California dreams of union rights as poverty rate soars

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The Independent US

California celebrated its 150th birthday yesterday, though you would have been hard put to notice. Aside from a sterile ceremony outside the state capital in Sacramento, there was barely a cheer or a firecracker to harken back to the advent of statehood on 9 September 1850.

California celebrated its 150th birthday yesterday, though you would have been hard put to notice. Aside from a sterile ceremony outside the state capital in Sacramento, there was barely a cheer or a firecracker to harken back to the advent of statehood on 9 September 1850.

There should have been so much to celebrate. California, after all, is the most populous state in the union, and the most dreamed about, with an economy more powerful than that of most industrialised countries. California is the springboard of the world entertainment industry and the crucible of the new digital economy, a place where it often seems that you really can arrive with nothing and build your dream.

Or can you? For all its prosperity, California is also a place where the gulf between rich and poor is the widest in the Western world.

And, according to a flurry of recent studies, that gap is continuing to widen despite the great promise and expansion of the Clinton-era economic boom.

The Federal Reserve says that the state's poverty rate is three percentage points above the national average and getting worse. A recent study published by a liberal think tank called the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) shows that, while the top 1 per cent of Californians continue to increase their wealth (now accounting for around 20 per cent of the total), the bottom 80 per cent have retrenched, sharing less than half the overall wealth of the state between them.

Far from liberating families from poverty from one generation to the next, California is in fact seeing a growing core of working families who cannot escape the cycle of rock-bottom wages, inadequate education, non-existent health insurance, overcrowded housing and short life expectancy.

Some of the statistics are downright shocking. The poorest working families earn 22 per cent less now, in real terms, than they did in the late 1960s. Fully 72 per cent of the Los Angeles Unified School District's student population come from families living in poverty; many of them can barely afford clothes to wear to school. Some 34 per cent of Californians are without health cover from their employer (the national average is 26 per cent); in LA, the figure is 41 per cent.

Los Angeles, in fact, is the worst city in the worst state for almost every indicator of poverty. The LAANE study estimates that 43 per cent of LA county lives at or near the poverty line - not because of unemployment, but because the lowest-paid jobs simply do not let people make ends meet.

"What we are seeing is the most extreme appropriation of the wealth of one class by another, perhaps ever," commented David Koff, a union organiser and documentary film-maker.

Although the disparities are hardly new - after all the Gold Rush, which propelled California into being in the mid-19th century, was already notable for letting the few trample over the many - they do seem to be reaching something of a crisis point. One indication of this is a newly invigorated drive to unionise service sector workers at the very bottom end of the scale - office cleaners, hotel bellboys and restaurant dishwashers, many of them recently arrived Latino immigrants - and the widespread feeling among the rich liberal elites of the Pacific coast that some semblance of balance needs to be restored.

Earlier this year, LA's office cleaners successfully marched in the streets for a $3 an hour pay rise over the next three years. Hotel workers are clamouring to be allowed to organise a union at two high-profile locations. And the beach city of Santa Monica is seriously considering introducing a "living wage" of more than $10 an hour that would more accurately reflect workers' material needs than the present minimum wage of $5.75 an hour.

Each of these campaigns has had widespread coverage in the Los Angeles Times and on local television stations. Each, too, has received enthusiastic backing from several politicians and celebrities (as well as meeting fierce resistance from employers). In a country not known for its patience for union activism, Los Angeles is in fact turning into the most significant proving ground for organised labour in the whole country.

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