U.S. Secretary of Labor makes visit in Capital City to discuss ways to improve work conditions in the Magnolia State

Published: Jul. 1, 2022 at 12:11 AM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - On Thursday, the U.S. Secretary of Labor made a stop in the Capital City.

Inside the Terry L. Woodard Ballroom at Jackson State University, Marty Walsh described the conversation he had with a group of fast-food workers in Arkansas, detailing their toxic work environment.

“Treated terribly,” Walks described. “Racism, sexual harassment. The days of racism need to be in the rear view mirror; the days of workers’ rights need to be here.”

During the roundtable discussion, he also heard from Mississippi workers going through similar experiences.

“You’re property to them,” said Morris Mock Jr., who’s a Nissan factory worker, and an organizer. “You’re not even human, you’re property. It’s sad to compare it, but I would compare it to like plantation culture.”

”If they’re paying more than $7.25 an hour you can pretty much do whatever you want to those workers, they won’t leave, they won’t complain,” said Angela Dawson, Mississippi community engagement coordinator.

Representatives from six different unions and organizations were a part of this discussion. They said a few challenges most workers have include being overworked due to shortages at their job and being miseducated on the rights they have, which is why members on the panel stress the importance of organizing unions.

”People don’t understand ‘right to work’ and ‘at-will employment,’” said Rosie Turner, vice-president of UFCW Local 1529. “We don’t understand it. You got a right to work and they got a right to fire you for any reason. You can get these $25 jobs, but if you don’t have a contract, that’s your insurance policy.”

Equal pay is also a big issue the panel says is troubling the state. Despite the Equal Bay Bill set to become law on Friday, some members who were part of the roundtable believe the legislation still doesn’t address the key issues at hand.

”It codifies into law that an employer can pay a woman less based on her salary history,” said Cassandra Welchlin, executive director of the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable. “Secondly, it will discriminate against a woman based on her employment gaps. Hello, we just had COVID, we’re still in COVID and we know that women had to leave the workforce to take care of their children. We are women. We’re caregivers. We’re going to have a baby, or we’re going to take care of our mom or dad. The other thing that this bill does is it discriminates based on negotiation [skills]. That’s really discriminatory and a stereotype.”

“The last thing this bill does... she would have to waive her federal rights under the state law. That just seems so unconstitutional. It has no protection for women. To put such a bill into law says a lot about how they feel about women and value women in the workforce.”

Another issue brought up during Thursday’s conversation is the state’s minimum wage.

Right now, it’s $7.25 an hour.

However, Walsh said he’d like to see that rate doubled.

“I think most people understand that $15 an hour minimum wage is where we need to go,” said Walsh. “That’s the floor,  that’s not the ceiling, not the floor. I think the fact that in every state that’s incorporated a $15 an hour minimum wage, the conversation in the very beginning was that it was going to put businesses out of business, and every state that’s instituted it, including my own state [Massachusetts] business has gotten better.”

When it comes to what’s next, Walsh said he wants to look at the H-2A Program for farm workers

“To make sure that the intent to run the program is a good intention,” he said. “It’s to supplement American workers where company’s farmers’ farms don’t have enough workers to work on those. You’re able to bring in farm workers to supplement that.  It does two things: it helps the farmer survives; it also helps the person coming in from another country earn some money and go back home with it. What’s happening here is that they are replacing farm workers. In Mississippi, the unemployment rate for farmers is 14 percent. {There are] plenty of workers available.”

Walsh says he plans to be back in Mississippi again to continue this conversation. In fact, he said he’s going to take all of the information he received Thursday back to Washington and discuss it with other cabinet members to find ways to fulfill some of the recommendations he was given.

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