Living Wages Not Poverty Wages: It’s Time To Make California Gold Again

August 1, 2013

I was inspired today by the courageous workers in Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Flint, highlighted in the New York Times here. Two weeks ago at the Oakland Airport, hundreds of residents, families, and workers demonstrated supporting non-union fast food workers on strike. California Partnership members and I joined in picketing against Subway and other bad employers, demanding they treat their workers with respect. What does this have to do with California Partnership’s work, you might ask? An enormous amount, I’d say.

If you’ve followed our work this year, you know that California recently became the state with the highest rate of poverty in the country. 8.7 million Californians, nearly one quarter of the entire population in the state, are now living in poverty, according to a new measure from the U.S. Census Bureau. This is not an accident- we know that eliminating social safety net programs such as healthcare, housing, and welfare, as California has done at a devastating rate over the past decade, leads directly to driving families deeper into poverty. California Partnership has worked for the past several years demanding an end to the shortsighted budgeting policies of valuing corporate tax breaks over people’s lives.

We also know, however, that in order to provide families in California with enough to thrive, that we need more than a robust safety net. We need a robust economy with dignified, living wage work. Oakland Airport’s fast food restaurant workers are fighting for living wage jobs, health care coverage, and the right to organize. They come from the same communities that are also fighting for access to housing in Los Angeles, healthcare in Coachella, and child care in Fresno. They are the same families who live in the state that boasts the name the Golden State, but has been denying its residents access to the California Dream.

Fast food and retail workers nationwide are organizing outside the bounds of the traditional union, and are bringing the crisis of poverty wages to the forefront of our national conversation, where it deserves to be. They’re demanding that corporations who are posting record profits begin to recognize the dignity of who does the work. They, and we, are demanding that government steps in and institutes and maintains living wage ordinances, health care assurances, and protections for those willing to organize. They, and we, are demanding that our social safety net be restored and expanded to give every Californian enough to thrive. In order to build the state our communities need, we join with these workers pushing for economic justice. The time has come to reshape our economy. We welcome the activity to the West Coast and we’re excited to join the fight.

Over the next several months, California Partnership will be asking our communities: what do we need to build a road map to a prosperous California? What does your community need to be whole? We’ll be holding community gatherings, surveying our members, and building a forward looking campaign to tangibly reduce poverty in the next five years, build a robust and responsive safety net, and grow the strength and resilience of our communities. Our families, our state, and our workers deserve as much.

Pete Woiwode is an organizer with the California Partnership, a statewide coalition of anti-poverty organizations. You can contact him at [email protected]