Kathleen Haley

Youth Take on the World and Protest Globalization at DNC

The vast numbers of students and young adults among the protesters in Los Angeles this week can only point to one thing: youth can not be silenced; not by corporate control on a global level, or massive police presence. Amid riot gear-wearing polic officers on foot, in cars, helicopters, on motorcycles, and bicycles, youth started off the week by making their presence known at two of the week's larger protests, one to fight globalization and another to further awareness about Mumia Abu-Jamal's imprisonment.

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San Francisco Leads Country with New Minimum Wage Proposals

Willie Williams earns $6.80 an hour working as a security guard for the city of San Francisco. Like many other low-wage workers, Williams can't afford to rent an apartment in the city he works in, or even in less expensive suburbs. So Williams and his wife and two children have been living in homeless shelters since January. "Moving from shelter to shelter has been pretty scary," he says. "I always hoped and prayed it would get better."

Fortunately, Williams' prayers may soon come true. He and thousands of other low-wage San Francisco workers will soon see their pay rise to a "living wage" -- $9 an hour, plus health benefits. The recently announced Minimum Compensation Ordinance, endorsed by a broad coalition of politicians, activists and business owners, will put San Francisco at the forefront of the living wage fight. The law will guarantee that about 21,500 workers -- employees of businesses that have substantial city contractors, home-care industry workers and workers at San Francisco International Airport -- must be paid at least $9 an hour in their first year, $10 an hour the next year, and then get a 2.5 percent annual increase every additional year. When the law passes (expected in August) workers will also receive 12 paid vacation and sick leave days a year and 10 uncompensated days for family emergencies. A related health care ordinance, expected to pass in September, will provide medical insurance to workers who do not have it.

"The new living wage laws will be a tremendous achievement," says Ken Jacobs, co-director of the San Francisco Living Wage Coalition, a partnership of unions, community organizations and religious leaders fighting for economic justice. The members of the Coalition are especially pleased because, although similar living wage ordinances have been enacted in numerous cities, the San Francisco law will be the most far reaching. Its inclusion of a 2.5 percent annual pay raise, its health plan and its coverage of such a vast number of people puts San Francisco above the city of San Jose, which currently has the strongest living wage laws in the country. San Francisco's laws will also rival similar ordinances in Portland, Boston, Detroit, Chicago and New York. In fact, ever-stronger living wage laws are taking hold in cities around the country. June Gibson, an analyst for the city of Los Angeles, says the LA City Council recently adopted a motion to study increasing the minimum wage for city contractors to $10 per hour.

Of course, the San Francisco ordinances have not come without a fight. Originally, the Living Wage Coalition had prepared an even stronger proposal as a citywide initiative for the November ballot. The coalition's proposal would have called for wages at $10 an hour the first year and $11 the second for around 30,000 workers. The 20,000 signatures needed to get the proposal on the ballot were gathered in only 16 days.

The business community responded predictably, claiming such a strong law would hurt small business owners. At that point, Mayor Willie Brown stepped in to negotiate a deal between the activists and the business community. After three weeks of intense negotiations, the Mayor and all 11 members of the Board of Supervisors reached a settlement and agreed to endorse the current legislation.

Such a settlement was exactly what the living wage activists were counting on. "Our original ballot initiative," said Ken Jacobs, "was designed to put maximum pressure on all parties to come to a compromise." And in fact, the current legislation is more than some activists had expected. "We got almost everything we could have at the ballot," says Hunter Cutting, a media consultant for the Living Wage Coalition.

Representatives of the business community were equally satisfied. Business negotiator Mark Mosher told the San Francisco Chronicle last week, "Like any fair deal, both sides are mildly unhappy with it, which probably means it is pretty good public policy. But one thing for sure, a living-wage bill would not have gone through the Board of Supervisors if the mayor hadn't gotten the parties together and brokered a compromise."

One of the major victories for the activists was the health care component of the current legislation. The Health Care Accountability Ordinance, actually a different piece of legislation from the Minimum Compensation Ordinance, applies to even more workers -- all city contracts and leases, including the Fisherman's Wharf restaurants that refused to participate in the wage ordinance. Under the plan, employers will pay $1.25 an hour per worker to their choice of three different health plan options, which combined will cover all eligible workers.

Ken Jacobs of the Living Wage Coalition thinks the health care legislation sends a particularly strong message. "What makes the Health Care Accountability Ordinance groundbreaking is both its breadth of reach and that it is designed to actually provide workers health insurance." Other similar plans, Jacobs explained, don't give employers options that they can afford, and so workers don't end up actually getting insurance. San Francisco's three-tiered plan will allow "the number of people covered to be significantly greater than in any other municipality."

Mayor Brown told the San Francisco Chronicle last week that the city's strong economy permitting, he would continue to try to raise low income wages in the future. He also told the Chronicle he did not know how much the current proposals would cost San Francisco.

Regardless of the ordinances' price tags, the city will certainly recuperate a great deal of money by saving on social welfare programs. For Willie Williams, the combined health care and the living wage ordinances will mean the difference between being a tax liability to being a taxpayer. When his wages increases, and now that his wife has also landed a steady job, Williams figures that he'll be able to move his family out of homeless shelters and into a place of their own. "I feel good about the ordinance," says Williams. "It's going to help a lot of low-income employees."

Barbie Gets a Political Makeover

Long associated with eating disorders and American materialism, Barbie is getting a political makeover. Sporting a blue power suit and a conservative blond bob, President Barbie hits the stores May 1. But according to the doll's creators, the point of this Barbie incarnation is to show that she is worthy of being a political candidate, and is not just dressed like one.

The brainchild of Marie Wilson, president of the non-partisan White House Project of the Women's Leadership Fund, President Barbie is supposed to represent political possibilities for young girls. Available in Latina, Caucasian, and African-American versions, the doll even has a platform which includes "equality," "world peace," and "animal kindness." "President Barbie changes a lot about what Barbie means," Wilson says.

Wilson approached Mattel, the doll's manufacturer, with the idea of "turning the dream house into the White House" last year. Girls Inc., a national organization which aims to "inspire girls to be strong, smart, and bold" through its programs, also joined President Barbie's bandwagon. But why is Wilson playing with Barbie?

"If you want to normalize the culture, you have to go to where the girls are," Wilson responds. She also points out that girls throughout the country own an average of eight Barbies and stresses the political nature of this particular doll.

In the box with each President Barbie is a copy of the White House Project's Girls' Action Agenda, which is designed to foster girls' leadership skills. Also included is a Girls' Bill of Rights, written by Girls Inc., which includes the rights for girls to "be themselves and to resist gender stereotypes."

The doll and the Girls' Action Agenda are also part of the White House Project's Pipeline to the Presidency initiative, which includes a national discussion with 18-24 year-olds, and a straw poll and national survey on possible female vice presidents.

The political nature of the doll is also shown on Mattel's Barbie website, Barbie.com. One of the links to President Barbie features women in politics and their favorite things when they were girls. The web surfer can read here that California Democratic Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez' favorite food growing up was chile rellenos, while Arizona governor Jane Dee Hull preferred lazy-dazy cake.

"I want girls to be focused on their power," says Wilson about the doll. "That's why there's an action agenda and a Girls' Bill of Rights in every box."

But the White House Project and Girls Inc. don't deny Barbie's politically incorrect origins. "We're trying to add an element to Barbie that hasn't existed before," White House Project Communications Director James Devitt explains.

Jodi Heintz, assistant director of communications for Girls Inc. says the organization did take into account Barbie's bad reputation as a symbol of unattainable beauty. "We understand the ramifications as well as the positive points," she says. "But if we really want to reach girls, for better or for worse, we have to reach girls through pop cultural mediums."

Yet this Barbie, though far more political than many of her past selves, still has a way to go on the road to political awareness. While the doll represents three races, there is currently no Asian President Barbie. Though the White House Project and Girls Inc. supported the idea of an Asian doll, Mattel said no.

"The three communities that really respond to having a doll in their ethnic background [are African-Americans, Caucasians, and Latinos]," says Mattel spokesperson Julia Jensem. "If the demand grows [among Asians for an Asian doll], believe us, you'll see it."

Another blemish in President Barbie's new politically empowered image is her body. According to Jensem, President Barbie's body is the traditional Barbie body and the doll's general proportions remain the same.

It's also hard to forget Mattel's corporate power behind President Barbie. When asked if she thinks the doll will sell well, Jensem says, "We don't produce dolls that we don't think will sell well."

President Barbie also has the corporate support of Toys R Us for her campaign -- the doll is sold exclusively at Toys R Us chains. Within the fiction of the doll's presidential run, Toys R Us is President Barbie's campaign headquarters.

But Wilson of the White House Project views President Barbie as a vehicle to send empowering messages to girls. "I want girls to be focused on their power -- the power that a girl can be the president of the U.S."

Bettina Aptheker, a professor of Women's Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz sees the potential for the doll to influence young girls. "The appearance of President Barbie seems at first glance like something of a contradiction in terms because of the many associations I have with 'Barbie' and her very name with its 'cutesy' and traditionally frilly, feminine connotations," Aptheker wrote in an e-mail. "Yet the concept as it is presented could be very empowering for young girls."

And Wilson points out what is probably the most overlooked part of Barbie. Although her physical form may be unrealistic, she says, "Her brain is anatomically correct."