Sunday, August 31, 2014

Bruce Popper: "Poverty is not an accident."

Bruce Popper (center) makes the case for promoting living wage jobs by joining the "Fight for Fifteen" campaign at the Labor Day Parade presser on August 29, 2014. photo by Ove Overmyer
Remarks of Bruce Popper
First Vice-president, Rochester and Vicinity Labor Council, AFL-CIO

Rochester Labor Day Parade Press Conference
New York State United Teachers
Rochester, New York
August 29, 2014

“Poverty is not an accident.  Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and can be removed by the action of human beings.”

So said Nelson Mandela.

We stand here today, ready to celebrate the Labor Day weekend, to honor workers, and to recognize the movement that brought a measure of prosperity and a middle class to America.

We stand here today, within the City of Rochester, New York, a city with the 3rd worst poverty rate in America.  As President Mandela said, ‘This poverty is not an accident.’

This poverty is not from a lack of jobs.  It is not for lack of education or a failed school system.  It is not due to some ‘cultural attribute.’  For most poor people work every day.  They work several jobs just to make ends meet.  They juggle family responsibilities with the many hours of toil needed to survive.  They hold low wage jobs.  

The reason for the poverty is a lack of good paying jobs.

The workers have fought back to change their condition.  Literally thousands of low wage workers, over the past decade, have tried to organize and form unions in Monroe County, only to have their aspirations crushed.  A handful of highly paid law firms and consultants, doing the bidding of local employers, have professionally and surgically destroyed the hopes and dreams of these workers.

Whether at the Arc of Monroe, the major health systems, or call centers and retail outlets, this struggle against poverty has gone completely unrecognized by the media and community leaders.

‘Poverty is not an accident.’

We in the union movement need to accept our share of the blame for the failure of these rebellions against poverty.  As our members’ standard of living and very jobs have come under increasing attack, we have retreated to defense.  We have failed to adequately reach out to unorganized workers, community allies, and people of good conscience to build a broader movement for social and economic justice.

We continue to work in a bargaining unit paradigm born in 1935 by pitting small groups of workers against big corporations, and telling them that they can win.  That strategy may have worked a generation or two ago.  It no longer fits our time.

There is a growing awareness of this fact in the labor movement.  There is a growing awareness of the need for a new strategy if we are not all to sink into poverty.

Across the country, a movement called the “Fight for Fifteen” has arisen.  It is the organizing by fast food and other low wage workers around the demand for a living wage of no less than $15. per hour.

The “Fight for Fifteen” campaign has now come to Rochester.  It is being led by Metro-Justice and it is endorsed by the Rochester Labor Council.  It seeks to unite large numbers of workers, not small groups.  It is a strategy whose time has come.

The members of my unions, 1199 and SEIU, have embraced this demand as the theme in their upcoming contract negotiations with the University of Rochester.  No workers fully qualified for a job should be employed in our region’s largest and wealthiest employer and make less than $15. per hour.

We in 1199 SEIU, SEIU 200United, the Rochester Labor Council, and Metro-Justice ask you to join us in supporting the workers’ “Fight for Fifteen” in Rochester.

We know that poverty is not an accident. We intend to remove it by our actions.

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