Women and the Economy

Meizhu Lui Asks, Who’s Bailing Out Whom?

During the October, 2008, U.S. financial crisis and government bailout, television and radio reporting showcased a parade of male commentators affiliated with Wall Street, the country's financial hub. A sampling of soundbites from these pundits would lead anyone to believe that only such "experts' could make sense of these massively complex economic transactions.

But activist Meizhu Lui has been debunking myths and demystifying economic concepts--all while organizing women to act--for more than 30 years. I.M.O.W. sat down with Ms. Lui shortly after the October bailout to discuss how, over the years, women have been impacted and have taken action to curb the continual crises created on trading floors and in boardrooms they've seldom had access to.

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Longtime union leader and economic justice advocate Meizhu Lui explains how the global economic crisis is impacting women here in the United States--and what women are doing about it.
Longtime activist Meizhu Lui is former director of United for a Fair Economy and now directs the Closing the Race Wealth Gap Initiative for the Insight Center for Community Economic Development. View Larger >
AP Photos/Susan Walsh
From left, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Chairman Christopher Cox, Treasury Undersecretary for Domestic Finance Robert Steel, and Federal Reserve Bank of New York President Timothy Geithner, right, listen on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, April 3, 2008, during the Senate Banking Committee hearing on the government bailout of Bear Stearns. View Larger >
Today, unions like UNITE HERE! boast a diverse membership, comprised largely of immigrants and a high percentage of African American, Latino and Asian Americans. Most of UNITE HERE's members are women. View Larger >
Raised in the American heartland as the daughter of Chinese immigrants, Meizhu Lui gained a firsthand understanding of how economics intersects with race, class and gender when she suddenly became a single mother in the mid 1970s. Compelled to find a job in a difficult economic time, she found herself selling doughnuts at a popular chain store because of its flexible hours.

Lui's sense of injustice was piqued when her manager told her, "Oh, you Chinese are good workers, aren't you?" Offended by the remark, she kept quiet because "I really needed a job. I was desperate." However, she quickly learned that "the only people who could make doughnuts were men, and the women were only allowed to serve the doughnuts," relegating them to lower wages and less respect on the job.

One day, when the cash tally didn't add up, Lui's manager, without proof, accused her of stealing from the register and docked her pay. She found out about a labor law that made it illegal to take pay away if the manager also had access to the cash register.

Lui went to the labor board, sued and got her money back. She lost her job, but felt good about teaching her boss a lesson: "[He thought that] women would just take anything, particularly an Asian woman. He was not expecting me to fight back."

This experience fueled Lui's desire "to be part of a movement where people get together to make life easier for the next generation of workers, particularly women workers."

Lui ended up working in food service departments in various Boston hospitals, befriending and eventually organizing her co-workers--mostly working-class women of color--into some of the city's most formidable unions.

She remembers, "I had grown up believing that we have...the right to free speech, the right to organize and so on. But... those rights stop at the door of the business. We weren't allowed to talk about the union....I was surprised at how much fear there was [but] I had a great job, because as the cashier in the cafeteria, I could hand out union literature!"

For Lui, her relationships and solidarity with co-workers were very important. She notes that union leadership has changed a lot over the last 30 years. Now, women of color, many of them immigrants, head up unions in garment factories, farms and food service industries. Female leadership styles are different too, not rising from but with the masses.

Reflecting on the 2008 economic crisis and financial bailout, Lui points out, "First of all, the crisis, at the bottom, has been going on for quite a while. It wasn't really named as a big crisis until it just started to hit the pocketbooks of wealthy investors. Job loss has been going on for a number of years. Real income has not increased for a long time, so people have been living on less and therefore borrowing more....People have no cushion."

Lui explains that the hardest hit are women, working class communities, racial minorities and immigrants--often overlapping groups of people. She adds, "The dirty little secret of our economy is that it has been built on the debt of ordinary folks."

Now, Lui is using her 30-plus years of experience as a worker, union leader and most recently researcher, to challenge the authority of so-called experts and give voice to the concerns of the average American: "The economy is not this sort of giant machine. It's really about the day-to-day living of ordinary people, and what they face as they try to go to the grocery store, try to get a job, try to get a paycheck, and take care of their kids."

Thanks to several decades of trickle-down policies that have yet to trickle down, those challenges are greater than ever before, but Meizhu Lui is one of many women trying to make a difference.

United for a Fair Economy

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United States

The story that Lui gave about being a "little Asian girl" who was belittled because she was both Asian and female really spoke to me. I've had experiences in my past where people speak to me in a softer tone and almost dumbed down way just because I'm Asian. They don't think that I am strong with a firm opinion on anything.
Also, her comment at the very end about people needing to be more educated about how the economy works really got to me. Even with the economy class at school, I still don't really understand how the economy works or how political today's economy is. Because of this, I don't really have any opinions about how the middle class society is being taken care of economically. I don't really have anything to take a stand on. I think it's important that high school students get more of an education on this kind of stuff in order to form their own opinion and stand up for it. Also, I believe that women should receive more empowerment in both from school and from their families, perhaps with help from the media, in order to help them believe that they are just as powerful and in control of their lives as men are. They shouldn't think they need a man to handle all of their financial needs. I would like to be able to take care of my own bills or taxes and not worry about having my boyfriend take care of it for me.

United States

I felt like after listening to this pod cast that most of the ideas presented have a direct impact on my life. I am a woman of color and I am also a lesbian. I feel like I always say that I am a triple threat because I have so many things working against me. One of two of the ideas that stood out for me was when Meizhu Lui spoke about her father telling her that as a woman of color that she would have to work twice as hard. It is so true and its always been that way. I know that it’s a lot harder for me to get a job and to be able to climb the corporate ladder. It is also a fact that at my last job it was segregated between administrative staff that consisted of all women and corporate staff and managers that consisted of all men. It was a-typical that women were paid a lot less and we did all of the work. The men were making 100,000 a year. It felt so unfair. In my boss’ opinion the men needed to make more money so that they could support their families while us women only needed just enough because we should have husbands to support us. It didn’t make sense in my case. I really feel like my experience there was full of injustices. The second idea that stood out to me was the fact that women of color are often not in leadership roles and I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that most people who come from lower income backgrounds think of themselves that way. This was another idea presented within the podcast. Its easy to be a “middle class thinker” when so many things are working against you. I really enjoyed listening to the part about how we live on less an borrow more because no-one was there for me as teen or young adult to steer me in the right direction. I think if I had the education then I would be in a better place financially. I feel like its our duty to educated our little ones. I think we can start within our own families and close friends and make sure our youth are educated and make smart choices with their money and invest in the right places. As a student I had to borrow a lot of money to pay for college because my mother did not have the means to send me college. For her, college was not as important. She comes from an age where going to school is secondary to working hard and paying the bills. She has always lived pay check to pay check. I do not want to live that way. Unfortunately, she did not teach me how to value money because she didn’t value money. Its not her fault. My grandmother was poor and raised in the south. I think its up to me as the third generation to make a difference and huge impact on my families worth and wealth. I think its important for me as a women of color to present different ideas to my circle of friends and to my community. This is why I’m majoring in Psychology and Sociology. I think it’s the best of two worlds and I want to be able to get myself in a place education wise, so that I can be a positive role model for my nieces #1 and of course if I have daughters. I think its important to not speak out and to not be afraid to say something when you know something is not right. Like Meizhu Lui speaking out for 6.00 that she knew she was owed, its important for principal matters to demand respect when respect is not given. I have to admit that I have been in several situations where I knew I should say something. I was too scared to do it, but it does help to hear another woman of colors story and to be able to use that as a tool to encourage myself in future situations. I think the most important thing women should do is educate themselves. I know that since I stared Cal State, East Bay that I have learned a lot about social issues just from the four sociology classes I have taken. It’s important not to be invisible and to fight for injustices whenever they present themselves.

Jed Wells
United States

I enjoyed the podcast interview of Mrs. Meizhu Lui and I also learned a lot about she is huge influential leader in the community and standing up for womens fair rights in the economy.

I enjoyed how Meizhu Lui shared a personal experience of her own working career and tied it together with how she grew and developed into a leader in society that others can mold themselves around.

My grandparents faced the same type of discrimination when they first started working on the farms in northern california. Because of their pacific islander decent they were performing a lot of the manual labor hard work. They had other co-workers that were younger and stronger then them but because they were minorities my grandparents had to perform the tough labor. Thanks to Women like Meizhu Lui fighting for what she believes my wife, and my children will not face the same difficulties my grandparents did.

United States

Who is bailing out whom?

Meizhu Lui made several points that really hit home for me. First and foremost, Lui recognizes the struggle of women in the economy, workplace and in society in general. I have found that being a woman has very specific challenges. I agree with Meizhu Lu, that as a child I thought such rights as free speech and fairness were equally granted. This is not always the case. On more than one occasion I felt like my thoughts and opinions were marginally credited based on my gender. I also recognize the lack of educated role models that women and minorities have in terms of the economic community. Like many other Americans, I am also feeling the current economic crisis. Lui points out that the crisis is really about, “day-to-day living of ordinary people,” which I feel is so true. Real people are being affected everyday by the crisis and those are the investments are government needs make. I have yet to see any relieve from the so called bail out and am suspicious of how the money is being spent. All I know is I am still struggling along with my family and friends. As a woman I have taken several steps to ensure my finical stability as well as have an impact on the economy. I strive to be an independent woman and therefore control every aspect of my finances. I pay my own bills, control my accounts and invest in tings that I find to be worthy. I believe there is strength and power in being independent and educated. I am currently a student at Cal State East Bay and have every intention of continuing my education. In my opinion it is important for women to be educated in matters that affect them and the greater society. In terms of the economy, we can all make little changes in our purchases in order to support financial institutions that in turn support women and minorities in their corporate practices. I am reminded of a quote I once heard, “Alone we beg, together we bargain.”

S. Zahidy
United States

After listening the podcast of Meizhu Lui I got the feeling that she is sincerely advocating economical fairness and social justice. She is a talented woman with a deep feeling for the disadvantaged people of all races, She is very much concern how women are doing in business and how she can help them. Starting her career as a working class woman, she understands a lot about in and out of what the disadvantaged, minorities, woman and in general the color people are going through in their day-by-day life to earn money for a living. It is good to pay attention that she is not after superficial solution but looking for a grass root way of solving economic problem for all who in spite of their talent and desire have been deprived of a prosperous life due to their lack of economical success.
Her talk is very inspiring. Her knowledge of economy and how it works for some and how it hurts others is very awakening. When she mentions that Economy is “really about the day-to-day living of ordinary people, and what they face as they try to go to the grocery store, try to get a job, try to get a paycheck, and take care of their kids.", she is measuring economy to the degree it is at the service of ordinary people. In line with such thought she is not favoring the recent bail outs and questioning why instead of banks they did not go to the people who are economically in trouble and directly helped them.
She understands how developing a local economy is to the advantage of local people. In this regard her community economic development involvement can be very motivating for local people. I hope she can succeed in implementing her ideas and be a stronger voice for the deprived people.

Deleted User

Listening to Lui telling her story of how she started out as a single mom, struggling and working at Duncan donuts made me remember my first jobs. I too, am a woman of color,and experienced so much discrimination, subtle yet it was there. When I first went to work for an accountant, near Lake Merrit in Oakland, Ca, I could sense something was wrong.
He started calling me "Honey", and "Sweetheart, go get my this or that," I couldn't stand it. I was there for about an hour. Then I got up and went into his office and told him, I was not his honey or his sweetheart and he could take his job and shove it. I was so nervous and scared! I was 19 and needed the job to help my mom pay the bills!
I left feeling bad, where would I find another job?
This one I had gotten through an agency.
Later on that day, I felt I had to leave, I was not going to be humiliated by a man ever. Liu has really pinpointed a lot of things I have gone through, many different kinds of subtle discriminations. One of her ideas that helped me realize what is going on in the economy is that people who spend money on credit, are really not helping themselves in the long run.
They are better off trying to start their own business. I have been thinking about starting my own day care, and trying to get some funding. I also feel her ideas about women getting together on a local level and helping each other, like they do in Africa is a good idea. I am passionate about women going to school, and getting some kind of skill or training, so they can be better prepared to handle emergencies and to be able to empower other women.

United States

I really thought that Meizhu lui story was a sad story and at the same time it was a story to encourage other people to not be quiet and defend you rights. In some parts of her story it kinds of reminds me of when I got my first job, it was at a grocery story. At the time I was a very young teenager so because of that they would always pick on me saying you’re the youngest working here what are you doing here and so on. I did the same exact thing she did just be quiet and that’s what I did after a year or so I was doing so much work more than all the guys there and I became supervisor for all of them. So that changed the whole situation around and all of them started respecting me. I think that if people were not racist about other people’s genders or if there immigrants or not everyone would live life in peace and would have no problems. Another thing if everyone in the economy was straight forward without lying the economy would be in better shape.

Princess Malia
United States

It was great hearing from an Asian woman perspective in the role of activist and not just victim. I found Meizhu inspiring and refreshing. Some points points really resonated with me throughout her interview. First, she spoke of taking a stand on her own against her white male boss who basically expected her to sit back and accept the $6 dock in pay. It didn't matter how little the amount was, she was going on principal even though she did need that flexible job because of her son. I found her inspiring and brave. I, too, have had to face moral dilemmas in my own position at work where within the first week of my managerial position, I was pulled from my work to do a "photoshoot" because my bosses thought I was "pretty". I was steaming on the inside, and I actually thought, "I can't say anything, I'll just do this because I really need this..." but then one of my fellow women of color co-workers was like, "Girl, if you don't stand up for yourself now......" So I did. I said, "I'm not taking anymore pictures," when they took a break and I said, "You all objectified me and it does not feel good as a person, as a woman, but also as a professional. That's not part of my job description: to be a poster child for this organization." Also, when she spoke of her interview style from the perspective of a woman of color, she made mention of how she told her own personal stories first in order to really put some reality to the statistical data. It absolutely makes sense. This is a common way for us as people of color to identify with one another. We share personal stories so that people know WHO we are, not just WHAT we know. I found Meizhu to be very aware and knowledgable regarding the current unrest in the marketplace. She "hit it right on the head" when she said that it didn't turn into a crisis until the wealthy (read: white) investors at the top were starting to feel a bit of a pinch--though nothing like the devastation that has been claiming the financial livelihood of so many working class Americans. I identified with her when she said that she came to a point that she was no longer going to try to identify and fit in with the middle class because she wasn't, but that her perspective began to shift to see herself as just as worthy as a human, no matter what class she came from. In regards to the finances of women and children in the economy I have to say that I am elated to at least have Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. I really hope that she impresses upon the president the need to create more fair and equitable practices in poorer, more minority populated areas of America. Unfair lending practices, and unclear messages have been sent to this population and they have been taken advantage of by the masses with the beneficiaries at the very top. They have been allowed to continue to practice this way because their workforce is made up of the same working class population who can't afford to lose what little benefits they have, so they stick by the "Big Guys" who don't really have their best interests in mind, they have a carrot called "insurance" hanging over these people's heads. We need universal health care so that people aren't afraid to stand up for their rights on the job.

Princess Malia
United States

I just looked at the time stamp, and it is 11:59...not 12 something! What the heck?!

Angela Robertson
United States

So many of the statements Meizhu brought forth resonated with me. Howver, I will focus on two points. My mother had always been a hard working woman, but after my father died, my family had to receive government assistance/Welfare for a time being. I remember her feeling embarrassed because she was accepting handouts and was looked down upon as if she was simply a lazy person trying to beat the system like the rest of the minorities. She tried many times to put away savings, but back in the '70's and 80's, welfare agents were much more involved in the personal business of families. The agents would drop by unannounced to our house and examine the food or the items we had. If they decided that we didn't have enough welfare money to have that item, our benefits were cut. They didn't even consider that maybe you saved money from prior checks and this was probably because they knew they weren't really giving enough for families to survive on. And it was a no no to say someone gave it to you because then the agents would demand their names and information so they could go and investigate them. The system that was supposedly designed to help families get back on their feet and off of public assistance was the same system preventing them from getting ahead. Fortunately for us, we somehow found a way to get out of the system, but this kind of institutional/systematic working has kept generation after generation "stuck" in the rut. This contributes to the low high school graduation rates, children having children, the fact that college attendance by minorities is low, and a host of other social ills. Another point she spoke about that was interesting to me was her comments about the attitude people have towards their jobs these days. When I first entered the work world, I felt apart of my job and that the contributions I made was helpful and welcomed. I am now a manager and realize that some workers do not care about their current positions or the job in general. They come to work each day with the attitude of just doing the bare minimal to get a pay check, feel no attachment to the organization, and would rather run rampant through the office complaining and spreading gossip than offering suggestions or exhibiting the interest in changing any of the things they are complaining about. It is what Meizhu eluded to when she spoke about how people become complacent and feel that one voice or one person dosen't matter in the grand scheme of things.
Angela Robertson

What really gave me such an impact me from this interview was when Lui commented on how her first manager gave a rude remark towards her, “You Chinese are good workers, aren't you?" What also stood out was the fact that she pointed out how any person of color, especially a color women, would have to work twice as hard. “I'm really going to be asked to work harder than the white women who are in this job, and what my father had always said to me is true, which is that you have to work twice as hard to be equal if you're not white.”

It is heartbreaking to see women of color treated in different manner, I could relate to Lui in the situation where you have to work harder to be recognized or get better pay. I am Mexican American and even though I do have and education or speak English perfectly society cannot help but to set stereotypes.

I think that women do have to demand more of their “own dollars to be used to invest in our own communities”. Not only that but like many unions, show the white class that women of color are qualified anything just like the whit class. It is time that we as color women step up to the plate and say, “yes we can!”

Joy T.
United States

Meizhu Lui’s interview was quite inspiring. Listening to her describe how she discovered her boss was breaking the labor laws, took him to court, and won is very encouraging. It’s a good example as to how if we educate ourselves and are willing to fight for what’s right we can accomplish many things.

I also liked how she mentioned her decision to take the Dunkin Doughnuts job and cafeteria job at the hospital were at first a necessity but she decided to stay when she realized, as she puts it, “trying to find ways to uplift all of us was where I wanted to be.” I felt it was heartening that she was willing to stick with her co-workers and fight on their behalf as well as others in similar positions.

I am able to relate in how she was at one time jobless looking for work in a bad economy as that is exactly where I currently stand. I was recently laid off due to the declining economy and have had a difficult time finding work that is able to accommodate my school schedule. I can also relate to what she mentioned about people needing to be informed more about the economy. She stated that, “…the economy has been mystified,” and even though they are a part of it people are easily intimated by it. I myself have recently started to pay more attention to the details trying to learn more about what’s going on around me rather than being so focused on my own personal issues.

I agree that people should be more educated, especially in how they can make a difference to improve upon things that would benefit them directly. I firmly believe that knowledge is empowering.

Ms. Lui makes some strong points in her interview, and she did point out a some of the flaws that the current country has in terms of the current economic crisis. In the beginning of her discussion, Lui explains how unions have slowly disappeared and become a dying organization. She mentions that it isn’t necessarily the fault of the unions, but possibly the companies and corporations that have found ways to move abroad and outsource many jobs. This is interesting because one of my family members is did at one time work for a union that was contracted by various companies, and in comparison to other non-unionized electricians, he was making a large amount of more money than them.

A couple of the companies now have changed contracts with the unions, now allowing non-union electricians to be hired in an attempt to keep costs down. I believe this to be a necessary action, because there is a certain point to which you can keep these expensive workers when you know full well that you could hire a non-union worker for much less. Although I see that value of unions, I do see it from Management’s side as well because it goes against common sense for the company.

Another important subject that Lui touched on was in regards to the economic crisis that has been happening to the bottom of society. She mentions that real income has not increased of the past few years, meaning that people are essentially living on less because their dollar last year is cannot buy the same amount of stuff this year. This has pushed Americans to borrow more and save less, and this is what the financial sector wanted. So now that everyone is feeling the crunch, people have realized that the giant holes of debt that everyone was in, will only lead to a catastrophe.

Currently the United States is in a recession. Most other countries, including almost all of Europe, China, India, and Japan are experiencing this as well. And it seems appalling that these large companies that exercised such irresponsible business techniques are getting bailed out. The fundamentals of the economy, the working people need to be helped and not those large companies. Since all these bad loans got us into this mess into the first place, why do we need to give money to banks so they can lead out more money? Does that make sense? Instead, why couldn’t we pour billions of dollars back into community programs, social services, and tax checks to those hard working people that help pay for this bailout? If we want to keep the fundamentals of our economy safe, that is the average American worker, than we should reward him and not the profit seeking corporation.

The final point I’d like to speak about is the importance of living within one’s means. American is known to have that “buy now, pay later” approach to products, but this has really sucked out the blood of the consumers of this country. ‘Zero down’, ‘no payments till next year’ all these tactics to get people to buy now has really pushed this country to a very tight spot, because everyone gets sucked into the idea that they can afford that brand new car, or that nice little condo, and even that 55” plasma tv, but people realize soon that they have bitten off more than they can chew.

My advice to is to live in your means, and save as often as possible. Try to put money down when making a large purchase. Try to pay more than your minimum payment if you have to charge it. Use your debit card instead of your credit card. All these things can help push you away from those false claims of how easy the American Dream can be reached. Last time I checked, this country was built by honest, hard-working people, not people who bought wildly on money they didn’t have.

It seems like discrimination still exists. The discrimination between men and women has been a long issue. President Obama promised that he would eradicate this problem.

On the other hand, the biggest priority for President Obama since day one has been taken. It may seem that the economic stimulus package is a long way off, but it is being worked on.

The payday loan our economy needs to create jobs and get things moving again is almost passed. Luckily, President Obama got right to work on it. Read more.

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