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Sunday, March 26, 2017

Between monthly meetings at an old church, they stay in touch on Facebook, bonded together by common struggles.

At work, they keep their heads down, grappling with retaliatory managers who cut their hours for slight infractions like needing to pick up a sick child from school. They deal with customers who proposition them sexually, with coworkers who demean and belittle them.

They call themselves the Fannie Lou Hamer Women’s Committee, after the civil rights leader. They number about 100.

They are low-wage workers in Kansas City, employed by America’s favorite fast food franchises and sit-down restaurants, as well as by daycare centers and home healthcare providers.

If you think the fight for raising the minimum wage is simply about paychecks, let these women educate you. They’re vulnerable and they know it. Beyond higher pay, they seek dignity.

The career gripes of the average middle-class woman don’t hold a candle to what these ladies face daily. Their workplace stories are a catalogue of routine disregard of basic employment law. Sexual harassment is the most egregious, but there are other indignities, such as the mother who got hassled about wanting to leave work when her child had to go to the hospital.

The committee’s meetings are a bit covert. The members, after all, need to keep their jobs and are highly vulnerable to the whims of the managers they are organizing to resist. They’re working to build support among employees at stores so that if any employee presses a grievance she will have allies. The women envision eventually having a union.

They all aspire to “really good jobs” — such as work in warehouses, where full-time slots and benefits like paid time off, maternity leave and even a regular schedule can be found. But they say they don’t usually qualify for those positions.

Why not? Because mostly they have high school educations and no trade training. Many are from families of multi-generational poverty and unstable family networks. They were born into these situations, and it’s very hard to escape. Desire to work hard does not do the trick.

They say they are routinely hired at lower wages than men with similar experience and education levels. And the men tend to be the ones given the chances to advance.

Data bears out the frustration these women feel. Women make up two-thirds of the nearly 20 million low-wage workers in America, according to the National Women’s Law Center, which defines low-wage work as that earning $10.10 or less. A 2014 study of the center found that women in such positions, working full time, have a 13 percent wage gap with men — higher for minority women.

This has dire consequences for the future of the economy and family stability — especially given that low-wage jobs are the ones have returned in higher numbers in the post-recession economy.

Sexual harassment is pervasive and well-documented. A study by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United found that significant number of women feared “financial loss, public humiliation or job termination if they tried to report sexual harassment from management and customers.”

One recent meeting of the Fannie Lou Hamer Women’s Committee focused on that reality. Groping of their bodies and outright solicitations for sex acts, things that would send white-collar women running to human resources, are brushed aside by low-wage employers.

“They definitely take advantage,” one woman said of supervisors. They hold incredible power over the women simply by controlling when they are scheduled to work and how many hours they can get.

Another woman eloquently made the argument that raising their wages and ensuring schedules with regular hours would ultimately aid society.

“I promise you, we’d be better parents,” she said, detailing how it would mean to be able to stick to a set a schedule and avoid shuffling kids between friends and relatives with ever-changing work shifts, not to mention having a larger financial cushion.

A handful of the committee’s members recently returned from a five-day training session in Chicago, the Midwest School for Women Workers.

There they learned about historic labor movements, employment law and labor standards. But what impressed them the most, was learning from female labor rights leaders from Mexico and Turkey.

“I encourage you to use whatever struggles you are a part of and let it make you stronger every day,” one of the labor activists encouraged the larger group.

The women of the Fannie Lou Hamer Women’s Committee take solace in the fact that they are not being targeted by government officials or being beaten or disappeared, threats the foreign organizers faced.

But their lives are grim enough, and middle-class America, stressed as it is, owes it to them to guarantee conditions where all can work with dignity and financial security.

(Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at [email protected].)

(c) 2016, THE KANSAS CITY STAR. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC

Photo: Tracy Duve serves nachos at Tony’s I-75 Restaurant in Birch Run, Michigan, October 15, 2006.   REUTERS/Molly Riley

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