A Victory in the Valley

Valley Interfaith's Living Wage Campaign triumphed in Hidalgo County. Can the people retain their victory?

Berta Esquivel manages a Head Start pre-kindergarten program in Donna, a tiny community between McAllen and Harlingen in the Lower Rio Grande River Valley. The federal government funds the program, but Hidalgo County sets the wage levels for Esquivel and her coworkers, and those wages have become a point of contention among the county’s roughly five hundred Head Start employees.

Esquivel tells the story of a custodian with thirty-two years of experience at her center. When she died in July, she was earning $5.30 per hour. “We work so hard,” Esquivel says, “but we can’t afford medical insurance, or even pay for our own groceries.” Like many public employees in the Valley – which has the lowest per capita income of any region in the nation – some full-time Head Start workers actually qualify for food stamps. Thus a program intended to give poor kids a jump on first grade is also creating poor families in the process, ensuring a new supply of kids for the program.

That may soon change. Working through Valley Interfaith, the church and community-based organization known for its groundbreaking work in colonias, Esquivel and dozens of other leaders began organizing a “living wage” campaign for public employees in the Valley eighteen months ago. After early victories in area school districts and the City of McAllen, Interfaith went for the big one in Hidalgo County: an unprecedented countywide living wage ordinance that would apply to all county employees. The organizing paid off. In a dramatic and hotly contested commissioner’s court vote on July 12, one of the poorest counties in the nation adopted the most progressive wage policy in the state of Texas. Beginning in January 2000, the base wage for all Hidalgo County employees will be tied to the federal poverty level for a family of four, currently $7.50 per hour. Or perhaps it won’t. The Hidalgo county judge, who voted against the measure, has vowed to resurrect the fight during the budget process this fall. From the perspective of the campaign organizers, the Judge’s logic is as cogent as it is self-defeating: low wages are a selling point for industries seeking to locate in the Valley, where unemployment runs as high as 40 percent in some areas, and the county shouldn’t be creating competition for low-wage industries by raising its own entry-level wages. In many ways, the Judge represents traditional Valley politics: a highly exclusive patronage system that revolves around personalities, patronage jobs, and personal favors. Valley Interfaith, through its living wage campaign and other initiatives, represents the opposite: organizing ordinary people over issues, not personalities, and creating political power outside of the traditional networks – in schools, churches, and workplaces. The brewing battle is not only about wages, but also the culture of labor in the Valley, and old paths of power versus new.

Valley Interfaith has a storefront office in Mercedes where three full-time paid organizers work, but its leaders are drawn from its affiliated groups, which include about forty-five churches (virtually all Catholic) and twenty-one public schools. The churches pay dues to Valley Interfaith, and their clergy and more active parishioners become Interfaith leaders in their parishes. The schools are affiliated with Interfaith under the auspices of the Alliance Schools Initiative, which Interfaith helped found, and under which state grants are allocated to public schools that agree to form partnerships with community groups to improve the quality of education. Interfaith was founded in 1983 as an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation (a national group founded by legendary Chicago community organizer Saul Alinsky). With a combined total of about 60,000 families in its affiliated parishes and schools, Interfaith is the strongest political force in the Valley – yet the organization is fiercely, almost religiously, non-partisan. No other group, including the Democratic Party, does the sort of door-to-door, block-by-block organizing that Interfaith leaders coordinate. No group has done more to get significant colonias reform passed in the Legislature. Over the years, Interfaith has also been instrumental in pushing indigent care, education, and job training legislation.

The idea for a living wage campaign sprang from an earlier Interfaith victory on a half-cent “human development” sales tax referendum in McAllen (which had failed three times prior to Interfaith’s organizing effort). The referendum – the first in Texas to list on the ballot the actual projects to be funded – included millions for construction of libraries and clinics. In the course of working on the referendum, leaders discovered that construction workers in the Valley earn anywhere from $6 to $12 per hour less than in San Antonio or Houston. As a result, according to Jerry Vaughn of the Valley General Contractors Association, many of the more skilled workers leave the Valley.

Interfaith came up with the idea of requiring contractors who do business with the city or county to pay a living wage. That idea was shot down when Attorney General John Cornyn advised the group that such a provision would require a change in state law. Cornyn’s opinion apparently left open the option of an ordinance requiring the county to pay its own employees more than minimum wage. Interfaith began research on wages across the Valley and other living wage campaigns across the country (many initiated by other I.A.F. groups). “We began having house meetings, and out of those meetings came the horror stories,” recalls Sister Maria Sanchez, a leader from St. Joseph the Worker Church in South McAllen. “A father goes up north for better wages. The mother is left behind, but she has to work, too. So the two teenage daughters go unsupervised – and both end up pregnant.”

Poverty wages have long been the hallmark of the labor market in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, where the unemployment rate is roughly triple the state average, and 45 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line. Yet many cost of living indicators are actually higher in the Valley than in San Antonio, where the same work pays much better wages. Unions are virtually non-existent. And although the Valley is growing at an extremely rapid rate, the economy has actually gotten worse in the last ten years. One of the largest area employers, Levi Strauss, laid off 1,700 garment workers this summer and moved to Mexico, as has much of the garment industry along the border since NAFTA took effect in 1995. Workers with no high school diploma and little English could earn $10 per hour in the garment industry. Nothing has replaced that old standby. Agricultural employment is down, too. Many citrus growers never recovered from the disastrous freeze of 1985, selling out to colonia developers and leaving the business altogether. “Being from the Valley, we have experience working the fields, and that was okay for us, but if you look around now, there’s not too many fields left anymore,” says Estella Soza-Garza, a leader from the parish of Holy Spirit and a clinical social worker.

Interfaith leaders discovered that fully 30 percent of the county’s workforce earned minimum wage or slightly above. Many were on public assistance. The same was true for other public employees in the Valley, where roughly one-third of all employees work in the public sector. Interfaith brought in an M.I.T. economist to hold a seminar on wages for leaders from across the Valley. “He really shook us up,” says Mody Guzmán, a leader from the Alton area near Mission. “He told us that markets are not the only thing that determine wages. Political decisions are made. And wages stay low as long as we allow them to,” she explains. “Here in the Valley, historically, decisions are made by only a few people. That’s the culture we have to change.” Leaders spent a year holding house meetings, where neighbors gather to discuss issues and plan strategy, and meeting with area elected officials and school superintendents. “The most radical thing we do,” explains Sister Judy Donovan, one of the few full-time, paid Interfaith organizers, “is bring people into conversation. Most people are victims or outsiders in the political process. We make them subjects.” Relying on their network of leaders in the Valley’s school districts, Interfaith convinced school boards and superintendents to come to the table. In 1998, the McAllen I.S.D. brought more than 400 employees up to $6.65, and Pharr-San Juan-Alamo I.S.D. followed suit soon after. The Mission I.S.D. then raised wages to remain competitive. The Texas Education Agen cy also raised wages at the area Regional Service Center to a base of $7.50, as did the city of McAllen.

Interfaith leaders next took their proposal to the Hidalgo County Commissioner’s Court, a bastion of old-school Valley politics. Because they are not beholden to elected officials, Valley Interfaith leaders don’t mince words when it comes to talking about politicians; they call their opponents enemies. The enemy in this case, they soon discovered, was County Judge José Eloy Pulido.

In much of rural Texas, if you call the county judge’s office, likely as not he will answer the phone himself, if he’s not out overseeing a road crew on some long-neglected county road. Things are different in the Valley. The McAllen-Mission-Edinburg metropolitan area was recently ranked dead last in the nation in per capita income, but you wouldn’t know it from a visit to the Hidalgo County Administration building. Much of the second floor of the modern, three-story building in downtown Edinburg is devoted to County Judge Eloy Pulido’s considerable staff. Pulido’s office itself is spacious and nicely appointed, with about a half-dozen enormous South Texas white-tail and mule deer mounts adorning one wall. Pulido, forty-one, stands about five-foot-seven in his cowboy boots, with a sparse black comb-over across his head, a black mustache, and a mischievous smile. A cell phone – his personal line – sits on his desk between his elbows and rings repeatedly: his little boy, a compadre, personal business. Although he has only been in office eight months, he has the manner of one who expects to be practicing politics for a lifetime: he looks you in the eye, he makes sure to say your name every five minutes or so, and he is a gracious host. He can afford to be. Politics in the Valley has always revolved around patronage; as county judge, Pulido is one of the top patróns, personally controlling dozens of positions. One of the reasons public employment is so high in the Valley is the longstanding tradition of trading jobs for political support. The tradition continues: one area school superintendent told Valley Interfaith organizers that a newly elected county commissioner told him he needed seventy-five teacher’s aide positions to fulfill political debts incurred during the election.

A former county clerk and school board president, Pulido is closely tied to Eddie Lucio, the state senator from the Valley and the don of Valley politics. Pulido’s uncle is the district attorney, and his older brother, Roberto Pulido, is a Tejano music star, one of the most famous people to come from the Valley. During his campaign, Roberto played at his younger brother’s pachangas, the Valley’s legendary political parties, at which candidates traditionally provide free beer and tacos. It’s the one place in the Valley where rich and poor mingle; anyone with a voter registration card is welcome.

Pulido blames Valley Interfaith for the predicament now facing the commissioner’s court. Ironically, it was Pulido who agreed to form a salary study committee last January in response to Valley Interfaith’s living wage proposal. He now says he is not surprised that the committee came back to the commissioner’s court in July with unanimous support for raising the county’s base salary, “because of the influence of Valley Interfaith on some of the members.” But the Judge himself appointed to the committee Father Jerry Frank, pastor of Holy Spirit parish and one of Valley Interfaith’s most outspoken leaders. The committee also included well-respected community leaders not affiliated with Interfaith, such as Aaron Peña, Jr., who heads one of the biggest law firms in the Valley, and U.T.-Pan American professor Roland Arriola, a respected voice on economic development.

After he was defeated 3 to 2 at commissioner’s court, the Judge produced a litany of reasons why the process was flawed. During our conversation, Pulido first suggested that the committee met infrequently, and had trouble getting members toattend, a contention that committee member and Interfaith leader Flora Rodríguez denies. Pulido went on to say that other commissioners understood the vote to be non-binding, more of a symbolic resolution than a final decision on policy; and that the committee was never charged with the duty of setting a base salary in the first place, but instead was asked to explore the possibility of a step system based on merit and experience. But a June memo from Pulido’s office to the committee states quite simply, “The base salary is for the committee to decide.” Nor does Pulido’s claim that the vote was symbolic coincide with the recollection of other commissioners or the record of events. “Quite the contrary,” says Commissioner Juan Rosel, who voted for the measure. “He [Pulido] did put forth a watered-down resolution that day, but I said ‘No, I don’t want this resolution, I want to vote on policy.’ And that’s what we did, and that’s why the vote was split.” The record vote was in fact not on Pulido’s resolution, but on the committee’s recommendation: a new county policy to raise the minimum wage.

Pulido’s memory is much clearer when it comes to potential industry concerns about the initiative. The bottom line, Pulido says, is that private industry will lose potential workers if the county offers them more. “I think it’s unfair that we take their [private businesses] tax dollars and use them to create competition for them,” he says. If the county raises wages for its lowest paid workers, he argues, it could cause pressure on the private sector to raise wages. “I don’t think the county should be in the business of setting wage levels for the entire area,” Pulido says. “One thing we don’t want to do is scare away industry…. We need them to bring in jobs, maybe not at $5.15, but at $6.00, $6.50, or $7.00,” he says. “When you compare that to the minimum wage, it’s pretty good. People want to work.”

“Pulido is a very imaginative person being prodded by other individuals,” says Father Alfonso Guevara, pastor of Christ the King in Brownsville and a long-time Valley Interfaith leader. “It’s not for him to decide, it’s for him to listen to people.” Dissembling and posturing aside, Pulido does listen. The Judge’s rhetoric becomes very cautious and measured when the subject of Valley Interfaith comes up. He says it does not concern him to be opposed to Interfaith on this issue. Yet Pulido, like all Valley politicians, never misses an Interfaith accountability session, in which elected officials and candidates are summoned to appear before voters to affirm or deny – usually in one minute or less – their support for Interfaith’s agenda. That type of power is what makes Valley Interfaith one of the most respected community groups in the country.

According to Father Alfonso, Interfaith’s power comes from the community’s willingness to act, which in turn stems from desperate living conditions and a tradition of public citizenship in the Catholic Church. Catholic social doctrine regarding the rights of workers is found throughout church history, from the Industrial Revolution, when the church declared that workers have the right to form unions, up to Pope John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical “On Human Work,” in which he wrote that a just wage is one that allows an adult to raise and establish a family. That’s one adult, not two.

“The Catholic perspective is concerned not only with the interior life, the private life of the person, but also with the common good,” Alfonso says. Whereas “American
in general have a sense that even religion becomes something very private,” Catholics tend to be more outward-looking. “There’s a kind of Protestant ethic that supports the idea of individualism, you know, Jesus as my personal savior and all that.” In particular, Alfonso says, whether they realize it or not, priests are public figures with a responsibility to get involved beyond the sacristy, the daily rituals of church life. If that means getting involved in politics, then so be it. The alternative, Alfonso says, is to accept that “we have no control overthe economy, as if it were a god in itself.” There may be more than one god in the Valley, as Father Alfonso suggests. Their respective armies are on the plain.

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Published at 12:00 am CST