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Low-Wage Worker Movement Leads to Retailers Raising Wages

In the past year, the debate surrounding the minimum wage has erupted. Workers at successful retailers like Walmart and Gap, fed up with working hard but not earning enough to get by, stood up and spoke out, demanding that these giant retailers share in their success, and pay their employees a living wage.

IMG_9432In President Obama’s State of the Union address, he spoke about raising the federal minimum wage, and what else needs to be done to close the widening income gap, and reverse the rate of poverty in America.

It looks like the efforts of workers in the retail, fast food, and other low-wage industries is finally paying off, as action on raising the minimum wage has been taken in many cities across the country. And now, in a huge announcement today, Gap, America’s largest clothing-focused chain in America, has declared it will raise its wages to $10 an hour by next year. This change, which will affect over 65,000 workers (including those at Gap’s Old Navy and Banana Republic), comes ahead of a potential increase of the federal minimum wage to $10.10.

And in more good news, Walmart, who has notoriously been very reluctant to pay associates enough to earn a living wage, is now considering a raise in their wages as well–thanks to the actions of members in worker-led groups like For Respect. Walmart has seen a hit in business in the last year, demonstrating how their business model of punishing workers is failing.

In a Bloomberg article posted this morning, UFCW President Joe Hansen’s statement on Gap’s announcement was quoted: “It is time for Walmart to stand up and lead by investing back into its 1.4 million U.S. workers with hourly pay increases.”

As President Hansen noted, when companies treat and compensate their workers fairly, they are investing in their own business, and strengthening the communities around them. It’s time for Walmart to follow Gap’s lead, and listen to the workers who have been calling for change for so long. No one who works full-time should have to live in poverty.

Recent polls continue to show that the support for increasing minimum wages is stronger than ever from Americans across the country. As President Barack Obama stated in his State of the Union, it’s time America got a raise.

You can watch a clip about Gap’s decision to raise wages below:

Member Spotlight: Mechelle Cunningham

In this week’s member spotlight, we’re highlighting the story of another longtime UFCW member, who like last week’s spotlight member, is also from West Virginia.

Local 23 member Mechelle Cunningham caught our attention when we saw how she spearheaded a collection drive at her workplace–Giant Eagle in Morgantown, West Virginia. After hearing about a friend who had donated some water and that trucks were bringing water to people in her state who were affected by the chemical spill in and around Charleston, WV, Mechelle looked at the 3 pallets of water on the store floor in front of her and told her manager she wanted to purchase them and have them removed from the store floor. Her manager, knowing the cost was around $560 dollars, said, “Today?” Mechelle’s response was automatic.

Local 23 members Robin Gable, Teresa Policicchio, Mechelle Cunningham, and Anna Sisler.

Local 23 members Robin Gable, Teresa Policicchio, Mechelle Cunningham, and Anna Sisler.

“I didn’t think about the price–I just knew that my fellow employees would gather together to purchase that water to send down there. I told her that one way or another we’d get the money, and we did!” Together, Mechelle, her fellow union members, and other members of the community were able to send 17 pallets of water to those in need.

For Mechelle, being a union member means “standing up for your rights, and helping one another”. When talking with Mechelle, its clear that the ‘helping one another’ part is big for her, as demonstrated by her role in the donation of the water pallets: “We all really help one another and donate for different causes and support each other, and especially with something that large for our community, you know, people not having water–that’s a main thing, you have to have that.”

Mechelle is coming up on her 40th year as a UFCW member and has experienced first-hand how being in a union means there’s always someone there to help–”to back you and support you”.  Mechelle finds that oftentimes, many people don’t know about the union, and until they sit down and talk about it, don’t fully understand what it is. “I just have such a strong belief in the union,” says Mechelle, which is why she helps spread the word at work about how people–often younger members who haven’t been through strikes for better working conditions like she has–can protect their rights. By sharing her own experiences as a union member, and how it has helped her, she finds that she is helping them understand, even when there isn’t something currently happening.

Active community members like Mechelle inspire us every day. Do you know a UFCW member whose story we could share? Tell us about them at http://www.ufcw.org/resources/members/share-your-story/

 

Member Spotlight: Gary Southall

Union Strong. What’s behind that saying? Easy–union members.

What makes a union strong, are the members: workers who stand together, are involved in their workplace and communities, and work to better the lives of all working people. This week we would like to shine a light on one of those members.

Gary Southall has worked at Kroger–as a head deli clerk, a head checker, a head frozen food clerk, and now as a cashier–in Jackson County West Virginia for 41 years. He has been a UFCW member for just as long. Coming from a union family, it seems to be in his blood: “My dad, my grampa, all the uncles–everybody union members for as long as I can remember.”

When he began working at Kroger at the age of 16, the union was already in place, however, Gary eventually got more involved with his union, and has become a true member activist over the years. Not only is Gary a Local 400 steward, but is an avid supporter of programs in his community that benefit working people and better living conditions for young people.

Local 400 member and steward Gary Southall

Local 400 member and steward Gary Southall

One such program is the Jackson County Anti-Drug Coalition, which works to reduce underage alcohol abuse and substance use among youth. He has helped garner $1500 in donations for the coalition, $500 of which is from UFCW Local 400. Gary is also a member of the Central Labor Council, and an officer with the AFL-CIO, and as part of the AFL’s national initiative, he strives to be very involved in his community, even if it doesn’t involve union members. “We just take care of each other,” Gary says of the work he does.

Gary also lobbies for the UFCW, and this week helped re-introduce a bill that will prevent the sale of alcohol through self-checkout machines. The bill’s intent is to curb the ease with which already intoxicated or underage consumers can purchase alcohol.

When talking to Gary, its clear that he really cares for the youth in his community, and wants them to have as much opportunity in life as possible. Gary, working with the West Virginia AFL-CIO, has helped promote an educational video called Labor in the Mountains, which tells the story of labor’s history in West Virginia and the coal-industry, as told by a grandfather who lived through much of it, as he answers his granddaughter’s questions. Seeing the importance of teaching students about Labor’s influence on the middle class, the group worked hard to ensure that, effective this year, the video will now be shown in all middle school and high school civics classes in Jackson County, and they are working to spread this to the curriculum of other counties as well. Similarly, Gary is also working with others to promote an award-winning book called Click, Clack, Moo Cows That Type in which some literate cows leave notes for their farmer, demanding better working conditions and eventually going on strike. They are hoping to  get a copy of the book into all third grade classes in the county, as well as community libraries.

On top of helping to promote labor education for kids, Gary is also involved with a program called Reconnecting McDowell, which works to help kids living in poverty in this neighboring Appalachain county, by improving education, providing food, and helping kids find safe spaces, among many other things.

Now in his fourth year at the Leadership Academy, hosted by the AFL-CIO and the West Virginia University institute of labor studies and researches, Gary has emerged as a true leader, helping others to see why unions are so important.

Gary has been through two strikes at Kroger, earlier on in his career. It was during those times when he saw how important the union difference was: “At that time I was working part-time, and  I wasn’t making very much money–but when I went back to work after the strike, I was making double that money, which was fantastic for a young guy still in school.”

“But the point [of the union] in general, for me and for everybody, if they know it, is that you have a voice–you’re not out there by yourself, and you have someone to help you if you need help. You know your union steward–I’m a union steward and I have been for 15 or 20 years. No one can come out here and single you out, or say ‘If I don’t like ya, we’ll fire ya’ or that kind of thing.” He says that the union creates better work practices, and prevents unsafe working conditions: “you’ve got someone to say, ‘you know you can’t do that’ and if someone says ‘you need to do this or we’ll fire you’ well, no, we aren’t gonna do it if it’s not safe.”

“We’ve got welfare benefits, like pretty good insurance and I’ve got six weeks of vacation now. Industry-wide, at least my area here in West Virginia, no one else in the grocery business makes the kind of money that we make.”

But one story Gary likes to tell, to show what solidarity can do, doesn’t have anything to do with wages or benefits. “It may sound kind of silly but, I have a son who will be 36 in April. When he was 6 weeks old, Kroger came in one day, and some of us fellas had started growing beards–and I don’t remember what the reason was, but we had decided to grow beards. Anyway they came in and they told us we couldn’t grow a beard on company time, that if we wanted to grow one, we had to grow it on our own time, and shave it off for company time.” Gary says that this mandate didn’t sit too well them. “Of the people still there, and there are four in my workplace that were there when this happened–we still have that beard that we couldn’t grow 35 years ago. That was the last day I was clean-shaven, and I haven’t shaved from that day on, 35 years ago.” Gary and his coworkers stood together, in doing something as simple as not shaving off their beards, and Kroger backed off. Recently, one of Gary’s close friends and co-workers was asked to shave. His response was, “I’ll tell you what–the day that Gary Southall shaves, I’ll do it too.”

Gary is a true example of what unions can do when members are active and involved, and how they benefit the people in their communities. Stories like his inspire us to stay strong and continue sticking together in solidarity for the middle class, and all working people!

 

If you know a UFCW member who inspires you, or has a story worth telling, please contact Mia Perry at mperry@ufcw.org