SAN FRANCISCO - A newly formed coalition, the Progressive Workers' Alliance, is bringing low-wage workers together across language, race and community in a two-pronged struggle - to fight wage theft, violation of workers' rights and unemployment, and to oppose Mayor Gavin Newsom's proposed city budget cuts, which the coalition says would slash vital services and balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable.
In a program conducted in Spanish, Chinese and English, coalition members rallied on the steps of City Hall June 16 to introduce a Low Wage Worker Bill of Rights they say will help to redress the abuses many low-wage workers experience daily on the job.
The Bill of Rights calls for protecting workers' rights and enforcing labor laws, supporting responsible businesses, providing job opportunities and training, protecting the social safety net for all working people, and equal treatment for all workers.
The need for each of its planks was highlighted as low-wage workers shared their stories.
Victoria Aquino, who is responsible for six patients in a San Francisco care home, focused on the problem of wage theft. Aquino said she was paid less than the minimum wage during all of 2007. "Even when I started to receive the minimum wage I was not paid for all the hours I worked," she said. "I want all caregivers and other low-wage workers to know they should not be afraid to fight for their rights as workers."
Rally organizers also pointed out that programs the city administration has targeted for cuts include education about labor laws in San Francisco and culturally appropriate help to workers so they can file claims.
Jose Ramirez, speaking for the Day Labor Program at La Raza Centro Legal, said he and other day laborers often encounter employers who don't want to pay them. Day laborers are "extremely concerned that many of the programs we rely on are on the chopping block in this year's budget," he said. "This means the most vulnerable will be exposed to more abuse." But, he added, "That is only possible if we allow them to do this to us. United we will defeat them!"
Discrimination against GLBT workers was also a rally topic. Pride at Work's David Fujimoto pointed out that gays and lesbians earn about 25 percent less than straight men, for the same jobs, and trans individuals in California are twice as likely as the general population to live below the federal poverty line.
The rally highlighted the Local Jobs for America Act, introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and in the Senate by Senator Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, which would appropriate $100 billion to create and preserve jobs. The coalition also backs a local measure, the Hotel Fairness Initiative, which would boost the city budget by closing loopholes in the hotel tax and temporarily increasing it. Signatures are now being gathered to place the initiative on the November ballot.
On a positive note, Young Workers United spokesperson Edwin Escobar held up a copy of the restaurant guide the organization has launched this year, saying it "highlights businesses that follow the labor laws of San Francisco and treat their workers with respect." Good business practices benefit the community as well as workers, he said.
The Low Wage Worker Bill of Rights is backed by several members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, including its president, David Chiu.
Among Progressive Workers' Alliance members are the Day Labor Program and Women's Collective of La Raza Centro Legal, the Chinese Progressive Association, the Filipino Community Center, Young Workers United, Pride at Work, People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER) and more.
Photos: Marilyn Bechtel/PW