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FEATURE A Victory in the Valley BY NATE BLAKESLEE 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 selfdefeating: 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 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 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 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. ings 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 SEPTEMBER 3, 1999 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5