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Elizabeth on the American Worker

Recently I saw a video clip of Edward Kennedy—that great lion of the Senate—making a passionate demand of his fellow Senators upon the defeat of a bill that would have increased the minimum wage. I won’t quote him directly. I can only paraphrase his words: What has the American worker done, he demanded, to make you hate him so much?

Minimum wage. It’s where most people in the American work force once began. It seems a simple enough thing for politicians to get behind because it’s only logical that any politician worth his or her salt would support the American worker. After all, politicians are American workers, too, after a fashion, and even though they might not see themselves that way, it stands to reason that at one time or another—even in youth—they were a part of what we consider the American work force.

Like a lot of young girls in our country, I began my own time in the American work force as a babysitter. This was in Chico, California, where my family lived for just a year on a little cul-de-sac called Rosemary Circle. I was twelve years old at the time, and I babysat for neighbors whom I charged 50 cents an hour, the going rate. I’ve always been a saver, so—as a babysitter in demand--I quickly amassed enough money to buy as many Nancy Drew books as I wanted. And I wanted a lot of Nancy Drew books.

I entered the taxpaying work force when I was fourteen and able to acquire a work permit. I earned minimum wage, which I believe was $1.50/hour at the time, although I can’t exactly swear to that. It was a long time and many paychecks ago.

My first was a most inglorious job: I washed pipettes and the bloody residue from test tubes in the back room of a doctor’s office in Mountain View, California. I must confess that I got this job because my mother—Anne George—was one of the nurses in that doctor’s office. They were looking for someone to do an unappealing job, and she volunteered me.

Since my fourteenth year, there haven’t been many times when I haven’t been part of the American work force. I was employed throughout my high school years and through most of my college years as well. Like young people everywhere, I had a variety of jobs although I have to confess that none of them were as exciting as they might have been had I had more imagination about where to seek employment. But for me the object wasn’t so much to have excitement as it was to earn cash for a car and then for the gas to fuel the car. I attained this goal with the assistance of my dad when I was nineteen, and he and I went halves on a VW beetle. Not the powder blue VW of my dreams, with righteous black interior, it was instead a crème colored VW with burnt orange seats. It was the 1962 model and very well-used, but it ran, and that was the point.

Before I became a professional writer, I was a high school teacher. I landed my first job at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California, but I lasted there only a year. I was fired for union activity, along with eleven other hardy souls who had picketed the Los Angeles Archdiocesan offices, demanding the right to negotiate teachers’ salaries. There was no pay scale at Mater Dei High School, you see. There was only what an individual teacher managed to negotiate with the principal. The football coach had the best deal. He made twice as much as the academic teachers, and there was some ill feeling about this.

I’ve always had an interest in the rights of workers: equal pay for equal work, a living wage, a safe environment, and perhaps a few job benefits as well. These basics seemed to me then and seem to me now hardly too much to ask for. While I suppose there are freeloaders out there who expect never to have to work while all the time reaping some sort of benefit from their inactivity, I’ve actually never met anyone like that. Most people I know have been ready, willing, and able to work. They’ve hope through their work to be able to get by or to get ahead and, God willing, to pass along to their kids something more than they themselves have had.

My mom’s family exemplifies this. Her parents came to the U.S. from an area in Italy called Basilicata, which is far south. My grandfather—Rocco Rivelle—came over alone first and worked in the steel mills and when he had enough money, he sent for his wife Rosa. She came over in steerage with my uncle and my aunts, all small children then. Their story is like a million other stories of immigrants in our country: When they got here, they worked hard, and every generation that followed them did a little better than the last. So from the original steel workers and factory workers who were the husbands of Rocco and Rosa’s daughters ultimately within two generations rose the teachers, social workers, nurses, scientists, writers, doctors, musicians, college professors, and engineers that people my family today.

None of this could have happened had Rocco Rivelle not been paid a living wage for the work he did. He earned his place in America through that work and it seems to me that that, really, is all people are asking for when they begin their employment: the right to make a place for themselves within our society and to have a sense of accomplishment and pride at having been able to maintain the place which they’ve made.

Thus, I have never understood why politicians vote against working men and women, and I believe we have to ask Senator Kennedy’s question of any candidate running for high office who has turned his back on America’s workers.

I did some research into Senator John McCain’s voting record on the rights of American workers. VoteSmart.org has a great deal of information as does AFLCIO.org. There are many more bills than I’m able to recount in this document, but some that troubled me are as follows:

February 4, 1993: Senator McCain voted to suspend the Family and Medical Leave Act unless the Federal Government either certified that compliance would not increase costs for businesses or unless the Federal Government would provide financial assistance to businesses.

September 28, 1993: Senator McCain voted against protecting workers’ overtime pay.

October 7, 1999: Senator McCain voted to prohibit application of the Davis-Bacon requirement for fair wages in areas declared federal disaster areas (Davis-Bacon protects workers’ paychecks on public construction projects).

May 21, 2002: Senator McCain voted against an amendment requiring the Labor Department to establish a pilot program of low-interest loans to workers in job training or a job assistance program to enable workers to continue their mortgage payments.

May 15, 2003: Senator McCain voted against extending the expiring Temporary Unemployment Compensation Program for another six months for workers who exhaust their benefits while looking for a job.

February 12, 2004: Senator McCain voted against the $318 billion highway transportation bill that would have created approximately 5 million jobs in highway and transportation.

July 29, 2005: Senator McCain voted against a six year $206 billion reauthorization of the Federal Highway and Transit Program at a cost of 1 million jobs.

November 18, 2005: Senator McCain voted for a budget reconciliation bill that included a $60 billion tax cut with more than ¾ of it going to families making $100,000 or more.

January 24, 2007: Senator McCain voted to repeal the minimum wage laws in 45 states and to allow the 5 other states of opt out of any future minimum wage increase above $5.15 an hour.

Ultimately, Senator McCain voted to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act that would increase minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.25. This compromise allowed for $500,000 exemption for small businesses. It also allowed small businesses to include an employee’s tips as part of his/her minimum wage.

I admit that I have long been puzzled when workers whose paychecks are determined solely by their hourly employment—minimum wage or above—express support for Republican candidates. Right now on my property on Whidbey Island, I have two such individuals working for me. They are lovely guys, and they work hard in construction. Neither of them is a millionaire. Indeed, neither of them makes a six-figure salary. Yet both of them are determined to vote for Senator McCain as President, and I truly, truly do not know why. Nor can they themselves explain it other than to say they “always vote Republican.” And that, too, puzzles me because as far as I can recall, Republicans have no great history of supporting hourly workers.

Indeed, I must go out on a limb here and say that I never understand why decent people who work hard cast their votes for candidates who themselves vote in both the Senate and the House in a manner suggesting that they hold these very voters in contempt.

- Elizabeth George
Whidbey Island, Washington

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