Living-Wage Dream, Workers See Hope Despite Long Odds
March 11, 2010
Rosa Villanueva exited a union rally at the giant HomeGoods distribution center in Bloomfield Wednesday toting a UNITE HERE sign and holding hands with Hector Feliciano, father of her children and a fellow warehouse worker.
Villanueva and Feliciano work at TJMaxx in Worcester, Mass., which, like HomeGoods, is owned by the TJX Cos. They support five children on less than $13 an hour each — and that's after a new contract with 50-cent raises.
"We've got to save every penny," Feliciano said.
Not rich, but on this day, in this place, they were one of the well-off couples, bused in from two hours away to support their less fortunate brethren in a fight over pay.
Workers at HomeGoods, which opened six years ago with tax breaks, average just $9 or $10 an hour, according to their union, UNITE HERE. The 540 workers there are locked in contract talks with TJX.
They're seeking a wage hike — a big one, enough to put them on par with the TJX distribution centers in Worcester and Fall River, Mass.
"I don't expect no 50 cents," said Denise Morales, 33, who supports a father and two children on $10.05 an hour moving large merchandise at the HomeGoods facility.
She's looking for at least a $1-an-hour boost. And here's the kicker: Morales has a good feeling about this one.
She must be nuts. Consider the facts: Connecticut's 9 percent unemployment rate means there are 170,000 state residents out of work and actively looking.
A pro-labor U.S. president who took office 14 months ago has made almost no headway on issues for workers.
For 30 years, working poor people and moderate income-earners have seen their wages slip against inflation year after year — in good times and bad.
Workers at all levels have seen scant raises lately. The U.S. Department of Labor reported a 1.5 percent increase in wages and salaries in 2009 — the lowest on record, according to Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a pro-labor think tank in Washington.
"I'd be pleased but amazed if there's upward wage pressure," Mishel said Wednesday, considering the high jobless rate and the recent pay trends.
Corporate profits, he noted, are on track to regain pre-recession levels, one year after the stock markets began a historic rebound. But, he said, "Just because they have it doesn't mean they're going to share it."
TJX has had a particularly profitable few months, logging $1.2 billion in net profits in the year ending Jan. 30, up sharply. That gives Morales her measure of hope — that, along with the worker unity she's feeling.
The regional head of UNITE HERE, Warren Pepicelli, an international vice president, doesn't see companies opening up the pay spigots at the bargaining table. "It's getting worse, not better," he said after the rally, which TJX closed to the media.
Despite all this, I don't think it's nuts at all for Morales and Frank Bates, her chief union steward who earns $11 an hour as an order processor in the rug department, to feel a sense of optimism.
This recession will bring watershed changes. Among them, workers' pent-up anger combined with relentless corporate profits may lead to a national re-examination of the reckless culture that has led to this cancerous imbalance.
Call it a naive dream, but the sharing of corporate wealth, even at a cost of a few cents to consumers, would be good for an ailing economy. It is almost spring, there is growth, and the Kansas City Royals are in first place along with the New York Yankees.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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