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‘There Is Not Enough Work’: Nearly Half of Mexicans Now Officially Poor

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Stephen FranklinOAXACA, MEXICO—The night is long and lonely and taxi driver Fernando has no choice but to endlessly troll the streets. It is the only way he can earn a living, driving from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. seven nights a week, and even then it’s barely enough to get by. “It is difficult. The salaries are low. There is not enough work. And everything is more expensive,” says the middle-aged driver as he cruises the streets of this historic southern Mexican city.

The latest figures about poverty and Mexican workers’ fate show that he understands the nation’s financial reality as well as any economist. The ranks of Mexico’s poor grew from 48.8 to 52 million between 2008 and 2010, according to figures recently released by the National Council for Social Development Policy, a federally funded agency. That meant about 46 percent of more than 112 million Mexicans were living in poverty in 2010. The government says someone is poor if they earn less than $181 a month in an urban area, and $113 in a rural area.

But the growth in poverty was uneven, according to news reports. Much of the increase was spread across large cities and in the northern states. And Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s poorest states, was one of the five states with the greatest increases in poverty.

What caused the upward spiral in despair?
Unemployment, low wages and rising food costs are the answers offered by most experts.

The growing poverty, experts add, is a reason for a number of problems such as high dropout rates among youths, and many youngsters’ northward flight to the United States in search of work.

A recent study pointed to poverty as a major reason why youths between 15 and 29 years old accounted for more than two thirds of the 660,000 Mexicans who left the country in 2011. The report was produced by a research arm of the PRI, which had ruled Mexico for seven decades and is hoping to win back the Mexican presidency this year. It was based upon figures from the Mexican Ministry of Education, according to the daily newspaper LaJornada.

Backing up the point that low-wage jobs are a growing dilemma and disruptive force for the economy is another report from the Mexican Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare.

It showed that the country lost 257,000 higher-paying jobs in 2011 while it picked up 625,000 jobs barely paying above the minimum wage, according to the daily newspaper Mileno. The minimum wage for 2012 is 63 pesos (about $4.80) a day in the Mexico City area, a rate slightly higher than elsewhere in the country.

But these low-paid workers are not in the worst shape, the article noted. There were about 5 million workers in Mexico last year who did not receive a salary. They get just enough money to survive.

Driving a taxi on the nightshift gives Fernando enough to support his family of five. But it is barely enough to pay the costs of his 20-year-old who is in the local university or to buy all the things needed for a two-year-old.

He came back to Mexico not too long from Atlanta, Ga., where he had lived for a handful of years, working as a welder and earning $18 an hour. He lived without papers and didn’t mind the dangers he faced. The money was worth the risks.

What brought him home was his wife’s hunger to be close to family, a desire he easily understands. But he also understands the difference in his life style and the pain he feels for what more he wants for himself and his family.

And so, as he drives across the cobblestones and then the broad avenues, he wonders aloud about going back north. There’s not the slightest fear in his voice of what that could mean. There’s only the memory of doing better.

“We’ll see. This is so hard,” he says.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on February 19, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Stephen Franklin, former labor and workplace reporter for theChicago Tribune, is ethnic news director for the Community Media Workshop in Chicago. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans(2002), and has reported throughout the United States and the Middle East. He can be reached via e-mail atfreedomwrites@hotmail.com.

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More Than a Number: Troubling Trends Behind the Dropping Unemployment Rateo

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Stephen FranklinSo the unemployment rate’s drop last month means we’re heading out of this tunnel, right? If only it were as simple as that.

There’s more to the nation’s unemployment situation than December’s decline to 8.5 percent joblessness. The fact is, the economy we live in today has become far too complex to be measured the same way we do when we step on a scale.

That’s because a number of forces have changed the workplace reality for American workers. Some of these are short-term changes, though even then, it’s not clear how their impact will play out in the long-term. And some are significant long-term changes that first began to take off and which are likely to affect workers for a long time to come.

Young vets’ job woes

Take the worsening job plight of veterans of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, something that deserves attention by policymakers. The jobless rate for these vets in December, according to government figures, was 13.1 percent, up from 11.7 percent a year ago.

But the real jobs problem is the one faced by young vets, the ones who have came home looking for new lives rather than staying on in the military. The unemployment rate for these veterans between 20 to 24 years old averaged 30 percent last year, up from 21 percent in July 2010, according to the New York Times.

This may seem to some as a short-term problem, but it has the marking of a dilemma that may linger on.

We have traditionally expected veterans to find their way back into the job market, after slogging through a bout of joblessness. That is not exactly what happened, however, after the Vietnam War, and the mark left from Iraq and Afghanistan may turn out to be an even far more difficult one to overcome.

That is because the physical and psychological scars left on so many who took part in fighting that lasted almost a decade. A large brunt of military service fell upon workers plucked out of their jobs because of their National Guard and Reserve obligations.

So, too, the long-term changes that have rippled across the job market continue to play and broaden in ways not seen a few years ago.

Public service workers lose their protections

The wind carrying blue-collar factory jobs away for unskilled workers blows as strong as ever. Not only have jobs vanished at stunning levels, but also the downward slide in wages and loss of benefits is a worrisome omen for those left behind in the factories.

But now we can begin charting the rapidly expanding downward slide of government jobs, a process that seems likely to roll on for some time from Washington to the state capitals and to local communities, spurred on by budget-minded Republicans and financially desperate Democrats.

One measure of the decline is the loss of state jobs across the U.S.

Employment levels among state workers dropped 1.2 percent in 2011, according to the New York Times. That, according to the newspaper, is the steepest drop since recordkeeping began over 55 years ago.

For a long time, public workers were immune from such severe job cuts as well as attacks on their security. But now that immunity has vanished, putting them in the same downward spin as workers in the private sector.

Many of these public service jobs are held by black and Latino workers and their foothold on the job market has only grown more tenuous lately.

Indeed, the construction industry bust, factory-shutdowns and shrinking wages for most workers have had disastrous results for black and Latino workers. As the Economic Policy Institute has pointed out, the jobless rate for black and Latino workers grew dramatically higher and dramatically apart, as well, from white workers during the last decade.

Combine these forces and you have a job market not only under terrible stress, but facing stresses not seen before. That’s why the good news concerning the joblessness rate leaves the nation only so much to cheer about.

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on January 10, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About this Author: Stephen Franklin, former labor and workplace reporter for theChicago Tribune, is ethnic news director for the Community Media Workshop in Chicago. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans(2002), and has reported throughout the United States and the Middle East.  He can be reached via e-mail atfreedomwrites@hotmail.com.

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Don’t Count on Tomorrow: The New Credo for the Unemployed

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Stephen FranklinLong ago, on New York City’s docks, Frankie drilled into me the American credo about climbing the ladder to a better life. “Kid, you gotta finish college,” he would say. “You gotta do better than this. All you need is to work harder and you can get there.”

Frankie, a massive fellow who had spent his life on the Manhattan docks, was my protector and career advisor. He would find a clean place to hide my college books in the mornings when I showed up. And when a fight broke out, he would warn me.

If you ever worked in a steel mill in Ohio, a lumber camp in Alabama, a diner in Maine, a cotton mill in North Carolina, or any blue-collar, back-breaking job anywhere and it was clear that you had a good chance to move on, you probably heard the same lecture about the American worker’s credo: “If you get knocked down, stand up and try again. Yeah, life’s is tough. So what. You have it in you. Set your goals high and you’ll wind up somewhere near where you want to be.”

One of the many things we seem to have lost in the Great Economic Bust is a widespread belief among those down and out that they will ever get back up on their feet. This finding comes from a recent survey on the unemployed called “The Shattered Dream: Unemployed Workers Lose Ground, Hope and Faith in their Futures” (PDF link).

It was produced by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University.

How deep is the disappointment of the unemployed?

Nearly 60 percent of the unemployed polled by the organization said that hard work and determination are no guarantee of success for most persons.

Ironically, a similar poll conducted at the same time by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Harvard University and the Washington Post found that 60 percent of people say that most persons who want to get ahead can make it if they’re willing to work hard.

It seems to me these different points of view of the road ahead for American worker offer a good reflection of the baffling disconnect shown by many Americans toward an economy of crippling and unprecedented dead-ends for millions of workers.

How do the unemployed, according to the survey, view their future?

  • Only one-third think they will recover financially.
  • Two-thirds think the economy is undergoing fundamental and lasting changes.
  • More than half think it will be harder for young people to afford college.
  • Nearly half say they will never feel as secure at work as they once did and they will have to take jobs paying below their skill levels.

Some of what the jobless tell us is the bitter taste of feeling cut off from the a paycheck, a job interview and the chitchat about an economy on the mend. But some of it also is quite realistic. What made this economic collapse so different was the disappearance of so many jobs, and the downward pressure on wages and benefits that crossed over into jobs where there is no justifiable reason for such reductions.

Indeed, among the unemployed tracked in the Rutgers study, only one out of four has found work in the 15 months since they were first polled. And nearly all of the newly employed were taking home less pay or wages.

Remember the economic collapse of the 1980s, when auto and steel workers fled their rust belt Midwest towns for jobs? Many found new jobs and many wandered home eventually. Remember the dot.com bust about a decade ago? Many of those folks floundered, but many also wound up back on their feet.

What’s different today is that the past is a painful memory for many workers whose industries have collapsed, whose skilled are no longer needed or who are more defenseless on the job to protect their livelihood than ever before.

They are like the dockworkers I knew decades ago, before machines took their jobs and the docks themselves vanished.

This article was originally posted on Working In These Times.

About The Author: Stephen Franklin, former labor and workplace reporter for the Chicago Tribune, is ethnic news director for the Community Media Workshop in Chicago. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans (2002), and has reported throughout the United States and the Middle East. He can be reached via e-mail at freedomwrites@hotmail.com.

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Where Have All the Labor Writers Gone?

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Consider the fate of the labor reporter. A long vanishing breed, there are only a few of them left in the country.

Businesses and their mouthpieces disparage them for daring to question their facts, their motives and for humanizing the stories that Corporate America wishes would remain distant and bloodless so nobody would pay attention to them.

Union supporters often question their support for organized labor. And they frequently accuse labor reporters of hyping their coverage in order to draw attention to their articles while failing to convey the deeper, more significant issues that confront unions.

Then there is the small collection of union crooks, and bullies who despise labor reporters because they dare to look under their unions’ hoods and to expose wrong-doing.

And yet the surviving labor reporters go on. They persist even though many of them have been scattered to the far corners of news operations by editors convinced that their stories no longer matter, and despite the crushing presence of business news that treats workers and unions as if they were invisible and unconnected to what goes on.

New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse is one of these survivors. He was recently snarled in a dispute with some union officials that says something about the job’s many thankless hassles.

In November, he wrote an article detailing complaints of current and former members of Unite Here, the hotel and restaurant workers’ union, with what they described as a longstanding practice known as pink-sheeting.

Citing interviews with “more than a dozen organizers,” Greenhouse detailed workers’ allegations that they were pressured to detail personal issues that they said were later used against them as a way to control or manipulate them.

John W. Wilhelm, Unite Here’s president, who was quoted as saying that he condemned such tactics, also described its presence within in the union as “rare.” But he also told Greenhouse that he was “cracking down on what pink sheeting existed.”

Not long after the article appeared, the Union of Unite Here Staff (UUHS) issued a public letter, heaping a mountain of complaints onto Greenhouse’s shoulders. The group accused the story of being founded on “trumped claims” from disgruntled former staffers, and of failing to link the complaints to the larger dispute that not long ago drove the former hotel workers and garment workers unions to abruptly break up their union marriage.

What’s Greenhouse’s take on these gripes?

Citing Wilhelm’s own admission that such abuses have existed and accounts from others familiar with them, he doesn’t think the complaints are made up.

Nor does he think he failed to point out the battling between the unions.

Indeed, the story did talk about the break-up and cited as well Wilhelm’s supporters who said that the complaints were coming from his union’s foes.

Could he have fleshed out more in detail the roots of pink-sheeting within organized labor? Possibly, I think. Could he have moved higher in the story the details about the unions’ toxic break-up? Possibly.

But questioning his “journalistic integrity,” doesn’t fit well.

Not when you consider reporting over the years about union victories ignored by most of the mainstream media, otherwise untold stories about companies’ abusive practices that unions stood up against, and stories about unions and their leaders that reached more than some husbands and young children.

It’s a pain delivering bad news about unions when they are so down on their luck, but  that’s one of the burdens of being a fair and honest labor reporter.

It’s also a responsibility.

I know, because I spent quite a long time doing the job, and can tell you all about the rewards and headaches, among them angry words hurled at you by union officials who say you are not on their side.

But truly you are not on their side.

You are there to tell the truth, to tell the human story, and to make sure nobody forgets that workers and unions count. And that’s a fact nobody should deny.

This article originally appeared in Working In These Times on December 12, 2009. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Stephen Franklin was the Chicago Tribune‘s labor and workplace reporter until August 2008.

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