Low Wage Workers Organize to Stop Exploitation

By Dan Kerr

            I have been a long time activist on homeless issues (since 1993) and was homeless myself from 1993-1995.  In 1995 I came to Cleveland, and in 1996 I entered a doctoral program in history at CWRU and co-funded the local chapter of Food Not Bombs.  Given my own recent homelessness, I decided that I wanted my own research to revolve around the oral histories that I began collecting from people who were/are homeless in Cleveland.  Right from the start it became clear to me that the temp agencies played a major role in the organization of homelessness.  However, it wasn’t until the fall of 1999 and spring of 2000 that I began to bring together groups of temp workers to discuss the situation collectively.

            Early on in 2000, we discussed whether the homeless temp workers wanted to make a concerted effort to support the Living Wage ordinance sponsored by Jobs With Justice.  Although it was clear from the start that the Living Wage ordinance would not directly affect the majority of homeless workers, it was believed that it may impact some of them and benefit the rest by laying the foundation for a larger struggle to get a living wage for all workers.  As a result of our decision to support the campaign, we gathered several hundred cards in support of the ordinance that were sent to City Council, produced our own pamphlet (“Why Cleveland Needs a Living Wage: Vices of the Homeless”), and showed up in numbers to several rallies and hearings at City Hall.  Eventually the ordinance was passed and it soon became clear that the ordinance would not have any direct effect on the workers I had been meeting with.

            During our involvement in the campaign, I met with HERE labor organizers and the folks at JWJ to talk about the issues of homeless workers.  Neither were prepared to address the issue for understandable reasons.  HERE was committed to other campaigns and JEJ was overwhelmed with its activities.  Steve Cagan at JWJ said the first step for the homeless workers was to begin organizing themselves.

            As a side note, all of the temps who work at the IX Center have had to first go and sign up and pay dues at the Teamsters Hall.  However, of all the workers I have talked to who have worked at the IX Center as Teamsters, none of them were paid better or received any more benefits than when they are sent out to other non-union shops.  There are no benefits at all from being a temporary Teamster.  The Teamsters, in this case, are generally perceived by day laborers as one more pimp.

            We decided that we would form an organization that would directly address the issues of homeless temp workers.  Following the advice of the JWJ, we decided to organize ourselves and form our own democratic group to represent the interests of these workers.  Again, we had a series of weekly meetings, and pieced together a list of grievances and a platform to address these grievances.  After extensive dialogue, we came up with a name for ourselves. – The Low Wage Workers’ Union.

            The reason this name was chosen was principally because the homeless workers wanted to develop connections with the non-homeless workers who depended on the same agencies they did during the day.  Many worker themselves became homeless as a result of previously having to depend on the temp agencies for work.  We agreed at that meeting that what all these workers had in common was that they were low wage workers  It was also agreed that the only way they were going to address their situation was if they collectively organized.

            While we had not run across any union that was actively organizing these workers, we decided that we wanted to ally ourselves with the best of what the labor movement as a whole represents to us.  So we democratically decided to call ourselves a union.  The name is a rank and file name that came from the bottom up.  It is a name that homeless workers in Cleveland collectively arrived at. 

            So far we have collected two hundred signatures for a petition that we designed to ban the temp agencies from the Salvation Army.  We developed a code of conduct for labor agents that we are seeking to get enacted in all social service agencies that provide for those in extreme poverty.

            Any gathering of poor people gets the temp agents salivating.  We are now looking to improve the lives of low wage workers by demanding justice from the temp agencies.  We have also gotten the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH) to assist with our organization efforts.  (We are a distinct and autonomous organization that is not directly affiliated with NEOCH; however we do work in coalition with NEOCH.) Josh Green of the Free Times weekly newspaper worked with us in writing his grown breaking article on temps.  Green has done some splendid research.

            We have produced our own pamphlets and buttons and after our initial flurry of activity have spent some time more recently developing our own organizational structure so that we can be a truly democratic membership organization.  Currently we are developing a committee of organizers that is going bring together low wage workers in the women’s shelter and other drop in center and food spots in the city.  Our hope is that when members get housing and develop relationships with other workers on the job they can start up other locals in neighborhoods across greater Cleveland.

            Some have suggested that our name is inappropriate.  They feel people may mistakenly believe we advocate low wages.  As of yet, I have never met a person foolish enough to believe that.  Honestly, I don’t think it is likely that we will change our name.  Perhaps in the long run, the organization will decide democratically to change its name (if we are successful we could become the Long Wage Workers Union) or affiliate with another more established union.

            For the time being, we have decided that it is important for low wage workers to set their own agenda and develop their own strategies since they are the noes currently suffering from the trepidations of the neo-liberal or what some term the new-conservative economy.  Our hope, however, is that we can develop a close working relationship with organized labor, community groups, and progressive public officials to address the issues that we feel are important.


Copyright NEOCH Homeless Grapevine Issue #47 May-June 2001