Remarks of Bruce Popper
Wedge Wage: Organizing for a Living Wage
Historic German House
Rochester, New York
March 5, 2015
The release of the Community Foundation’s poverty study in December, 2013 provoked yet another public dialog about the poor of Rochester. Since that time, a variety of solutions have been put forward and commissions appointed.
What this conversation has lacked is the basic premise that most poor people work. Rochester historically enjoyed a higher than average wage because of manufacturing (a highly unionized sector) but a below average wage in its service sector. So, as the economy shifted to services – health care, higher education, and others – household income dropped. In the 2010 census, Monroe County saw a drop of over 10% in household income in the preceding decade, the only such county in New York State.
While executive salaries skyrocketed with million dollar hospital, insurance, and corporate CEO’s, income and wealth inequality expanded exponentially.
In the face of these disastrous developments, poor workers fought back. 4,000 tried to form unions. Their efforts were professionally and brutally repressed. 600 workers signed up with my union in the last three years yet they are not members since they could not gain recognition in a bargaining unit.
Like the 4,000 others, these health care workers were misled into a failed strategy. Although collective bargaining is the most powerful organizational form for workers, it has not been successful in Rochester.
We in the union movement therefore now face a choice: are we a business servicing its members or are we a movement for economic and social justice?
If we are the movement we claim to be, then we must be smart and flexible in our strategies. We must engage in new forms of organizing that reaches out to all workers, not just union members. There are too few union members left to win, and most of them are fighting just to hang on to what they have negotiated in their contracts, and most of them are moving backward.
In a recent speech in Rochester, Professor Peter Edelman said that low wages are the single largest cause of poverty. Over one half of all full time jobs in the U.S. now yield an annual salary of less than $30,000. If we want to attack and end poverty in Rochester, we must attack low wages and organize the resistance of low wage workers. It is right. It is time. It is our moral duty.