Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A Tale of Two Economies

As a parish rector in the Diocese of California, I enjoy enormous job security. I am, for all intents and purposes, tenured. I can't be removed from office without cause. My parish is required to compensate me according to minimum standards set by Diocesan Convention and, by canon law, to pay into the Church Pension Fund on my behalf. It is a pretty good deal, which I largely take for granted.

A recent report from the hotel and food workers' union, UNITE-HERE, reminds me that there are far too many people in the U.S. who do not enjoy such security. Their report, A Tale of Two Economies, chronicles the dark underside of the High Tech - Biotech economy in the Bay Area. The top 150 Silicon Valley companies recorded profits of $37.1 billion dollars in 2005, up 199% from 2003. Genentech, rated the #1 company to work for in the U.S., realized $1.39 billion in profits alone.

Unfortunately, the benefits of this economic boom have not been enjoyed by the many low-wage service workers who clean-up after and feed the highly skilled professionals who work for these companies. While Genentech employees enjoy great benefits, the cafeteria workers are subcontracted through companies like Guckenheimer Enterprises. These food service workers, like many others serving Bay Area high tech and biotech companies, earn 69% less than the median income for Santa Clara and San Mateo counties; most can not afford health care insurance premiums of $200-$400 per month and depend upon public assistance (for food as well as health care); many of them report work place injuries and difficulties getting time off to attend to them; those who seek to organize union representation to negotiate better working conditions are harrassed, demoted, or "laid off."

These subcontractors provide cover for companies like Genentech, who pass along to tax payers the cost of the benefits they provide their employees. Genentech employees get subsidized meals, while taxpayers subsidize the food and health care that underpaid and exploited food service workers can't afford. According to one of the union organizers with whom I've spoken, about 65% of these workers are Latino and most of them are women. I suspect that, given the climate of anti-immigrant sentiment, these folks are hired because they work hard AND are easy to intimidate. It is a familiar story of the coincidence of race, class, gender and immigrant status in the ongoing saga of economic injustice.

UNITE-HERE has begun a campaign to urge companies like Genentech to adopt Responsible Contractor Policies or Codes of Conduct to hold these subcontractors accountable for fair wages, compliance with state and federal laws, neutrality toward worker organizing, and worker retention practices when contractors change. They are urging religious communities and leaders to join them in endorsing these Codes of Conduct. One way to start is by attending the clergy/religious breakfast they are hosting later this month:

Location: King Community Center
725 Monte Diablo Ave, San Mateo, CA
When: Monday, January 29, 9:00am
Phone: 415 336-4717
Help us celebrate the kick off of the "Service Workers Rising" campaign. We are starting here in San Mateo/Santa Clara but this campaign may change the lives of 1,000,000 workers in the US and Canada. Hear about the "Tale of Two Economies" created by Bio-Tech and High-Tech Industry. These corporations attract workers from all over the world. Both groups work hard but one set has the income and benefits they deserve and are treated with respect. The other group struggles to care for their family with low wages and poor access to health care, they also fight for dignity at work on a daily basis. Join us to support courageous immigrant workers and the challenges they face in organizing for their rights. SI SE PUEDE!
I hope to see you there!

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