Wages Start Low, Lifetime Income Stays Low

New Orleans   Joe Fox, an old comrade and friend visiting New Orleans yesterday, dropped by for a cup of coffee at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse on St. Claude, a tour of WAMF-LP, and a bit of nostalgia over the more than forty years we’ve worked with and known each other. We reprised an old story that centered on him, but that I have also repeated for years.

Somehow in the late 1970s fresh out of Harvard Business School of all places, Joe had applied to work at ACORN, and I had hired him not as an organizer, but to build other operations for us in the hopes of creating additional sustainability. Quickly, he was deployed to develop and build our radio station in Tampa, WMNF, and help get our station in Little Rock, KABF get on the air as well. Joe was magic to the task, creating an income stream to build the station between a door-to-door canvass and grants as well as a notorious and perhaps reckless stint of climbing the tower to secure it in Florida before a storm. The story though that we have both told repeatedly revolved around a report that Harvard Business School published in its magazine touting the enhanced income its graduates were going to make with their degree. Someone was the high, and Joe, working for ACORN was the low, pulling down the average that year. Joe reminded me as we talked that when we won the CORAP grant to receive 100 VISTAs in 1978, that ACORN had to raise its salary schedule so that there was no resentment because all of the VISTAs would be paid more!

According to the recently released Census Bureau report annual income has risen for the second straight year to the point the average American household is making just north of $59,000 per year, over a 10% increase in the last two years. Statisticians and economists note that this is still just catch up. According to the Times, “In 1973, the inflation-adjusted median income of men working full time was $54,030. In 2016, it was $51,640 — roughly $2,400 lower.”

Researchers from the Social Security Administration have done a deep dive into their huge database and have begun to report that the loss of income for workers has a lot of causes that are often cited from deindustrialization to automation to stagnant wages in the service sector, but that the issue of lower pay actually starts young and lasts forever, depressing lifetime earnings. What they are finding is that depressed wages at 25 years of age may end up as significantly decreased lifetime earnings even after 30 years of work at 55 years of age. And, it’s been falling like a rock. The Times’ report says that “according to one conservative measure of inflation, in 1967, the median income at age 25 was $33,300; in 1983, it was $29,000. Twenty-five year-olds did better during the 1990s, but then the slide returned. In 2011, the median income for 25-year-old men was less than $25,000 — pretty much the same as it was in 1959.”

I started working around 1967, though I wasn’t 25, but 19. If the median income was $33,3000 then, it was still over $30,000 in 1978, when we were raising wages to about $5000 per annually at starting to match VISTA paychecks, not counting the reserve ACTION held for the end of their service when they mustered out. When Social Security sends me my income statements, and I’m sure Joe laughs at this as well, even though he is a successful businessman in Little Rock running the iconic Community Bakery, it seems to have taken me until 1982 to crack five-figures.

Next time I see him, and so many others, I hope they remember all we accomplished from our youth forward, rather than blaming me for a reduction of their lifetime income.


Please enjoy Earful by the Oil Boom

& Lee Ann Womack’s All the Trouble.

Thanks to KABF.


Silicon Valley Rising Reports Subcontractor Organizing Success

New Orleans  A comrade and friend sent a report of some good news for labor organizers over the magic of the interweb this morning from Bloomberg News. The brief story focused on the work of Silicon Valley Rising, a coalition of unions and community-based organizations centered around San Jose, California.

The bottom line is that 5000 new contract workers were organized over the last three years. Some of this has gotten wide attention, particularly the Teamsters effort to organize shuttle drivers running the transportation for Facebook, but others efforts have been more invisible to the public, like security workers picked up by the Service Employees International Union on direct recognition without participation of the National Labor Relations Board, and cafeteria contractors through the efforts of Unite Here. Bloomberg indicates the success has come from pressuring a wide range of big name, who’s who tech companies:

…they’ve unionized shuttle drivers at Apple, Tesla, Twitter, LinkedIn, EBay, Salesforce.com,Yahoo!, Cisco, and Facebook; security guards at Adobe, IBM, Cisco, and Facebook; and cafeteria workers at Cisco, Intel, and, earlier this summer, Facebook.

The coalition is on the move according to Derecka Mehrens, former head organizer of California ACORN and now executive director of Working Partnerships USA, a California-based nonprofit, long an advocate for workers. “If you want to get people to buy your product, you don’t want them to feel that buying your product is contributing to the evils of the world,” says Silicon Valley Rising co-founder Derecka Mehrens. Tech companies have been image-conscious and closely watched of late, she says, and the coalition is “being opportunistic.”

The coalition is fishing in a big pool as well. A study done last year in a partnership with Mehrens organization and Chris Benner, a professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz and director of the Everett Program, where ACORN International was fortunate to host three interns assisting our hawkers union in Bengaluru this summer, indicates there is still a lot of work that can be done.


Benner predicts as many as 78,000 people are in positions indirectly impacted by the contracting practice of high-tech firms. An estimated 19,000-39,000 are in low- and medium-wage occupations, more when outsourced white-collar jobs, such as sales representatives, couriers and messengers, software developers and computer programmers, are accounted for.

Besides good solid organizing, research tracking and opportunistic deployment of resources, there’s another lesson for labor here, and that’s persistence. As Bloomberg notes, a lot of the work builds on the success of SEIU’s Mike Garcia and Jon Barton and their years of work in the vineyards to organize the janitorial subcontractors at Apple, Hewlett-Packard, and other tech conglomerates. My favorite action in the campaign was when they launched boats in a pond abutting one of these companies with their call to organize, but let’s stick to the subject.

A long piece in the New York Times that compared the hard ceiling on wages and opportunity for subcontracted and union-represented janitors at Apple with direct company hired cleaners at Kodak in Rochester in the last century was painful to read. Increasing wages and security is a start, but one of the things that these tech gazillionaires and their companies are still “disrupting” is any prospect of equity in our economy or society as they continue to strip economic and job security from workers everywhere in their footprint, while keeping many in the shadows.

It’s a long road, but Silicon Valley Rising is hacking their way through it.