Ehrenreich urges economic justice movement

By Michael Funke, Special Correspondent

BEND - National Writers Union member Barbara Ehrenreich urged an audience of 800 to build a local movement for economic justice in remarks at Central Oregon Community College Oct. 26.

Ehrenreich, author of the bestseller "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America," drew applause when she stressed that union organizing and living wage campaigns are crucial to improving the lives of low-wage workers.

"Nickel and Dimed" - one of the top 10 best-selling non-fiction books at Powell's Books in Portland - explores how Americans, especially women who were pushed off the welfare rolls in the mid-1990s, are getting by on low-wage jobs. Ehrenreich's conclusion - after working at Wal-Mart and as a cleaning person, nursing home aide and waitress - is that they are failing to make ends meet and slipping deeper into poverty.

Ehrenreich was invited to Bend by a coalition of unions and community organizations working on local economic issues. What follows comes from her presentation in Bend and an interview with the Northwest Labor Press.

One thing Ehrenreich says she came away with was a greater appreciation for the work of low-wage workers.

"These jobs were physically hard and mentally challenging," she said, explaining how she was given little time to master the computer ordering system in a restaurant, memorize the health condition of dozens of Alzheimer patients, and fathom the ever-changing shelving policy at Wal-Mart.

"No job is unskilled," said Ehrenreich. "Every job takes skill and intelligence and deserves respect." But respect is hard to come by at $7 an hour, she added. "Employees have a work ethic. But employers don't have a pay ethic."

The biggest challenge Ehrenreich faced as a low-wage worker was finding an affordable place to live. In Minneapolis she was forced to live in a residential motel that cost $245 a week for a room with no kitchen-more than her weekly paycheck after taxes.

"I worked alongside women who were homeless," said Ehrenreich. "If you work, you should have enough to live on."

"We need to understand that the market doesn't solve all of our problems," she added. "We can get hundreds of shades of lipstick and all kinds of breakfast cereal. But the market doesn't provide basic needs for people."

Housing is a good example, she says. "If you're making $7-8 an hour and competing for the same land and space as someone who is wealthy, who is going to win? Not the low-wage earner. We need the involvement of the public and non-profit sector, including unions, to stop the relentless decline in affordable housing," Ehrenreich stressed.

Ehrenreich's remarks on wages and housing hit home in Central Oregon, where the unofficial slogan is "Poverty with a View." Almost 60 percent of new jobs in the region pay $28,000 or less and the top five projected growth jobs in the area are all in retail, food preparation and clerical - where wages average between $17,000 and $20,000 a year, before taxes. Housing costs in Deschutes County went up 56 percent in the 1990s, while income increased just 20 percent. One-third of county residents live in unaffordable housing, but 28 percent of newly-built homes cost over $400,000.

While affordable housing was her toughest challenge, Ehrenreich said the biggest surprise she found when she entered the low-wage workforce was "the dictatorial nature of the workplace, the distrust and intimidation of workers. You really do check your civil liberties at the door. We think of ourselves as citizens, but our rights are really regulated in the workplace."

At Wal-Mart, Ehrenreich recalled, "they dictate what size earrings you can wear. And it is not uncommon to be told that you can't talk to other workers. Employers are afraid of what might happen if workers talk amongst themselves."

One thing workers need to start talking more about, she noted, is organizing a union. "We need to stop the reign of terror in the workplace and stop making it so difficult for workers to join unions." Ehrenreich suggested that unions need to bring a "crusading spirit" to their efforts to organize low-wage workers, and that they should consider opening membership to any interested worker even if a workplace isn't fully organized.

"You could pay lower dues than a worker with a contract in a workplace," she explained, "but you could have access to legal help and other benefits."

Ehrenreich urged unions and community activists to work together on living-wage campaigns. Over 90 cities and counties have adopted living-wage laws since 1984, raising the living standards of public workers and those who work for employers that have government contracts or receive tax subsidies.

"America's low-wage workers," Ehrenreich concluded, "are the nation's principal philanthropists. We are all in debt to them for clean homes and workplaces, food service, and the care of our children and the elderly. As one worker told me, 'You give and you give.' It is time to end the involuntary philanthropy of the poor.' "

After her presentation, local activists signed up people to work on a living-wage campaign while union members provided information about organized labor in Central Oregon. Low-wage workers were invited to tell their personal stories at

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Michael Funke is National Writers Union delegate to the Central Oregon Labor Council. Central Oregon residents who want to work on living wage issues can contact him at 541-317-0252 or

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