Bridging the Opportunity Divide

The Duel in the Desert: Albuquerque Residents Fight for Workplace Rights

October 2, 2015
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The Duel in the Desert: Albuquerque Residents Fight for Workplace Rights
Kris Buchmann couldn't afford childcare on what she made working in retail. Courtesy of OLÉ
This group already succeeded in boosting the minimum wage. Can it get more for low-income employees?

When your 4-year-old daughter is suffering from a 100-degree fever, common sense says that you shouldn’t have to choose between her health and your job. But that’s not always the case, so a coalition of New Mexico’s families is fighting for better treatment in the workplace.

It may be surprising to hear that low-wage workers can be fired for not waiting by the phone on their days off, when they’re expected to be on call in case their store gets busy. Some are unaware that workers have no guarantee of a regular schedule or paid sick leave. They have no idea employees can be scheduled for “doubles,” a swing shift that ends at midnight and an opening shift that begins early the next morning, cramming 16 hours of work in less than 24 hours. For members of Organizing in the Land of Enchantment, or OLÉ, a 5,000-member group that’s made up primarily of females, in Albuquerque, these challenges are a daily reality.

Kris Buchmann, an active member of the group, had to quit her retail job at an Albuquerque mall because childcare for her 1-year-old son during on-call shifts was costing nearly as much as she made working in the store. “I still had to pay a babysitter. Sometimes I would have to go pick her up, take her back to my house because she didn’t have transportation, drive to work, get sent home, still have to pay her and drive her home,” Buchmann explained to The New York Times. Buchmann asked for a more stable work schedule, but her boss refused.

OLÉ is working with Fight for $15 to raise minimum wages for fast food workers and the National Domestic Workers Alliance to ensure fair pay for home caregivers, but the thrust of its own grassroots campaigning is for broad workplace protections that would apply to every industry, transforming low-wage work from dead-end jobs to a stable profession. At the Albuquerque City Council, it’s pushing for the Fair Workweek Act, a proposed ordinance that would require employers to create work schedules three weeks in advance, compensate employees for last-minute changes, provide paid sick days and guarantee a $150 retention stipend for every two weeks a worker was on call but had no work.

OLÉ started in 2010 with an ambitious core agenda that touched on worker’s rights, affordable early childhood education, naturalization for legal residents and conservation of water and public lands. Their most significant victory thus far was passing a hike in the minimum wage, from $7.50 to to $8.50, in a 2012 ballot initiative that swept two-thirds of the vote.

That boost marked a “big step forward for low-wage workers in Albuquerque,” Matthew Henderson, OLÉ’s executive director, tells NationSwell. “Even so, I think everyone recognized that it is still pretty inadequate. Even with the minimum wage increase, there were a growing number of problems with low-wage work so we started thinking about how we could do something bigger that would affect more workers.”

The Fair Workweek Act intended to be just that, but thus far, it’s encountered strong opposition. It was always going to be difficult to get a nine-member City Council divided between five liberals and four conservatives to pass the bill. But before it was even introduced, Mayor Richard Berry, a Republican, promised to veto it, referring to it as “an impossible burden on small businesses.” That scared off at least one Democratic councilmember, who called for an economic impact analysis that would delay the measure for months.

With an election just around the corner this November, OLÉ is using voter pressure to their advantage. In case their legislative attempts fail, they’re also preparing to ask voters directly in the 2016 general election to support the Fair Workweek Act. They’ve already started collecting 14,000 signatures required to get the issue on the ballot.

Henderson has been organizing “folks who felt like they’re getting a raw deal” since 1994. He has advocated on behalf of mobile home park tenants and against predatory mortgage lending schemes. This may be his most ambitious battle yet.

“When we passed a minimum wage increase, it was clear to us that people of every class and political persuasion — no matter age or gender — everyone was with us. We didn’t have to persuade anyone. But still, we felt like it wasn’t really changing the conversation,” he says. “We have been trying to think of a way to talk about all the problems with work these days that is much broader than these single issues like the minimum wage.” That’s why the Fair Workweek Act seems like an important measure. It prompts conversations about work the average person isn’t familiar with, and its policies will affect more people than just the lowest of the low-paid workers.

“The economy has gone down a bad road that is making the employment of most Americans really challenging, unsatisfying and something that makes it impossible to really care for a family and raise it the way you want to,” Henderson adds. If OLÉ’s successful, they’ll truly raise the standard of living. Any full-time job, even with lower wages, would be enough to support a family.

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