Panel explores new approaches to building a better economy

Anne Winkler-Morey holds a picture of Mary Vojtko, the late adjunct professor at Duquesne University whose death last year drew national attention to declining wages, hours and benefits for adjuncts nationwide.

Anne Winkler-Morey holds a picture of Mary Vojtko, the late adjunct professor at Duquesne University whose death last year drew national attention to organizing efforts by adjuncts nationwide.

Cantaré Davunt nodded her head as Anne Winkler-Morey talked about struggling to make ends meet as an adjunct professor. To Davunt, the challenges adjunct faculty face – low wages, unreliable hours, few opportunities for advancement – sounded all too familiar to her experience as an associate at Walmart.

Davunt and Winkler-Morey joined a panel discussion in St. Paul last week that explored new employment trends and offered a glimpse into how seemingly different workers – like college faculty and retail clerks – are waging similar battles to turn their low-wage jobs into middle-class careers.

“I’ve always been a believer that making change, the only way you can do it is by getting your hands dirty,” Davunt said, explaining why she’s become active in OUR Walmart, a growing collection of associates nationwide who are organizing to improve working conditions at the world’s largest retailer.

But it isn’t just retail workers like Davunt who are feeling the squeeze.

Although the economy continues to regain jobs lost during the Great Recession, the bulk of those gains are coming in low-wage industries. According to a report released last month by the National Employment Law Project, there are nearly 2 million fewer jobs in mid- and higher-wage industries nationwide than there were before the recession took hold, while there are 1.85 million more jobs in lower-wage industries.

What’s more, temporary is becoming the new reality for an increasing number of workers forced to settle for part-time or temporary employment. In Minnesota, employment in the economy’s “employment services” sector, which includes subcontractors and temp agencies, is up 42 percent since November 2009. The uptick in temporary hiring, in fact, drew scrutiny from a state legislative committee last year.

Given these employment trends, how can workers expect to make ends meet? That’s the question moderator Michael Kuchta, former editor of The Union Advocate, posed to panelists.

“Not all workers are letting this get shoved down their throats,” said Kuchta, a member of the planning committee for the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library’s “Untold Stories” labor-history series, which sponsored the event April 29 at the St. Paul Labor Centre. “Workers are responding to the changing economy, responding to a middle class that is shrinking.”

Cantaré Davunt, a Walmart associate, borrows adjunct professor Ann Winkler-Morley's visual aids during a panel discussion on low-wage jobs.

Cantaré Davunt, a Walmart associate, borrows adjunct professor Ann Winkler-Morey’s visual aids during a panel discussion on low-wage jobs.

One way is via worker centers, including the Twin Cities-based Centro de Trabajaderos Unidos en Lucha (CTUL), or Center for Workers United in Struggle.

Like most worker centers, CTUL emerged in response to allegations of employer misconduct voiced by members of a distinct community. In CTUL’s case, organizer Ruth Schultz said, the allegations came from Latino workers cleaning big-box retail stores.

Over the last five years, CTUL has broadened its mission from helping individual workers fight wage theft and other employer abuses to the “next level” of building solidarity and working on legislative issues that affect its members, Schultz said.

Currently, CTUL is leading a campaign to hold big-box retailers, particularly Target, responsible for ensuring fair employment practices in their stores. Most workers who clean big-box stores are employed by subcontracting firms, often fly-by-night operations based in other states, making it difficult both to organize workers and to hold employers accountable.

“We’re not a traditional union, where there is one employer,” Schultz explained. “CTUL is really in the leadership of where worker centers are going, in looking at how we raise the wage floor – not only for our members, but for all low-wage workers.”

The recent – and successful – campaign to raise the state’s minimum wage saw CTUL working hand in hand with another group reaching out to non-union workers in Minnesota, Working America.

Although more broad in its approach than CTUL, Working America is another way workers are pushing back against recent employment trends. Backed by the nation’s largest labor federation, the AFL-CIO, Working America sponsors door-to-door canvassing in neighborhoods across the state, signing up members, polling workers about the issues that matter to them and building grassroots campaigns around the results.

Minimum wage was one of those issues, said Brianna Halverson, Working America’s statewide director. Now, with victory secured, the group is building a new campaign to ensure all workers have access to earned sick time.

“We’re constantly hearing stories from our members about the imbalance of work life and home life,” Halverson said. “We heard that even if a workplace had paid time off or some other policy, people felt like it was frowned upon to actually use it. That’s why we’re working on a campaign right now around the issue, and we’re hoping to move it next year at the Capitol.”

Of course, Working America and worker centers like CTUL are not meant to supplant traditional unions, but to fill in the gaps in industries or employment models – subcontracting, temp agencies – where organizing is particularly difficult.

Workers, including adjunct professors like Winkler-Morey, still look to unions as a way to gain a voice on the job and bargain for better wages, benefits and working conditions. Adjuncts at Hamline University and contingent faculty at Macalester College filed for union elections last month.

Winkler-Morey, who teaches primarily at Metro State University, hopes it’s a vote she gets to take someday. Already, she’s seen her “middle-class profession become a low-wage profession,” as the share of adjunct faculty – professors on the “poverty track” instead of the tenure track, she quipped – at colleges and universities has increased from 25 to 75 percent during her career.

“It’s a mystery,” Winkler-Morey said. “Why is tuition going up and up and up, and class sizes are going up and up and up, and the number of low-wage instructors is going up? What’s happened?”


The panel discussion on low-wage organizing was part of “Untold Stories,” presented annually by The Friends of the St. Paul Public Library. Click the image for more information on the labor-history series.

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