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UFCW Celebrates the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act

Lyndon B. Johnson, flanked by Martin Luther King, Jr., signs the Civil Rights Act

Lyndon B. Johnson, flanked by Martin Luther King, Jr., signs the Civil Rights Act

This week, President Obama paid tribute to the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act during a visit to the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum in Austin, Texas.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin and paved the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In spite of the advances we have made over the last 50 years—including the election of our first African American president—the fight for social and economic justice continues.  Our economy’s increasing reliance on low-wage, part-time work has widened the gap between the rich and poor, and the desperation of so many Americans who just need a job has emboldened many businesses to exploit their workers, cut wages and benefits, and punish those who speak out and try to better their lives.

In the retail sector alone, which is one of the fastest growing sectors in the United States and an important employer of minorities and women, too many workers are struggling to survive in low-wage, part-time jobs with little to no benefits.  That’s why it’s critically important that employers in the retail sector lead the way in providing good jobs with benefits so that workers in this growing industry can make enough to support their families and contribute to their local economies and communities.  Walmart—the world’s largest retailer—is a good place to start.

As the largest private employer in the country, Walmart’s low-wage, part-time business model has had a detrimental impact on our country’s labor, business, and employment climate.  The retail giant’s drive to lower wages has influenced other retailers to do the same and lowered the standard of living for millions of retail workers across the country.

The need to mobilize for social and economic equality has never been stronger, and the UFCW is honored to carry on the work of President Johnson and civil rights leaders by fighting for social and economic justice in the retail industry and in our communities.

President Obama, Flanked by UFCW Member, Pushes to Expand Overtime Pay

President Obama ordered the Department of Labor to expand federal rules so that more salaried workers would be able to qualify for overtime pay. Currently, any salaried employee making more than $455 per week is not required to be given overtime pay when they work more than 40 hours in a week.

The current $455 per week salary threshold has failed to keep pace with inflation. It was $250 in 1975, equivalent to roughly $1,000 today. This expansion will give millions more workers across the nation the chance to earn extra pay when they do extra work.

UFCW Local 400 member Rob Trotter (standing in back with blue shirt and glasses) stands by as President Obama orders an expansion so more salaried workers qualify for overtime pay.

UFCW Local 400 member Rob Trotter (standing in back with blue shirt and glasses) stands by as President Obama orders an expansion so more salaried workers qualify for overtime pay.

UFCW Local 400 member Rob Trotter, a meat cutter at Giant in Annandale, Virginia, stood next to President Obama as he signed the memorandum.

“I have worked in retail for over 20years for an hourly wage,” he said. “I have depended upon overtime to pay school tuition for my children, or to get out from under a financial hardship. The opportunity to earn overtime has always been helpful and comforting to me.”

It is not yet clear by how much the salary threshold will increase. The President’s order instructs the Department of Labor to come up with an expansion plan following a period of input and study. With the stagnation of wages and the increase in corporate profits, actions like this give workers a better chance to provide for their families.

“There have been years when 20 percent of my income was comprised of overtime,” Trotter said. “Going above and beyond expectations at work takes a toll physically because you’re working harder and emotionally because you’re away from your family for a longer period of time. Every employer should fairly recognize and reward this sacrifice.”

#ourSOTU Recap

Last night, the President made his fifth State of the Union address. We were pleased to hear him outline, or at least mention, plans for many of the issues UFCW members wanted to see addressed, but the fight to end the growing inequality and economic hardship for working Americans is ongoing, and we hope the President and Congress will truly act on these plans. We know that we will.

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Many of you especially wanted to see President Obama talk about raising the minimum wage, so that more Americans can earn a liveable wage that enables them to make ends meet and provide for their families. He certainly talked about this, and agrees that its time to take action.  As an example, the President said that “profitable corporationss like Costco see higher wages as the smart way to boost productivity & reduce turnover,” referring to the fact that higher wages are better for business too.  It’s time for mega-retailers like Walmart to follow suit and set a better example for the retail and grocery industries.

Another thing we were relieved to hear was that the President is working on a bipartisan plan to ensure that no one ends up waiting in hours-long lines to vote anymore–in fact the plan would see that there is no more than a 30-minute wait. Voting rights are essential civil rights, and we cannot let states create legislation that will take them away.

Although the Affordable Care Act has a ways to go before it is truly beneficial for everyone, the President also asked Congress to stop wasting time on trying to repeal it–especially when it is working for so many Americans–and instead offer up suggestions or solutions for making the healthcare system better. Chiding, “Let’s not have another 40-something votes to repeal a law helping millions of Americans,” we agree, but must also keep working to push legislation such as the Part-Time Workers’ Bill of Rights, so that companies cannot take advantage of the ACA by severely cutting employee hours to eliminate coverage for their employees.

The President added that he is launching a new retirement savings vehicle called “MyRA”, to help Americans have more money for retirement, in a time when so many are having to delay or cancel their retirement because they have lost their pensions or had to dip into savings for unexpected expenses in this difficult economy.

Equality was a theme that can be tied to many of the issues touched on in the president’s speech, and it was quite empowering to hear him say that, in regards to income equality, it was past time to end the gender wage gap. The fact that women are paid less for doing the same work as men “is an embarrassment,” said President Obama. We couldn’t agree more!  Referencing the popular 60′s era show Mad Men, the president also called for an end to outdated workplace policies that punish women and men for needing time off to care for sick family members, or to have children.

And it brought a smile to our faces to hear President Obama mention labor leaders, in regards to the their calls for immediate action to fix our broken immigration system. Its time for all workers to have their rights protected, and have a path to citizenship–business leaders agree. Like UFCW members hoped for, the President mentioned labor, which was a good sign, but our members are still awaiting to see action that supports what they work for everyday, and will do more to help rebuild our middle class.

There were many other issues that President Obama mentioned last night, such as more American manufacturing that will create jobs, extending unemployment insurance, and ending political arguments that shut down the government and its functions. Overall, we turned off our TV’s feeling inspired and hopeful for 2014, yet we know we cannot rest in our quest to ensure a better life for working Americans, and we will keep working with our communities, politicians, and other leaders to make sure the President and Congress don’t rest either.