SEIU 1021 members join statewide fight for $15 minimum wage, affordable housing
The meteoric success of the Fight For 15 has been eye-opening, exposing its limitations. While a bigger paycheck lifts a family up, if the cost of living, particularly housing, goes through the roof, it negates the gain.
This intersection of wages and housing costs has become an all-encompassing fight against poverty and spawned new movements for affordable housing and tenants rights in Oakland, Richmond, Santa Rosa, and elsewhere — communities that understand the link because they live it every day. With about one third of local workers earning $15 or below, there are few places in the Bay Area these folks can afford to rent.
That’s why the Fight For 15 action in Oakland this Thursday is morphing into a March Against Corporate Greed, and the issue of a $15 per hour wage is sharing the stage with a demand for affordable housing.
The tentacles of the housing crisis have spread and stung members of the SEIU 1021 family. Three of our members shared their stories and why they will be joining in the April 14 action.
When a city’s housing crisis becomes personal, it is often accompanied and exacerbated by other personal troubles, something with the family or the job. For SEIU 1021 member Liz Torres, tragedy and bureaucracy combined into crisis.
Torres has worked for the Oakland school district as a community outreach organizer for 10 years. She organized parents to volunteer at East Oakland’s troubled Castlemont High School to help with the relations between the Latino and African American students and to prepare them mentally and physically to learn. She had as many as 25 volunteers on the campus on a daily basis. California Attorney General Kamala Harris even came to the school once to recognize what a successful program she was running.
But in 2013 her husband was diagnosed with cancer. The chemo and radiation treatments were unsuccessful and he was given six months to live. She took family medical leave to care for him and be with him in his last days. In her absence the a new principal came to the school and cut her job from full time to 17½ hours a week, reducing both her pay and medical benefits for her husband, who was at that point receiving hospice services at home.
“I felt like I was punished for doing my responsibility of caring for my dying husband,” Torres said. When her husband died she was months behind in her rent and facing eviction and homelessness.
The union difference
She’d had a bad experience with a different union at a previous job, so she tried to deal with the district herself, but was getting nowhere. Then she met an SEIU 1021 organizer who convinced her to give the union a chance to help.
“Once the union got involved, the district started to respond,” Torres said.
The field rep investigated the situation and discovered that the principal had never asked anyone in authority before cutting her hours, in violation of the union contract. He won her full time position back with back pay.
She has been able to pay back her landlord who waited patiently for her to resolve the issue. And although in the meantime she went through hell, losing money and her car, she is now back at the job and still in her apartment.
“I learned to make lemonade out of lemons,” she said.
Everybody has their dreamy reasons for wanting to hit the jackpot. Patricia Lopez’s are a bit different than most.
“I play the lottery so I can win mega-millions and build homes for the homeless,” she said. “I’m serious,” she added, realizing that doesn’t sound like she’s keeping it 100.
But Lopez, who is an SEIU 1021 member and shop steward at the Alameda County Behavioral Services department and an Oakland native, is seriously upset about the housing crisis in her hometown.
“It’s incredibly horrifying what’s going on. People have just gotten so greedy,” she said. “They evict tenants who have been there for years just because now whey can double and triple the rent. But what about the people it’s affecting?”
And Lopez seriously walks the talk. She bought a duplex thinking of her future retirement. Her niece once occupied the second unit and now her cousin does. She keeps the rent hundreds of dollars below what she could get on the market. Her brother is staying with her now while awaiting his license to return to sea as a merchant marine. But it’s not just about family.
“When I first bought this place, the first thing I did was look for a Section 8 tenant because they have such a hard time finding a decent place to live,” she said. “That was one of the hardest things I ever had to deal with. These people would call me up and practically beg to move in. I took it off Section 8 because I couldn’t stand it any more. It was heart-breaking.”
And when her cousin leaves her second unit, she says she will look for someone else who needs a place and can’t afford much.
“My conscience wouldn’t allow me to do otherwise,” she said.
Lopez has joined SEIU 1021’s housing fight, gathering signatures on petitions and attending the Oakland City Council meeting in support of the rent/eviction moratorium. She said she will be at the Fight For Fifteen demo on April 14 too.
“SEIU said that was going to be our way of operating, hooking up with community groups and working on issues that are important to everyone, not just our members,” she said. “I think that’s a fantastic idea.”
Sometimes hard times have a way of bringing people together to the benefit of all.
Ivan Satterfield has been employed at the City of Oakland’s Public Works Dept. for the last two years. Although it’s a decent full-time job with benefits, a simple apartment for this single father and his 13-year old daughter is beyond his means.
“It would be like 80% of my paycheck going to rent,” Satterfield said.
He knows a lot of people are dealing with the housing crisis by moving to the outskirts, suburbs where they have to drive an hour or two just to get to work. But he grew up in Oakland and wants to stay there.
“I like it in Oakland. I like what Oakland has to offer,” he said. “My daughter’s other brothers and sisters on her mom’s side are in Oakland. And it’s convenient to live in the city you work in.”
As much as he would like to have his own place, right now he and his daughter are living in his parents’ house. They are retired and living on a fixed income – his father used to work for the City of Oakland and he remembers going to union meetings with him back when it was SEIU 790 – and they’re helping each other out.
“Our family is pulling together and making it work,” Satterfield said. “I’m blessed to have this opportunity.”