From the Editor: Since the introduction of Section 511 to the Workforce Investment Act and the focus it has returned to Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, I have been approached by members to ask how we have arrived at our new position on the right of the blind to earn at least the minimum wage. I tell them that this position is not new, and that any war will require the shifting of emphasis from battle to battle.
Recently Dan Burke ran across several articles from The Blind American,a publication of the American Brotherhood for the Blind, which was distributed by them when the National Federation of the Blind had temporarily discontinued the publication of the Braille Monitor because of shortfalls in our funding. As Dan says about these articles, “The history of our opposition alone is compelling, the arguments then as cogent and as crucial as ours today, and the interim half-century of continued exploitation of workers with disabilities and the powerful defense of vested ‘helper’ interests every bit as execrable.” Keep in mind that these articles are from The Blind American, April 1964, Volume IV, No. 2, and take note of exactly how little the debate has changed:
Bills which would extend the minimum wage provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act to cover disabled workers in sheltered workshops—many of whom are blind persons—were given a significant public hearing on April 6 by a subcommittee of the House of Representatives.
Testifying in favor of the minimum-wage proposals was John F. Nagle, chief of the Washington Office of the National Federation of the Blind, who presented an oral statement and participated in subsequent discussion. A joint written statement favoring the legislation was submitted by Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, president of the American Brotherhood for the Blind, and James McGinnis, president of the California Council of the Blind.
Appearing in opposition to the wage bills were Peter J. Salmon, head of Brooklyn's Industrial Home for the Blind, and Tony Suazo, executive director of the National Association of Sheltered Workshops and Homebound Industries.
The two identical measures under consideration are H.R. 9904 and H.R. 9928, introduced by Congressmen John Dent and Dominick Daniels, both of whom are members of the General Subcommittee on Labor of the House Education and Labor Committee, which conducted the hearings. In addition to Congressman Dent two members of the subcommittee were present: Roman Pucinski, Illinois, and Alonzo Bell, California. (Other members are listed below.)
The measures call for a series of progressive wage increases for sheltered shop workers, requiring that they be paid not less than 50 percent of the prevailing national minimum (now $1.25 per hour) by January 1965, not less than 75 percent by the following year, and that, by January 1967, the sheltered workers must receive not less than the prevailing hourly minimum wage.
Salmon and Suazo, speaking against the bills on behalf of sheltered shop management, were subjected to sharp questioning and comments by Congressmen Dent and Pucinski. For example, when Salmon presented figures on costs and income for his Brooklyn workshop, Congressman Dent noted that the labor costs represented only about 16 percent of gross sales revenue and asserted that he had never before heard of any business with such low labor costs in relation to income.
Again, when the Brooklyn workshop executive sought to justify his low wage rates by lamenting the allegedly poor productive capacities of blind shop workers, the NFB's John Nagle intervened to point out that the great majority of blind and handicapped workers in sheltered workshops have sufficient capacity to compete on an equal basis in competitive employment if they are provided with proper training and adjustment services along with skilled help in securing employment.
In his oral testimony before the House subcommittee, Nagle urged the legislators "to recognize that disabled workers have the same problems as other workers, and share in common the same needs. We ask you to recognize and remedy the sorry plight of these workers—for their plight is a sorry one," he said.
The National Federation of the Blind official pointed out that "not only are these men and women in sheltered workshops not protected by the minimum wage provisions...but they are specifically denied this protection by the very provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act."
Nagle noted that in 1963 "nearly half of the sheltered workshops investigated were paying some of their disabled workers less than the very low wage rates presently permitted by law—and the number of such violations discovered shows a threefold increase over the previous year."
California Council President McGinnis joined Dr. tenBroek, head of the American Brotherhood, in a detailed statement documenting the grievances of blind sheltered shop workers throughout the country with respect to wages and general working conditions.
The two blind leaders asserted that "the tragic fact is that no consistent and generally agreed-upon" definition has yet been achieved as to the character and function of sheltered workshops and the status of the handicapped workers.
"Until a clear, acceptable and just definition can be devised, the identity of these disabled workers must remain in jeopardy and at issue—with resultant waste, confusion, conflict and failure on all sides," they said.
The joint Brotherhood-Council statement noted that in most of the public and official discussion on workshops, "one voice is rarely heard. That is the voice of the disabled worker himself, characteristically a blind person, whose concern in the matter is at once the most direct and vital of all."
Pointing out that "no outside groups or interests can in truth speak for the disabled worker in the sheltered shop," their statement continued: "Only the worker himself can do that—both directly, on the rare occasions when his individual voice may be heard, and indirectly through his own democratic voluntary organizations.
"During the past few years the voice of the shop worker has in fact been heard with increasing force and clarity," tenBroek and McGinnis said. "Blind workers in particular have made use of their own voluntary state associations, united in the National Federation of the Blind, to give organized expression to their demand for an adequate definition of their status and a reasonable reward for their labor.
"At the same time they have been systematically beginning to organize as an employee group, seeking union affiliation and recognition, and collective bargaining rights, through negotiation where possible and through strike action where necessary,” the statement observed.
Citing a long series of militant activities by sheltered shop workers in various parts of the country—notably in Cleveland, Dallas, St. Louis, San Diego, and Berkeley—the tenBroek-McGinnis statement focused upon "three main points of grievance" commonly raised by the handicapped workers in their organized protests:
"First, low wages consistently below the national minimum, coupled with discrimination and inequities in job classifications which have the effect of barring blind workers from normal advancement opportunities open to all others;
"Second, poor management, in terms both of simple ineptness and of irrational prejudice against the workers—the former expressed in terms of unnecessary delays, layoffs, low-quality production, and excessive operating costs—the latter in terms of contemptuous attitudes and outright bullying directed against the blind workers; and
"Third, inadequate training methods, carried out by unqualified instructors, performed on obsolete and poorly maintained equipment, and reflecting stereotyped convictions of the inability of blind persons to master any trades other than the most elementary and menial.
"The protest which is embodied in this wave of militant activity on the part of blind and disabled sheltered workers is unmistakable. It is a protest against an employment situation intolerable in its inequities and injustice; and it is a demand for recognition of the minimum rights of shop workers both as free citizens and as employees," the blind leaders said.
Letters supporting the two progressive wage bills for sheltered shop workers—H.R. 9904 and H.R. 9928—should be sent to the Hon. James Roosevelt, Chairman, General Subcommittee on Labor, Committee on Education and Labor, US House of Representatives, Washington 25, DC. Letters should also be sent to any subcommittee members who are from your state. The other members are: John Dent, PA; Roman Pucinski, IL; Dominick Daniels, NJ; Thomas Gill, Hawaii; Augustus Hawkins, Calif. These are the Democratic members of the Subcommittee. The Republicans are: William H. Ayres, Ohio; Charles E. Goddell, NY; Dave Martin, Neb.; Alonzo Bell, Calif.
by Bud Aronson
(Editor's note: Mr. Aronson is secretary-treasurer of the Union of State Employees, Local 411, AFL-CIO, the union responsible for the successful organization of blind workers in California Industries for the Blind workshops. A former intern with the Coro Foundation, Mr. Aronson prepared his article for publication in the March 1964 issue of the Foundation's bulletin.)
The wondrous joy flowing from the visual perception of a multitude of daily sights is not the only benefit denied blind workers in the State of California. Hundreds of sightless men and women employed in the State's sheltered workshops, known as California Industries for the Blind, are also deprived of many basic forms of protection accorded to their sighted counterparts in both private and public employment. Most important of the missing benefits is protection under the State's minimum wage law. Also noticeably lacking is a guaranteed work week. Consequently, it is perfectly legal to pay these workers as little as 50, 60 or 70 cents per hour, and it is equally legal to send them home after they report to work or to instruct them not to come to work for one or a number of days.
Of course, abundant explanations are readily available as to why blind workers are not treated just like any other workers. The usual argument advanced by government sources is that the blind in the sheltered workshops are primarily trainees rather than employees, that the chief objective of the workshop is to provide them with the vocational and personal rehabilitation necessary to equip them for a successful, gainful life on the outside. According to this theory, their stay in the workshop should be as brief as is possible, and as soon as the rehabilitation process has been completed, they should be placed on remunerative, outside jobs.
The only trouble with this argument is that few workers ever graduate from workshops to outside employment. The great majority are destined to remain at their same old stand making brooms and mattresses, or sewing and folding linen for the remainder of their productive lives.
Perhaps someday when society is more understanding and cooperative, or when the workshops teach more meaningful and adaptable skills, workshops may indeed become the mere stopping-off places they are intended to be, but, in the meantime, there is not the slightest indication that their present role is about to change.
In this context, it was not particularly surprising that in early 1963 the overwhelming majority of the 80 workers at the Berkeley GIB plant should see fit to become members of the Union of State Employees, Local 411, AFL-CIO.
After all, their grievances were numerous and important, and years of dissatisfaction gave no rise to hope of their solution. What was surprising, at least to many observers, was the tenacious militancy they would exhibit, a militancy which was to prove once and for always that sightlessness had not deprived them of the ability to recognize their own self-interest.
Early in May a number of broom makers engaged in a brief work-stoppage when their demands for improvements were not met. Acquiescence by management resulted in a speedy resumption of production. However, workshop officials then retaliated by laying off forty workers—one half of the entire work force. Management's contention that the layoff was forced by a surplus of unsold brooms piled up in the workshop was belied by Local 411's discovery that a large order for 800 dozen brooms had been placed by the State with a Texas organization.
It was at this point that the workers had to choose between insuring their jobs and returning to the old frustrating existence, or to take a calculated risk by remaining with the Union and "voting with their feet.” Their decision was virtually unanimous: to go out on strike. Fully sanctioned by the Alameda Central Labor Council and supported by all organized labor, the entire work force—with four lone exceptions—left their jobs and set up a picket line around the plant. Another delegation of strikers was sent to Sacramento, where picket lines were established outside the State Capitol, while the Legislature was in session, and the building of the Department of Education, which at that time administered the blind workshops. Legislators and State officials were equally surprised and apparently disturbed to see blind pickets, some of them accompanied by seeing-eye dogs, marching in orderly fashion around their buildings.
Two days of strike action, aided by generous publicity in all the communications media, led to a successful conclusion of the first authentic strike of blind workers in California history. Terms of the settlement included immediate rehiring of all workers—including the forty whose layoff precipitated the work stoppage—and management's agreement to negotiate on all outstanding issues.
Although the story is far from finished, this new chapter augurs well for the future of blind workers in the State. That they will no longer stand for the exploitive practices of the past has been demonstrated in unmistakable terms. Better wages, improved working conditions, and, above all else, attainment of the same dignity and recognition sought by all mankind since the beginning of time—these are the goals of California’s blind workers.
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