Working toward a 'living wage' Groups unite in push toward higher wages for unskilled laborers

September 01, 1996|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN STAFF

Every night Willie S. Lee enters the service elevator at the World Trade Center and ascends to the 19th floor to take up her part in the troubling economic drama playing out in America's cities.

Duster in hand, squirt bottle aimed against fingerprints on glass, Lee bears the armor of the low-tech worker struggling for solvency in a high-tech world. She earns her living cleaning. Until July, she earned the $4.25-an-hour minimum wage, with little hope of advancement.

Today, after six years of cleaning Baltimore's World Trade Center, Lee is earning $6.60 an hour. Recruited and encouraged by a new alliance of church and labor, the World Trade Center cleaners successfully campaigned for a "living wage" that would begin to move them out of poverty.

"I was so glad," Lee says. "If you want something, you have to work to get it. We stuck with it, and it paid off."

Across the nation, a rediscovered partnership of labor unions and church leaders is taking up the cause of the poor. Baltimore has been a leader in this revitalized relationship since 1993, when the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees joined the living-wage campaign undertaken by Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, the church- based community organization known as BUILD. Since then, the BUILD campaign has been emulated in 30 other cities.

"The religious alliance is a growing part of the labor movement," says Joe Lawrence, spokesman for the Baltimore office of AFSCME. "And it is especially distinctive here in Baltimore."

The disappearance of jobs and the plunging value of low-skilled labor have been steadily debilitating cities. Douglas Nelson, executive director of the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation for disadvantaged children, calls that loss in earning power the greatest threat to America because it has polarized society between those who can support a stable family and those who cannot.

Nearly 17 percent of Maryland workers earn less than $6 an hour, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. They are part of a work force under siege, unskilled workers bearing the brunt of an economy that is shifting full-time jobs to part-time -- no benefits provided -- and creating minimum-wage jobs at the expense of middle-income work.

Every night, Willie Lee's job offers a vivid panorama that painfully documents Baltimore's own collision with the new economic imperative.

As Lee dusts, she circles the building. She cautiously navigates the Garfield figures clustered on a computer. ("These computers just suck in the dust," she says. "You have to watch them.") Here, off the northwest side of the building, looms a thicket of tall office buildings. Sleek and sure, thrusting upward, they are the Baltimore of tomorrow, the luxury hotels and high-rise office buildings of the downtown renaissance.

Lee is deeply attentive -- to signs of dust, not the absorbing view. "I've been here so long," she says, "I don't pay any mind." She works her way toward the southwest, past an abandoned platter of pasta salad, around a flower arrangement with balloon-message floating above ("Because You're Special").

Vanished opportunities

Here the enormous windows offer an unflinching view of the Baltimore of yesterday. In the distance, Bethlehem Steel floats in the summer haze. Jobs existed there once, jobs that took the minimally skilled and gave them the kind of wage that let them buy a house and bring up a family. Most of those jobs are gone.

The new jobs are in the tall office buildings; they pay very well or very poorly, with hardly anything in between. There are information-oriented jobs, and the fast-food jobs that feed them and the janitorial jobs that clean up after them.

Of 20,400 new jobs created between 1970 and 1990, says Marc V. Levine, director of the Center for Economic Development at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, about half paid over $40,000 and half paid under $20,000.

The large number of unskilled people seeking jobs in the city has depressed the lower end of the pay scale and encouraged the trend toward part-time and temporary jobs. Welfare reform may only exacerbate that pressure by forcing even more workers desperate for any kind of job into the market.

"This is a radical shift," says Jonathan Lange, BUILD's chief organizer. "It's as radical as the shift from agrarian to manufacturing jobs. You had to have the American industrial labor movement to deal with that one. Now we're trying to organize a labor force to deal with the new temporary, part-time work force."

Willie Lee dusts six floors a night, from 35 to 40 offices on a floor, working in a three-person team. The trash puller precedes her, the sweeper with his vacuum pack strapped to his back follows her. They are expected to take 36 minutes for each floor.

Johnny Jackson, a cheerful supervisor, stops to observe. "I make eyeglasses during the day," he says. "It's a good job, with benefits and all. But I have three sons, and it isn't easy. So I do this at night."

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