployed workers.
Companies have recovered their footing and CEO compensation packages are growing, but many people's wages are falling or flat, said Owens.
"People are just getting mad," she said.
Reginald Davis earns $8.18 an hour as a full-time custodian for Aramark at the George R. Brown Convention Center.
In the most recent round of contract talks, Davis and his co-workers, who are represented by the Service Employees International Union, were offered a 1 percent raise.
"That's eight cents," said Davis, who has been working at the convention center for four years. Employees have no sick days and no vacation days.
"Basically we just have a check," said the 40-year-old Davis, who was wearing his work shirt with the "GRB" logo. He said he is searching for a second job to make ends meet.
The city of Houston wasn't aware of the situation until union officials met with city officials on Friday about wages and benefits at the convention center, said Janice Evans, spokeswoman for Mayor Annise Parker.
She said the city will take a "hard look" and will meet with Houston First Corp., which manages the George R. Brown Convention Center and several other city-owned properties.
"It is not in keeping with the way we want to do business in Houston," the spokeswoman said.
If it's a city-owned facility, the city has the right and the responsibility to set a minimum standard of livable wages, said Richard Shaw, secretary/treasurer of the AFL-CIO of Harris County.
"The city shouldn't be subtracting from the economy," he said, if the workers have to rely upon tax-supported public health care facilities for medical care.
An Aramark spokesman said the company would not comment because it's in the process of negotiating a new contract.
A Houston First spokesman said the group does not want to comment.
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