Low-Income Working Women Raise Pay Issue at White House

WASHINGTON –Carmella Salinas believes in kids – in her own and in teaching other peoples’ kids, too.  But she doesn’t get paid enough for it.

Salinas, an American Federation of Teachers member from Espanola, N.M., is an early childhood educator at the Family Learning Center there, which serves low-income 4-year-olds.  But she’s low-income, herself.

The pay is so low, said Salinas, one of six AFT members who attended the White House Summit on Working Families on June 23, that she qualifies for food stamps and Medicaid.  Her utilities were disconnected for a week earlier this year because she couldn’t pay the bills.

“I believe in what I do, so I remain in this low-wage job and fight for what I believe in,” Salinas told Democratic President Barack Obama and 1,500 summit participants. “I wish I could be a parent who could help my two daughters pay for college, but being passionate about teaching young children does not afford me that luxury, and that is something I struggle with every day.”  Salinas was one of 250 unionists at the summit, the largest delegation there.

The struggles of Salinas and other low-income working women – including a dozen Wal-Mart Moms – were among the problems the summit spotlighted.   Depending on which figures you use, the median income for working women in the U.S. is 77-80 cents for every dollar of a median income of a working man.  For Latinas like Salinas, it’s less than 60 cents per dollar.

But for organized unionists, working under a contract — as opposed to Salinas, whose child-care center is state-funded – the median is a lot more: 90 cents per every dollar a working union man earns.  And the median income for union workers, ,male and female, is $200 more per week than for non-unionists.

Other unionists at the summit made that point to Obama and other officials.

“Through collective advocacy, we’ve helped enact policies that give women equal opportunities as breadwinners, and low-wage workers a better deal with a higher minimum wage, but collective action with a union contract is the best way to help all working families,”  Steel Workers President Leo Gerard, leading a 50-person USW, delegation, said.

Backing up the data, USW member Tiffaney Lewis, a clerical worker at Evraz Steel in Pueblo, Colo., told the group that “being in a union means that I can walk into my plant every day and know that as a woman, I will earn equal pay.”  Added her USW colleague, Lorain, Ohio, utilities worker Elva Martes: “Belonging to a union at a young age gave me the opportunity to provide for my daughter with paid sick time, vacation time and equal pay.”

But that’s not the case for the Wal-Mart Moms, part of the non-union Our WalMart group, a growing association of workers at the monster retailer.  Our WalMart campaigns from the inside to get the anti-worker low-paying no-benefits firm to pay decent wages, with better work schedules and the right to organize without constant Wal-Mart labor law-breaking.

Without representation or a voice on the job, the dozen Wal-Mart Moms told Obama and the other summit participants, they’re stuck in the low-wage jobs.

“Wal-Mart Moms like me are living the reality of the income inequality the president has been talking about,” worker Charmaine Givens-Thomas said before entering the summit.  Givens-Thomas, a mother and grandmother and 8-year Wal-Mart worker, makes $23,000 a year.  She recently had her gas cut off because she, too, couldn’t pay the bill

“We want the president to meet with us to hear how Wal-Mart is fueling the income equality crisis  – and how the company could easily fix this problem by providing full-time work for at least $25,000 a year,” she added.

 Pay isn’t the only problem working women face at Wal-Mart, Chicago worker Bene’t Holmes told Obama.  Wal-Mart practices pregnancy discrimination, too.  It’s so bad that she’s joined a subgroup of Wal-Mart Moms named “Respect The Bump” to battle to get Wal-Mart’s “reasonable accommodation” of pregnancy when doctors order it, as federal law demands. 

 “The administration needs to hear about the constant struggle and hardship Wal-Mart created for hundreds of thousands of women like me,” said Holmes, single mother of a 5-year-old.  When she asked for such reasonable accommodation for a second pregnancy, through an assignment to light work, Wal-Mart refused.  Holmes miscarried.

“I want to raise my son in a safe, nice neighborhood, but when I only bring home $700 a month, I can barely cover the bills.  We have to live with my parents, and I recently was forced to apply for food stamps,” she said.