Working poor express concerns in forum

Mary Russell

Last year, 12.5 percent of the American population was poor, 18 percent of whom were children. The problem behind these statistics was the subject of the Forum on the Working Poor, held Monday night in the Connelly Center.

Moderated by Dr. Robert H. Defina from the sociology department, the forum offered an opportunity for people to hear personal stories about being poor in America from three invited speakers.

The first speaker, Crystal Justice, was a 42-year-old single mother of six. She shared her story of raising children on welfare. Wanting to provide an example of self-sufficiency for her children, she entered herself into a training program to become a certified nursing assistant. Her starting wage was $8 an hour. She credited her religious faith for bringing her to her current position, in which she advises nurses and earns $17 an hour.

Speaking of the challenges she faced in caring for her children without their father, she said, “I could’ve stayed with him and just been another welfare recipient … But I didn’t want that for my kids.”

The next speaker, Chrissie Dickson, shared her story of working two jobs for a child care facility in Delaware County. Although she has a college degree from St. Joseph’s University, holds the title of assistant director and works in an additional position, she still only earns $8 an hour. Her pay has not increased since she began working in the late 1980s and includes no health benefits.

“I do have a degree. I shouldn’t be making $8 an hour,” she said.

The final speaker, Maureen Franklin, told of her career in food services and the rigorous hours such a field demands.

Also a single mother, she has no health benefits and even took a pay cut when she switched from tips to salary-based pay at the Drexelbrook Catering and Banquet Facility, where the University’s Senior Breakfast was held. She is now enrolled in Delaware County Tech School and is hoping that a degree will help with future employment.

Following these stories, Richard Trumka, a Villanova Law graduate gave the featured speech of the evening.

Trumka is now the secretary/treasurer of the AFL/CIO, a federation of unions. He said he was compelled to take a leadership role in union organization because of a desire to serve the poor in the Augustinian tradition.

“God didn’t create the policies in our country that favor the rich over the poor, but rather [they were created] by shortsighted mortals and they could be changed by mortals,” he said.

“It is immoral that anyone who works full time lacks enough funds to support their families,” Trumka said.

Citing America as the “richest nation the world has ever known,” Trumka questioned why the ranks of the working poor have continued to grow while the gap between rich and poor has continued to stretch. He said that workers can improve their working conditions, wages and benefits if they join unions, but many fear the backlash they would receive from a boss if they did.

The forum sought to establish that the status of the working poor resulted from a lack of workers’ rights in America, and championed labor unions in correcting those flaws. If more people joined unions, Trumka said, positive competition would be created that would benefit all wage-earners.

Trumka profiled many of the differences between the presidential candidates’ views on labor laws. Senator Kerry has co-sponsored the Employee Free Choice Act while President Bush has not supported it.